Throughout his 20-year career as a solo artist, saxophonist Bill Evans has explored a variety of musical settings that go well beyond the confines of traditional jazz, including hip-hop, fusion, reggae, Brazilian and slamming funk. Evans steps into more adventurous territory on Soulgrass, blending jazz, funk and bluegrass into a seamless and wholly unique hybrid of quintessentially American styles.
Joining the great saxophonist on this pioneering effort, which was recorded entirely in Nashville, are the legendary Bela Fleck on banjo along with his Flecktones bandmate Victor Wooten on electric bass, Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, Mark Egan on electric bass, Bruce Hornsby, Clifford Carter and Dave Kikoski on keyboards, David Charles on percussion and John Scofield on guitar. Other special guests include progressive bluegrass greats Sam Bush on mandolin, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Jerry Douglas on dobro and Pat Bergeson on acoustic guitar and harmonica. Together they run the stylistic gamut from the dynamic, riff-oriented title track to the bittersweet folk ballad “Eyes of a Child”; from the slow-grooving funk of “Home on the Hill” to the New Orleans flavored jam “Small Town Jack”; from the country funk of “Weekend Cowboy” to the blazing fusion vehicle “Snap Dragon.” Along the way on this highly eclectic journey are detours into Irish flavored funk (“Celtic Junction”), authentic bluegrass (a ripping rendition of Bill Monroe’s “Shenandoah Breakdown”) and gospel-flavored soul-jazz (“Arthur Ave”). They even turn in a quirky reworking of “Jean Pierre,” a catchy Miles Davis anthem that Evans played alongside the maestro in countless concerts during the early ‘80s and which appears on the live 1982 recording, We Want Miles.
For Fleck, a major innovator who has adapted the banjo to some decidedly non-bluegrass settings with his Flecktones band and also on various classical projects that he has tackled over the years, collaborating with Evans on Soulgrass was both challenging and invigorating. “Getting calls from jazz guys on the level of Bill Evans is a rare thing,” says the Grammy Award winning instrumentalist. “I dug Bill’s playing with Miles and with John McLaughlin, and I also had his solo records. So it was a thrill to work with him and the guys on this project. There was a great chemistry between everyone at the sessions.”
Although Fleck was intially going to play on only two tracks on Soulgrass, he became so intrigued by the project that he ended up playing on six tunes, co-producing all six that he played on. Bela also co-wrote one tune with Evans. “I’m the kind of guy who gets emotionally involved with things I dig,”he explains, “so I became kind of protective of Bill and the project, the more I liked it and him. I also wanted it to be really great because I knew that this recording would represent a new place for bluegrass, where folks are hearing it for the first time. Lots of folks don't realize how good some of these progressive bluegrass players are, and I think this project is a great opportunity for them to shine.”
Evans says that the idea of exploring an adventurous and unlikely hybrid of bluegrass and jazz was actually something he had in mind for years. “I’ve been an Americana fan ever since my Miles days. I liked the sound of mandolin, banjo, dobro and fiddle and I thought that music had a very cool rhythmic approach, even though I never really knew the names of the players or the tunes. But I just connected with that music in some way. So it had been in the back of my mind for years to do a project like this. I had been listening to some Americana and bluegrass music, which included Bill Monroe, Jerry Douglas, Allison Krauss, Bruce Hornsby and, of course, the Flecktones with Bela, to name a few. Listening to these musicians inspired me, and soon I was writing songs I had wanted to write for years. It was exciting!"
Bill adds that he didn’t personally know Bela Fleck before meeting him in Nashville for the Soulgrass sessions. “From the inception of this project I knew that I wanted Bela on the recording. But I didn’t know if Bela could do it or even if he wanted to do it. So I called him and sounded him on the idea and he seemed interested. I went to one of the Flecktones shows about a month before we were going to record. That’s when I actually met him for the first time.”
In retrospect, getting three in-demand Nashville session players and the highly in-demand Los Angeles session drummer Vinnie Colaiuta together in the same room with road warriors Bela Fleck and Victor Wooten seemed like an act of divine providence. “At one point during the recording, Bela commented, ‘Man, this was meant to happen because no one can get all of us together for a four or five day period. Everybody’s always out 180 days, 250 days a year. And here we are.’ But really, all I did was just call up everybody up and say, ‘How does this week look?’ And as it turns out, it was the only week in all of 2004 that I could’ve gotten everybody together at once.”
