All-American hybrid

Boston Globe, January 11, 2008

The song opens with a banjo furiously strumming, the lines tumbling out like torrents down an Appalachian mountainside as warm fiddle notes poke out. Soon the drums kick in and – wait, is that a saxophone?

A funny thing happened on the road to the hoedown. The jaunty all-star vehicle Bill Evans Soulgrass, which appears tomorrow at Regattabar, has found a way to blend the instrumentation and sensibilities of bluegrass and jazz, exploiting the propensity for improvisation that the two genres share and backing it with undeniable virtuosity.

At the wheel is a free-spirit tenor saxman named Bill Evans, a veteran of the Miles Davis and John McLaughlin groups of the 1980s (and no relation to that other famous Bill Evans). He’s joined at different points – on the 2005 record “Soulgrass”; on a new album called “The Other Side of Something,” not yet released domestically; and on tour – by the acclaimed crossover banjoist Bela Fleck; the mandolin maven Sam Bush; two powerful young bluegrass musicians, Ryan Cavanaugh on banjo and Christian Howes on fiddle; and a jazz rhythm section. Bush, a pioneer of the “newgrass” movement since the 1970s, is a special guest at tomorrow’s gigs.

Evans is making, with this melange of essentially American music, something of an artistic and professional homecoming. Since about 1990, he has built the bulk of his career on the European and Japanese circuit. Much of his work has come on the fusion side of things, with the likes of trumpeter Randy Brecker or Steps Ahead, as well as in his own units, like the 1990s band Push, where he also mixed in a touch of hip-hop.

All this made Evans a mainstay on the European festival circuit, and assured him an audience in settings where jam-band aficionados congregate. But Soulgrass, Evans says on the phone from his countryside home north of New York City, is a different kind of project, born in part out of reaction to the jam-band scene’s indifferent musicianship and monotony.

“Push was a band with a real funky jazz groove,” Evans says. “But the more we played and the bigger we got, the more I became unhappy. Thousands of kids came to hear us play these grooves, but when I played sax chords and harmony, it was time for them to space out or talk. And I wasn’t getting off on that.”

In the meantime, Evans was hearing in his head the persistent echoes of American grassroots music. He might or might not have been recalling the summer of 1978, when he worked in a coal mine in southern Illinois, surrounded by miners who listened to country and bluegrass. Back then, he says, he could never have guessed he’d end up making music in that vein.

“I always loved the sound of the instruments: the banjo, fiddle, steel guitar, acoustic guitar – and the way they sounded with the saxophone,” he says. “It was a project in the back of my mind for many years. So I said, now’s the time.”

It would be tempting to seek a historical lineage for the bluegrass-meets-jazz conceit, some unarchived moment in American cultural history where these instruments swung together in harmony in factory-town taverns or at county fairs. But Evans says he has detected no such antecedent. Instead, he observes that he’s part of a mini-movement weaving jazz into bluegrass. Both the Flecktones and banjoist Tony Trischka’s band employ saxophonists, he notes. And it was Fleck who introduced him to other artists in the contemporary bluegrass milieu and helped him form the band.

Unlike Fleck and Trischka, however, Evans approaches bluegrass from a jazz background, rather than the other way around. He says the complexity of jazz and its wide-open field for improvisation have proved a refreshing challenge for his partners.

On the phone from his home in Nashville, Sam Bush says he had long been fascinated by jazz improvisation – ever since exposure as a teenager to the music of John Coltrane – but that working with Evans has helped him take the craft to a higher level.

“He has an incredible sense of adventure,” Bush says of Evans. “He’s taught me to just open up my ears and let myself be myself. What I get out of it is the satisfaction of knowing I’ve been musically stretched. And that’s good for me.”

In turn, Evans attributes his own musical daring to the formative time he spent, fresh out of college, in Miles Davis’s comeback band of the early 1980s. Despite the age difference, he says he and Davis forged a strong affinity.

“One thing I learned from Miles is that you’ve just got to go for broke,” he says. “He taught me to have the strength and the courage to do what you had in your heart, and just stick with it. It’s got to be a one-way ticket or it’s not going to be believable.”

The Soulgrass concept isn’t necessarily for purists, Evans says, but it contains plenty for straight-ahead jazz fans to chew on: “Just the instrumentation is going to make them think. And the level of improvisation is as much as I’ve ever done. Plus, Sam Bush is a phenomenal improviser.”

Right now the bigger issue for Evans is developing a broader audience back home in the United States for this rollicking but unusual hybrid of American genres. The festival circuit here tends to be segmented by genre. “There’s a lot of very staunch bluegrass festivals that do not want something that pushes the envelope,” he says. “The biggest coup now is getting the gig. Playing them is the easy part.”

Evans admits that immersing himself in Soulgrass has meant taking a risk, economically as well as creatively.

“A major risk,” he says, then corrects himself: “But for me, it’s not a risk. It’s a luxury to do this kind of thing in the first place. You only live once.”