Sax Marks the Spot

Bill Evans

Bill Evans

I can hear the smile on the other end of the telephone line when Bill Evans picks up the phone. He’s bright, lighting up the room I’m in with an enthusiasm for what he does, the music he makes.

The saxophone superstar has performed with Miles Davis, Gregg Allman and Phil Lesh, as well as newer favorites such as Soulive and Umphrey’s McGee. Evans has collaborated with Bela Fleck and Victor Wooten and shared notes and musician recommendations with John McLaughlin. And on his own, Evans is one of the most innovative musical minds on the planet.

He’ll bring that talent to Homer’s Center for the Arts on Saturday, Oct. 5. But the secret to the remarkable resume is that Evans lives his mantra, one he believes those he’s played with also share.

“They all keep a very childlike sense of humor and wit about them,” he says. “They haven’t spent too much time growing up. They always play music that inspires them without feeling pressured to play another kind. With all these icons of music of different genres, they all approach it the same way. They’re all 100 percent into what they do. It’s not a job. It’s never a job. They’re all sort of possessed with it. It’s all consuming. I’m fortunate and honored to have spent time with them over the years. We’re all playing music, doesn’t matter what kind. We’re all musicians. We have that in common.”

As a child, Evans got his start on piano, but it didn’t take long for the sax sound to grab his ears. “I heard a jazz band, heard the sax players and loved the way it sounded,” he recalls. “I was about 10. I looked at my mom and said, ‘That’s what I want to do!’ She said, ‘You already play piano.’ I said, ‘So? I want that, too!’” In a little over a decade, Evans was sharing stages with Miles Davis. He was introduced based on a recommendation from his teacher, Dave Liebman, and Davis hired him. Throughout the 1980s, when Evans was in his 20s, he was able to tour the world and learn the ropes from the legend.

“What Miles instilled in me was to play the music that I was inspired to play,” he says. “I always did just that. I’ve always done records that have been a little bit different.”

“Little bit different” might be an understatement when it comes to the dozens of projects Evans has embarked on over the years. With dips in and out of jazz, funk, rock, hip-hop, soul, bluegrass and every crossbreed between them, the saxman lands on his latest endeavor, one started in the mid-2000s: Bill Evans’ Soulgrass.

The project, which produced Dragonfly in 2011, is a band for musicians’ ears.

Tunes are thick with flying melodies of dueling sax and banjo, via Ryan Cavanaugh, and passionate vocals delivered from hard-hitting drummer Josh Dion. Special guests don’t slack on the record, either, with Warren Haynes, Steve Lukather and John Medeski.

“I have been working with banjo together with guitar over six years, and at this point, we have created our own sound,” Evans says. “It is Americanameets-soul-meets-jazz in a new kind of way. There are no boundaries here.”

There’s no speed limit, either. Cavanaugh’s fingers break sound barriers on tracks like “Dragonfly,” leaving listeners numb. It’s something the virtuoso achieves live, especially during the banjo and sax duels he and Evans share.

Evans is proud of the Cavanaugh find and notes that they’ve played together for eight years now, “the longest time on one genre,” he says. “I’ve watched Ryan grow to become a fantastic jazz and funk banjo player—finest in the world.”

Cavanaugh came to Evans’ attention when he was recommended by both McLaughlin and Fleck. He’s been sold ever since.

“He’s been tearing it up,” Evans says.

“There was a moment at a show in Chicago, Jake Cinninger {guitarist of Umphrey’s McGee} was shredding, and Ryan just went at it. They were just searing the instruments, just lost it. I don’t think the audience ever heard playing like that before. Ryan’s grown a lot over the years, in leaps and bounds.”

Another standout member, Dion, brings profound soulful vocals and an impeccable percussive backbone to the group, but he will miss the Homer show, the first in three years with the group. Sitting in will be Richie Morales (“a seasoned professional who can play anything,” Evans says confidently), along with fiddler Eli Bishop, 21, an up-and-coming phenom.

“{Bishop} put together a tape version of some of the really fast tunes and sent it to me,” Evans says. “He was burning over them. I was so impressed. I’m really excited. There will be a lot of interplay.”

Evans promises all kinds of surprises at the Homer show, including riveting twists and turns in and out of genres. “We go in a lot of directions,” he says. “I can see it on people’s faces. We’ll take a left turn right in the middle of a song. That’s what’s fun. It’s exciting. Anybody who comes out, whether they’ve heard of us or not, if they’re into jazz, rock or soul—there’s something there for everybody. We want to educate people on something they’ve never heard before.”


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