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(Independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/11/2012)
The jam band music scene has opened up some interesting stylistic possibilities -- while providing an increasing audience for creative mixtures of genres, that might otherwise have been considered rather esoteric -- of interest to just a limited number of open-minded listeners. If rock jam bands can get away with playing extended instrumental segments, and with a number of the popular bands on the scene showing a high level of musicianship and creativity, then others can get perhaps a bit more eclectic. Thus we have the long-time success of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones with their mix of banjo and electronic percussion.
This week we have a new album that by a veteran musician which is also an interesting and eclectic fusion, but likely also to appeal to jam band fans. It's by saxophonist Bill Evans, and the recording is called Dragonfly.
Bill Evans, the sax player, who shares a name with one of the most influential pianists in jazz, has been on the scene since 1980, when he emerged playing in Miles Davis' group at age 22. He recorded six albums with Davis, and also worked with John McLaughlin and the Mahavishu Orchestra and Herbie Hancock, along others. Since 1990 he has been leading his own groups, drawing on a wide variety of mostly contemporary styles on his 19 solo albums. Back in 2006 he started a group he called Soulgrass, inspired by the banjo-dominated music of Bela Fleck's Flecktones. Fleck appeared on the 2006 Soulgrass album which won a Grammy nomination.
For the new album, Dragonfly, which is essentially the third Soulgrass recording, Evans works with what is basically rock band with cranked-up electric guitar and a lead vocalist for most the tunes, along with the banjo played by Ryan Cavanaugh. There are also a couple of guests, luminaries from the rock and jam band world, including John Medeski of Medeski, Martin & Wood; Warren Haynes from the Allman Brothers band and rock guitar notable Steve Lukather known from his stint in the band Toto. Evans' regular band includes another veteran fusion player, keyboard man Clifford Carter. In the group, the lead vocalist is also the drummer, Josh Dion, who wrote lyrics to some of Evans' tunes, plus bass player Andy Hess and guitarist Mitch Stein, along with Cavanaugh on the banjo.
While the Soulgrass band begs comparison to the version of the Flecktones in which Jeff Coffin played sax, or to Tony Trischka's band in which there was also a sax to supplement the banjo, in Evans' group, the banjo plays a far less prominent role. It is more of a textural ingredient, and rarely takes solos until toward the end of the CD. And on some tunes, the banjo is absent. Though Bill Evans' background is jazz, this CD is definitely a rock album in terms of its sound and even lyric style. There are a couple of songs about the state of the world, and one or two that could be considered about relationships, if not exactly being love songs. There are some tracks that highlight the respective guest musicians, such as Steve Lukather or Warren Haynes, and there is one tune track that features an band with different personnel.
Though the sounds on the album are familiar, their combination on Dragonfly make for an interesting mixture. The opening track is a good example: Madman is in a kind of classic rock sound, with cranked up guitars, including Steve Lukather, and strong vocals with guest backing vocalists. But there are the distinctive sounds that mark this group: Evans' sax, of course, and the banjo. <<>>
Similar is the following track, Time on which John Medeski makes an appearance. There are bits of Gospel and lots of old soul influence in the vocal style. <<>>
With a bluesy sound and lyrics that offer a social commentary, is a track called Kings and Queens. The playing is quite good all around. Evans plays tenor sax and shows his tasteful approach. <<>>
With the alternate personnel is an instrumental jam called Tit for Tat. It has the sound that fans of Evans' earlier fusion recordings can relate to. Guitarist Warren Haynes is the featured guest. <<>>
One of the more interesting tracks from the standpoint of combining influences, is I Don't Know About Love. There are ingredients ranging from art rock to jazz to hints of world music. It's also a particularly good piece of writing. <<>>
While Evans mainly sticks to his saxophones, he does take a co-lead vocal on a tune called Nothing to Believe In, and does a quite respectable job. <<>> It's also one of the few instances on the album on which Ryan Cavanaugh gets a banjo solo. <<>>
The banjo is also featured more prominently on the instrumental called Dirt Country Breakdown, which was co-written by Evans and banjo player Cavanaugh. It's an interesting funky mix with the banjo in the tradition of the Flecktones. <<>>
Steve Lukather is also featured on a more laid-back instrumental called Forbidden Daffodils, which is also reminiscent of some of Evans' previous fusion material. <<>> Lukather puts in a kind of classic rock guitar solo. <<>>
Saxophonist Bill Evans' new CD Dragonfly is a continuation of his Soulgrass project. With the added banjo, it naturally recalls the Flecktones, but the music goes in different directions. For one thing, with the prominent vocals, this definitely sounds more like a rock band, there's still that sax-dominated jazz-rock fusion style, with more conventional instruments like the guitars and keyboards. The compositions are impressive, with a good balance of musically interesting material and enough of a rock sound to appeal to the wider jam band audience.
For our inevitable audio quality grade, will give the recording an A-minus. The material was recorded well and is largely clean and free from distortion from studio effects. But as is so depressingly typical, almost all the dynamic range, the loudness and softness, was compressed out of the recording and performance in the utter folly of the "loudness wars" on CD.
Among fans, there is some overlap among jam bands and fusion groups. Bill Evans' Dragonfly is one that should easily fit into both musical worlds.
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