There are many dreams an aspiring young musician can have growing up in an American suburb. Playing in Miles Davis’ band by the age of 22 would likely eclipse all of them.
Such was the rise of Illinois-bred saxophonist Bill Evans.
Now, at 55, Evans was asked to participate in the 2013 Jazz Festival at La Note Bleue in Monte Carlo, where he shared a stage with the giants of jazz and was pampered by a world class resort and 24-hour access to a Michelin two star restaurant.
His career is going well.
Thirty three years after his introduction to Davis, Evans is now used to selling out European and Asian audiences of 2,000 to 10,000 with the unique sound of his innovative Soulgrass project. The band blends Americana and soul buttressed by a backbone of serious jazz musicianship.
The saxophonist was never drawn to playing straight jazz, but when Miles Davis calls, you answer.
His experience playing with Davis allowed him to hone his instrumental chops and jazz fortitude which he then used as a springboard into projects that appealed to his adventurous, multi-genre spirit. He went on to spearhead a slew of bands, impressive territory for a saxophonist.
Evans’ enthusiasm for groundbreaking music has only grown and, since 1990, he has played at least 100 concerts worldwide every year.
“I’ve always done things a little differently,” Evans said. “In the nineties, I used rappers and rock and reggae singers in my music.”
By 2005, Evans’ attention had turned to the back-country sound of Americana instruments.
“I’ve always liked the sound of the mandolin, the fiddle,” he said. “I just didn’t know the music it came from, so I added it to what I do.”
The result was the Grammy-nominated 2006 album Soulgrass, a powerhouse blend of jazz, funk, and bluegrass that launched Evans onto an even greater international stage.
The Soulgrass project expanded with the addition of banjoist Ryan Cavanaugh. Legendary guitarist John McLaughlin, with whom Evans had toured with in the 1980s, discovered the Cavanaugh in 2006. By 2008, Evans had recruited him for the Soulgrass follow-up, The Other Side of Something.
“He is simply the best banjo player on earth,” Evans said.
The final piece of Soulgrass came in 2011 when Evans recruited New York’s Josh Dion. Singing drummer Dion is an anomaly in the music world and has infused Soulgrass with a younger, edgier sound.
Jazz, bluegrass, and soul have such roots in America, it seems bizarre that Soulgrass has spent all of its time playing abroad. Evans agrees and is returning his sound to its rightful home.
“The cross over of our sound–jazz, soul, bluegrass, funk–it’s gone over so well internationally for the last 8 years,” Evans said. “I figured it’s really time to bring it to the States.”
Evans’ West Coast tour kicked off last month and benefits from the addition of yet another great: guitarist Steve Kimock.
Kimock came up in the jam band scene, playing with Bob Weir, Further and Grateful Dead off-spring like Phil Lesh and Friends. Jerry Garcia, himself, deemed Kimock his “favorite unknown guitarist.”
The stateside tour seems poised for success and Evans has no lack of confidence.
“Everywhere we’ve been we’ve heard the same thing,” he said. “We hear, ‘This is the greatest concert I have ever been to,’ over and over again. We have a super fresh sound and it just works on everyone.”
Bill Evans’ Soulgrass comes to Saint Rocke Thursday, September 5 at 8:30 pm. Doors open at 5 p.m. Tickets are $20 and are available at www.saintrocke.com.