Regatta Bar

Bill Evans Soulgrass Review – February 22nd

I must admit, I was looking forward to this one for a while. Bill Evans is one of the acts that you simply have to see if you get the opportunity. Bill Evans’ Soulgrass is a fusion group, primarily mixing jazz, bluegrass, and funk. The band played a double show at The Regattabar Jazz Club on February 22nd, giving the Boston area the opportunity to enjoy a group that has very few peers.

If you’re looking for a quick analogy to get a sense of the band, I might call Soulgrass a more accessible, more aggressive sounding group in the tradition of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones.  The group is primarily focused on Evans’ direction, and Evans’ playing (saxophone, keys, and vocals) is exactly what you expect from a master of the instrument. He flies through seemingly impossible passages with ease, expresses real depth of feeling, and makes you lose track of everything going on around you that isn’t music. What’s truly special about this type of performance is that there is somehow something more to the music.

It’s hard to put words to his sound, but he gives you plenty to work with. Listening to one of his solos is much like watching a quickly changing landscape through the windows of a train. One moment, you’re experiencing jazz, the next, bluegrass. Then, blues. Then, rock. Then, funk. Then hip-hop, just for good measure. The amazing thing about it is that Evans’ sound never sounds unreachably avant-garde, nor does it sound contrived in is exploration. Instead, the fusion of genres makes you feel that you’re listening to something firmly grounded in the old traditions, while still being its own entity. Though most of the songs on the band’s new album Dragonfly exemplify this, “Kings and Queens” is an excellent way to get a feel for the style.

The rest of Soulgrass was exceptional as well. Andy Hess (bass) and Mitch Stein (guitar) are absolute monsters on their instruments. Taking complimentary roles for a large portion of the performance, they both were capable of taking the show on themselves when called on. Ryan Cavanaugh was nothing short of prodigious on banjo (even stealing the show a few times with simply out-of-this-world solos). Finally, Josh Dion is one of the few drummers who takes on vocals as soulfully as any lead singer. His rendition of “Them Changes” (an old Buddy Miles tune) was one in a series of high points from my perspective.  Overall, the band offered an experience unlike any other, and left me wanting to hear more of their work.

~ Bobby Ortega (blues guitarist, graduate student at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology)