Opposites Attract

Saxophonist Bill Evans takes jazz out into the country with help from some reputable bluegrass cohorts. 

Bill Evans doesn’t emulate the `60s jazz pianist who shares the same name. Instead, this swinging saxophonist proves he has his own jazz perspective and unparalleled sound. That sound, which is distinctly jazz but greatly seasoned with the down home country beats of bluegrass and the flair of funk, not only illustrates Evans’ knack for harmonized originality, but shows off his ability to create a musical crossbreed he has imaginatively dubbed “Soulgrass.”

With woodwind jam sessions influenced by years of university jazz training, Evans’ approach to music features a fresh amalgamation of the bluegrass sounds from the fiddle, banjo, and dobro, with the high-pitched clamor of the saxophone. Witnessing an energetic performance by Evans is like seeing the invisible boundaries of conventional jazz etiquette being pushed, challenged and redefined right before your eyes.

“Jazz and bluegrass both have a different way of saying things like the differences between someone who speaks French or German. But both are still valid languages,” says Evans as he demonstrates how the goal of any musician should ultimately be to create good music regardless of genre. “Most acoustic instruments sound good together, so when you put the saxophone in with a banjo, fiddle, and dobro it all sounds like they belong together. Most musicians don’t do it for one reason or another, but for me, it’s completely natural.”

Integrating more than genres, Soulgrass has also brought together the diverse visions and talents of musicians. And, to Evans’ amazement he’s finding support from jazz and bluegrass purists. “Over the past 50 years, bluegrass musicians and jazz musicians have really stayed away from each other. But I think both types of musicians can learn from each other. It is by definition of jazz to really explore and push boundaries in order to grow.” Perhaps a stint touring with trumpet legend Miles Davis in the early `80s, coupled with an endless list of collaborations with the likes of Willie Nelson, Herbie Hancock and banjo wonder Béla Fleck have allowed him to create an integrated community, while improving his affinity for rhythmic exploration and musical ingenuity.

Currently on tour with his band of talented musicians featuring drummer Joel Rosenblatt, fiddler Christian Howes, and banjoist Ryan Cavanaugh, Evans is currently  getting an additional boost from renowned mandolinist Sam Bush’s Newgrass style of finger picking. “We’ve put all these musicians together and played the music that I’ve written, which for the most part has been successful,” Evans says. “But musicians at the top of what they do can make music out of pretty much anything. When you get these instruments together it becomes an interesting thing.” 

With heavy-hitting saxophone improvisations set to the effortless back play of a banjo or mandolin, perhaps it’s Evans’ unbridled confidence and trust in his vision of making a statement which allows him to move freely against the grain. “You have to be willing to buy a one-way ticket and be 100 percent into the music you’re creating. When you believe in it as strongly as you can, then the audience will believe in it too."

Originally published August 27, 2008 in Good Times Santa Cruz.