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Bill Evans’ Soulgrass

Sam Bush and Bill Evans

There seems to be a never-ending supply of bands these days concocting ambitious hybrids of hip-hop and jazz, South Indian Carnatic music and jazz, Balkan music and jazz, and klezmer music and jazz. But precious few have attempted to meld elements of bluegrass and jazz. Mandolinist David Grisman was a pioneer in this direction back in the ’70s with his brand of so-called “dawg” music, which offered buoyant, bluegrassy takes on Hot Club of France fare with plenty of stretching for fellow virtuosos like fiddlers Darol Anger and Mark O’Connor, guitarist Tony Rice and the occasional guest spot by Stephane Grappelli himself. Mandolinist Sam Bush pushed the envelope on exploring within the bluegrass tradition during the ’70s and ’80s with his groudbreaking New Grass Revival, a band that effectively named a new genre. Mandolinist Mike Marshall, an alumnus of Grisman’s Quartet, continued in this newgrass direction during the ’80s (his 1988 Rounder recording with violinist Darol Anger, The Duo, featured a take on Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee”) and in the ’90s with his band Psychograss and also with the all-star group Strength in Numbers. In recent years, banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck, a former member of Bush’s New Grass Revival, has taken this hybrid idea to the jam-band scene as the leader of his popular band the Flecktones.

While these groups may have laid the groundwork for a marriage of mountain music and jazz, none have fused the two musics so forcefully and seamlessly as saxophonist Bill Evans has with his Soulgrass band. Grounded by the powerful yet remarkably flexible rhythm tandem of drummer Dennis Chambers and electric bassist Richard Bona, Evans’ latest edition of the group includes young Nashville-based banjo innovator Ryan Cavanaugh and the aforementioned Bush on mandolin, along with the exciting Christian Howes on violin. Together they delivered an invigorating, high-energy set that expertly incorporated intricate, blazing unison lines on the heads and improvisational abandon in the solo sections. And as tight as the arrangements were, there was still a looseness on the bandstand that allowed for a playful, organic shifting of rhythms, from funk to uptempo swing to reggae, strictly in the moment.

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