Up a long driveway through the woods of North Salem, N.Y., saxophonist Bill Evans relaxes on Halloween. Not expecting many trick-or-treaters this far into horse country, Evans talks about establishing himself as a musician and bandleader, about where he's come from and where he's going. There's no other band that sounds like his, he says, and people respond to it in kind. Evans talks much like any upstart who is zealous about his band's chances.
But Evans isn't your average young musician: The 50-year-old leads Soulgrass, a jazz/ funk/ bluegrass hybrid that, over the years, has featured some of the finest musicians in the world—Sam Bush, Béla Fleck, Dennis Chambers. And his résumé is stronger still. Evans' career bloomed in 1980, when he became the second Bill Evans to play with Miles Davis (the legendary pianist of the same name died that year). He even lived with Davis while playing saxophone during his last musical resurgence.
When Evans left Davis' band in 1984, he joined a revived Mahavishnu Orchestra with John McLaughlin. Since, he's played with Bruce Hornsby, Andy Summers, Mick Jagger, Willie Nelson and Herbie Hancock. Horn in hand, he worked to push fusion boundaries in the all-star band Elements and to bridge jazz and hip-hop on his own records in the '90s.
Still, even with that rich past, Evans burns to prove himself. He led bands in Europe for 25 years, but, now back in the United States, he feels like every night is a new conquest.
"I haven't been touring the States, so people here don't exactly know what I'm up to. What do I do? What am I doing? And to make it even more difficult, I'm playing in a lot of different folk festivals and bluegrass festivals, who have no idea what I'm doing or who I am," says Evans, enjoying his last few days at home before returning to the road. "It's going to take a few years of hitting the road and busting our chops to make it happen, but that's what we're doing. It's what we love to do. People can tell it's what we love to do."
The festivals Evans mentions are often places where people circle stylistic wagons, presenting traditionalist takes on their favorite forms. So how can something this aggressively hybridized work? For Evans, bluegrass and jazz—and what makes someone a fan of either—aren't entirely disparate. Fans of each share an appreciation of speed and virtuosity, and both forms are very personal. It makes sense for saxophone, with a sound like a human voice, to bridge the not-so-great-divide—the Cumberland Gap, if you will.
"They're both different forms of improvisation," says Evans, who talks of hoping to learn the mandolin. "They're both different forms of American music."
Evans never listened to much bluegrass growing up in Illinois or while attending school in Texas and New Jersey, but he says he's always liked the timbre of the banjo and fiddle. Evans owes part of his deep interest in a range of musical styles to his old mentor Davis, who taught him about "exploration and rhythm and mixing and blending different combinations of music that are exciting for us as players and for listeners to listen to." That philosophy in mind, Evans soon found good company with the bluegrass elite, including Fleck, Bush and dobro master Jerry Douglas. Inspired by the musicians he played with and the gut feeling of the form, Evans fell deeper into Soulgrass.
With all of the styles he's gone through, though, he doesn't see Soulgrass as just another phase: "Soulgrass is something that really—out of everything that I've tried so far in the past and had fun with—is something that seems the most at home to me."
Surrounded by amazing talent his entire career, Evans has always aimed at proving himself, in raising his standards. Whether he's up there with Miles Davis or Jerry Douglas, Evans pushes the envelope to bring you to your feet. "To create something out of nothing and have people relate to it—to me, that's the most inspiring thing," he says. "It gives me such a buzz."
Bill Evans' Soulgrass plays Cat's Cradle Saturday, Nov. 15, at 8 p.m. Mandolin legend Sam Bush joins the band for the show, as well as banjo player Ryan Cavanaugh, who recently relocated from Carrboro to Nashville. Local bluegrass band, No Strings Attached, opens at 8 p.m. Tickets are $18-$22.