Soulgrass and Bluegrass

Last night was a wonderful musical journey, going from wildly experimental to beautifully traditional in the space of a crosstown cab ride.

We started the evening at the Blue Note, where Bill Evans was playing with Soulgrass Special Edition. Evans is a brilliant sax player who was part of Miles Davis’ 80s funk albums (The Man With the Horn and so on) and then played with John McLaughlin in the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Jazz traditionalists blasted Miles for those albums, but I loved them at the time and still enjoy them now, and I was inspired to pull my Mahavisnu LP off the shelf for the first time in maybe 20 years, and while it’s awash in unfortunate 80s guitar-synthesizer sounds, Evans’ horn is the gutsiest thing happening.

So there’s Bill Evans, a jazz legend. Playing bluegrass. Yes, bluegrass, perhaps not the way Bill Monroe would have done it, although given that the old man invented the genre because he was tired of the traditional way to play old songs, he perhaps would have at least approved the spirit of the evening: experimentation, breathtaking playing, and most of all, joy.

Evans was almost a sideman in his own band, given that alongside him were Tony Trischka, the man who taught Bela Fleck how to play the banjo, and who can erase every banjo joke from your head in the first two minutes of playing, and Sam Bush, a modern mandolin legend who leads a successful band and has played with just about everyone. It’s a testament to his own self-confidence, graciousness and joy in the music, as well as to the formidable lineup he’d assembled, that he spent so much time off to the side, listening to them play. Trischka played through a Roland Jazz Chorus amp, taking his usual blazing (and often surprising) leads, and also laying back and almost filling the role of a keyboard player in a jazz band, driving the chord changes and contributing small fills. Sam Bush was a demon on mandolin, and also performed two of his own songs, “Same Old River” and the title track from his new album, “Laps In Seven.” Fiddler Christian Howes went from gorgeous traditional playing to mind-blowing breaks with a wah-wah pedal that sounded nothing like any fiddle I’ve ever heard before. And the rhythm section seemed to have beamed down from another planet. Dave Weckl on drums didn’t play a single boring or repetitive note the entire night, taking the simple rhythms of bluegrass to places they’d never been before. And bassist Richard Bona, playing as fast as anyone else in the band on a five-string bass with hands that looked like a piano player’s rather than a bassist’s, stopped the entire show with his featured song. He started out playing bass, then started singing along with his intricate playing, then stopped playing, and began layering his vocals with a sampling pedal, recording a melody line, and then singing harmony to it, and recording that, until he had what sounded like Ladysmith Black Mambazo happening, gorgeous vocal harmonies ranging over at least four octaves, all while Bill Evans stood to the side holding his horn with his eyes closed, shaking his head and smiling. His album is downloading from iTunes right now.

I’m not a big fan of modern jazz; too often it seems to sacrifice melody and feeling in favor of technique and intellectual grandstanding. I frankly am not enough of a head musician to even understand what many jazz players are doing intellectually, and they do nothing for me emotionally, so it just leaves me cold. Put less politely, if all you as a player have to say to me is “I’m a fucking genius,” then congratulations, and can I go now?

But as wild and virtuosic and untraditional as these players were, they have every right to call themselves bluegrass players. They never lost sight of what makes us love the music: the melodies, the harmonies, the interplay between players overjoyed to be making such great music. It didn’t always work — Sam Bush went wild at one point on an electric mandolin and ended up sounding like a speed-guitar player in a rock band — but it would be hard to do something so adventurous without a few missteps. Whether they were harmonizing on a kickass version of “Darlin’ Corey” or playing Evans’ original tunes (or Bush’s or Howes’), the music, and their infectious enjoyment of it, came first.

Late in the set, with everyone in the band breathing hard from the last song that had left most of us open-mouthed, Evans said, “People ask me why I would want to combine jazz and bluegrass. I say, why wouldn’t I?” But Richard Bona interrupted him with a better answer to his question: “They know now!” We sure did.

Bill Evans Richard Bona
Bill Evans

Richard Bona
Tony Trischka and Bill Evans Sam Bush
Tony Trischka and Bill Evans Sam Bush

After the show, hustled out by the Blue Note’s incredibly efficient turnover process, we got a cab right away on 6th Avenue and headed over to Banjo Jim’s, formerly known as 9C, where the Y’All Stars were playing.

The Y’All Stars are a local band that came out of the Brooklyn bluegrass scene, featuring close harmony vocals by Fran Leadon and Charles Puckette, along with fiddler Diane Stockwell and bassist John Cleveland. They’re good friends and great players, and I was able to sit in with them for some of their second set.

It’s a small bar and I was happy to see it absolutely packed not only with the familiar faces of the local bluegrass crowd but also with lots of folks who seemed to have just stopped by. The music is, as far as I’m concerned, irresistable (this conviction enabled me to bring a mix of close-harmony country tunes to my cd-mix club, where the music is mostly newer alternative stuff) and for the most part even this East Village bar crowd was (comparatively) quiet and attentive.

And with good reason. Jen Larson, a local singer who fronts Straight Drive, an excellent traditional band, stopped by and treated us to an encore of her wonderful show with Fran and Charles earlier in the week, in which they sang a range of traditional tunes, along with some newer stuff, focusing on simple playing and exquisite vocal harmonies.

Charles Puckette, Jen Larsen, Fran Leadon The Y'All Stars
Charles Puckette, Jen Larsen, Fran Leadon The Y’All Stars

It was an inspiring evening that energized me after a listless day, ensured that I’ll spend the rest of the day playing, and made me glad to live here.

Note: I heard about the Bill Evans show through, of all places, The Wall Street Journal, which published a piece by bluegrass blogger Craig Havighurst about it. His excellent article is reposted on his blog, and is worth reading for its discussion of the similarities between bluegrass and jazz, as well as for Evans’ views on the musical abilities of the bluegrass players: “Guys in bluegrass have the biggest ears in the world.”

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