Bill Evans' Soulgrass at the Iridium
“ Evans' solos brimmed with ideas to the point of overflow as the listener wondered how in the world the saxophonist's mind could work so fast. ”
Bill Evans' Soulgrass Special Edition
Special Guest Sam Bush
New York, New York
April 2, 2009
"They're like the Flecktones," I said in response to an inquiry concerning what we were about to see, "only if the Flecktones were a perfect band." Hyperbole without a doubt but, as we would soon find out, not too far off the mark.
I was referring to Bill Evans (no, not that Bill Evans) and his Soulgrass band, who were about to take the Iridium stage. Having listened to Evans' Soulgrass (BHM, 2005), this writer had an inkling of what was to come. But the tightness, diversity of instrumentation and sheer power of this group transcends the studio.
This run of shows was billed as the Soulgrass Special Edition band, led by Evans and featuring Sam Bush (mandolin), Ryan Cavanaugh (banjo), Richard Bona (bass) and Dennis Chambers (drums). The band ambled up on stage innocently enough and immediately kicked it into high gear with "Soulgrass." This was bluegrass with a groove.
The raw emotion of Evans' horn on the melody carried over into his solo. Evans' solos brimmed with ideas to the point of overflow as the listener wondered how in the world the saxophonist's mind could work so fast. Flurries of notes were followed by soulful bends, the sax's gorgeous tone is interrupted by Coltrane-like elephant sounds, and the five seconds that have just expired quickly become the distant past. Evans possesses the rare ability to make even the most serious music sound joyous and optimistic; it's as if his saxophone is always smiling.
The band's personalities onstage were as disparate as their musical backgrounds. Evans seemed to be everywhere at once, his bandana belying an energy all his own, in stark contrast to Cavanough's staunch stoicism. Bush, as is his reputation, sported an everyman look of t-shirt and jeans. He would completely lose himself in each tune, egging each band member on with fierce head bobs, often not altogether following the rhythm of the song. Bona (honestly, what is Richard Bona doing in a bluegrass band?!) sported his trademark wide smile and playful personality, while Chambers was all business on his kit.
"Soulgrass" was followed by "Sweet Tea," Evans switching to alto sax for this tune and Cavanough's "No Capo for Andy." Cavanaugh proved to be the surprise of the evening, his dexterity on the banjo exceeded only by his superb taste in often slowing things down to achieve greater meaning. "How the West Was Won," off of Evans' latest album The Other Side of Something (Intuition, 2007), was the first song to give Bona a solo spot, which he took full advantage of.
The highlight of the set was Bush's most well-known tune, "Same Ol' River." Bush seems to play this song no matter who he's playing with, but this was a special version. Bush's solo was one of his best, and Evans' solo after the final verse brought the song into the stratosphere. Starting soft and building to a crescendo, the leader held the crowd in rapt attention as he constructed a true gem.
"Ode to the Working Man," also off of The Other Side of Something, exploded with funk thanks to Bona's thumping rhythm. The set closed with "Slippery Bigs Forever," one last reminder of the collective chops of this great band. The Soulgrass band plays its own brand of music, defined by the tightness of a jazz combo, rock's hard-driving rhythms, and the sheer virtuosity of bluegrass musicians. There's something for everyone in these tunes, and this writer certainly hopes that Evans continues to pursue this medium as a creative outlet.