Dragonfly is the third recording saxophonist Bill Evans has made with his Soulgrass band, but aside from the continuing presence of Ryan Cavanaugh on banjo, there’s little residual connection to the concept as laid out on 2005’s Soulgrass and 2008’s The Other Side of Something. Those albums were determined efforts to fuse bluegrass’ melodic and rhythmic elements with jazz and various strains of Americana; only traces of that hybrid (notably the group-sung, banjo-dominated “Nothin’ to Believe In”) are in evidence here.
Instead, Dragonfly drifts further into jam-band and classic-rock territory, the tunes seasoned with muscular guitar (Steve Lukather solos on two tracks), classic soul licks (John Medeski provides organ on one) and healthy helpings of funk. The title “Dirt County Breakdown” might suggest the late Earl Scruggs, but that cut is more Flecktones-meet-Average White Band, while “I Don’t Know About Love” could have been an outtake by early country-rockers Poco. The tracks fronted by vocalist Josh Dion, among them opener “Madman” and “Kings and Queens,” would fit comfortably onto any ’80s FM rock station’s playlist.
Whatever it slots into—and it might be best not to even think of it as another Soulgrass entry but as the start of a new phase for Evans—there’s virtuosity aplenty to be found here. Evans’ sax work is alternately tough and tender as required: His solo on “Forbidden Daffodils” wails, and the others—keyboardist Clifford Carter, guitarist Mitch Stein, Andy Hess on bass, Dion on drums and banjoist Cavanaugh—nearly all new additions since the last Soulgrass CD, are each skilled and inventive contributors. (On one track, a slice of psychedelic funk called “Tit for Tat,” they’re replaced by an alternate band featuring Warren Haynes on guitar.) Dragonfly is in some ways a surprising turn for Evans, but at the same time it’s a natural progression.