In choosing to collaborate with Fleck and renowned Nashville session players like Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush and Stuart Duncan, Evans was intent on making it an organic blending of sensibilities. “I relied on Bela for his input in keeping the direction of the music and making the session really flow naturally,” he says. “I like the approach where I’m improvising on their thing. I didn’t want those guys to be playing jazz, I wanted them to be doing their thing. Essentially, I just wanted to get all these great musicians together to play my tunes from their approach, and I wanted to blow on top of it. And I knew I had to have a great drummer and that it had to be somebody who is extremely versatile, which Vinnie is.”
Indeed Colaiuta is a key to the success of this super session. With an uncanny blend of precision and power on the kit, he pulls all the seemingly disparate elements together on Soulgrass. As Fleck notes, “Of course, I knew the Nashville guys well and had played with them all many times before, but it was the first time I had played with Vinnie Colaiuta. To say he’s a pretty hot drummer is an understatement. He blew me away, actually.” Vinnie’s double-bass drum thumping against Victor Wooten’s bass groove underscores the title track with muscular authority. Elsewhere, he affects an authentic N’awlins second line feel on “Small Town Jack,” then lays down a solid funk groove beneath some fiery exchanges between Evans and Scofield on “Weekend Cowboy:” The great drummer also solos forcefully over the intricate stop-time statements on the fusiony “Snap Dragon” and traverses the kit with aplomb on the slamming “Celtic Junction.” Evans contributes impassioned sax work throughout Soulgrass, soloing with ferocious abandon on both tenor and soprano saxes while also adding baritone sax in some of the Tower of Power styled horn section work he created by overdubbing to fatten up pieces like “Soulgrass” and “Home on the Hill.”
Longtime friend and frequent collaborator Mark Egan lends his signature fretless bass work to five tracks on Soulgrass. The former Pat Metheny Group bassist appeared on Evans’ 1983 solo debut, Living in the Crest of a Wave and his 1985 followup, Alternative Man. Egan later appeared on a string of Evans recordings through the ‘90s -- Push (1994), Escape (1995) and Touch (1999) -- and more recently played on Evans’ Soul Insider (2001) and Big Fun (2003). “I wanted somebody to lay it down and be simple and solid,” says Evans of the bass player role on Soulgrass. “Mark is so solid and great to play with and we’ve known each other for so long. I knew he was going to be right, so I flew him in to Nashville for a couple days of recording. It was nice to play with him again and we really had fun on those five tracks.”
Says Fleck of this fresh collaboration with Evans, “Jazz Grass is a much bandied about word, but it may fit in this case. And Bill's version is actually much more bluegrassy than the Flecktones!” Adds Evans, “At the session I asked Sam Bush what he would call this music and he said in a kind of deadpan manner, ‘Weird bluegrass.’ And I said, ‘That’ll work.’” Given the bluegrass connotation of the instruments involved and Bill’s own impassioned approach to the saxophone, Soulgrass is perhaps a more apt title.
Following the recording of Soulgrass, Evans premiered the music in a live setting during a week-long engagement at the popular Bay Area jazz club Yoshi’s. For that gig, Bill was joined by Fleck on banjo, Colaiuta on drums, Darol Anger on fiddle and Jimmy Haslip on electric bass. “Yoshi's was fun,” says road warrior Fleck. “I haven't done that week in a jazz club thing before, and I found it really easygoing. It's wonderful to sleep in the same place every night, and play with marvelous musicians on cool tunes. I played my electric banjo, so I could hang in there with Vinnie's powerful drums. I don't think the acoustic would have amplified very well in that situation. Although it sounds less banjoy, it works well for volume situations. I had never played with Jimmy Haslip, except a tune on an encore when Flecktones were sharing the bill with the Yellowjackets. He's a sweetheart and a great player. And Darol Anger is an old friend I have missed playing with. So it was big fun all around.”
Adds Evans, “That gig was off the hook! Playing consecutive nights, the band was able to evolve into a very spontaneous creative unit. The ambience was just right for everyone to push themselves into some new and unexplored territory, which is the reason we love to play music in the first place. After eight sold-out shows at Yoshis, we could begin to see where we could take this musically. Everyone puts in there own brand of humor, which really adds to the music on and off the bandstand. That’s what it’s all about for me. And audiences really respond to the humor and love we have for the music we are playing. And live, we really get to stretch on this material. I can’t wait to play this music out some more with these fantastic musicians. They inspire me every night with the freshness and level of their musicality. I couldn't be more inspired!”
Author: Bill Milkowski