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Bill Evans: Rise Above
by George Graham
(Independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/15/2016)
Leaders in rock bands tend to be guitarists, and occasionally keyboard players. But there are a few exceptions. This week we have one of them, a veteran sax player who has been leading his own groups in the early 1990s. It’s Bill Evans, and his new release is called Rise Above.
Bill Evans has an impressive resume. In his early 20s, he toured and recorded with Miles Davis. This Bill Evans is obviously not to be confused with the late great jazz pianist Bill Evans, who was part of Miles Davis’ classic album Kind of Blue, nor is he the same Bill Evans as the banjo player, who also has played in eclectic bands. Bill Evans the saxophonist has led a group called Soulgrass, in which there was been a prominent banjo. Evans recorded several albums with what is essentially the Soulgrass configuration, finding audiences among fans of both jam bands and those who go in for jazz-rock fusion. For the new album, Evans approached various performers, mostly vocalists that he has come to admire and invited him to appear on the new album. They include Gregg Allman and Warren Haynes of the Allman Brothers Band, New Orleans singer-songwriter Anders Osborne, JJ Grey of the blues band JJG Grey and Mofro, along with Jake Cinninger, of the band Umphrey’s McGee, jazz guitarist Mike Stern, plus a few people from his last recording, including drummer/vocalist Josh Dion, and banjo player Ryan Cavanaugh. Evans himself is heard on tenor and soprano sax. The material is primarily original, with Evans usually sharing composer’s credit with the person who is the guest on their specific featured tracks. So the material is varied, but much of it has the soul and funk influence that were hallmarks of Evans’ previous recent recordings, but the banjo, even when present, is a lot less prominent. Depending on the guest, the tunes can be more lyric-oriented or run toward the jam band aspect.
The album opens with a track co-written by Evans and JJ Grey called Right Lady. It’s a funky affair with an attractive sound, and prominent sax work by Evans. <<>>
The track featuring Warren Haynes is one he co-wrote with Evans, the title song Rise Above. It’s a more low-down bluesy tune which turns out to be one its stronger ones on the album. Haynes is heard both on the lead vocals as well as on guitar. <<>>
More upbeat in sound is Love Game which is one of two tracks featuring Murali Coryell, whose father is jazz guitarist Larry Coryell. It comes off as a kind of mix between jam band style and Memphis soul. <<>>
Featuring Gregg Allman as a guest is Love Is Working Overtime, which is a sole Bill Evans composition. It’s a surprisingly good match. <<>>
Another of the stronger guest vocal appearances is Slow Rollin’ Ride, featuring Anders Osborne. The New Orleans-based singer-songwriter is a versatile artist and that is apparent in the various phases of this joint Osborne-Evans composition. <<>>
There is one instrumental track, Tales of a Shiny Devil and it features Umphrey’s McGee’s Jake Cininger on guitar, along with some banjo by Soulgrass member Ryan Cavanaugh. Also appearing is Tim Carbone of Railroad Earth on fiddle. It’s probably the most energetic on the album, and the playing is great throughout, with a duel between Evans’ sax and Cininger’s guitar. <<>>
The one cover tune on the album is Evans’ version of the Buddy Miles song Them Changes. Josh Dion is the lead vocalist and also the drummer on the tune. It’s a clever arrangement which seems to change in genre as the tune goes along.
Though he usually gets others to do the singing, Evans will occasionally do some vocals. On this album, Evans sings on the last track, Every Once in a While (Things Got to Give.) Like some of his previous songs with his own lyrics, Evans muses on the state of the world. It’s an interesting contrast between his almost bird-like soprano sax and the rock oriented nature of the song. <<>>
Saxophonist Bill Evans has done a lot of things in his career, including being part of Miles Davis’ band while he was in his early 20s. For close to a quarter century, Evans has been releasing a series of solo albums, many running toward jazz- rock fusion. He added a different twist with his Soulgrass band, with a banjo, a bit like Bela Fleck’s Flecktones in the instrumentation. This time, he moves part way away from that sound in order to put the focus on several guests on the album. The result is generally successful with almost no incidents of musical mismatches. It’s a record that could be appreciated by jam band fans, as well as those who go in for arty rock.
Our grade for sound quality is an A-minus. There is good clarity and fortunately no attempts intentionally to add the flaws that were characteristic of old analog recordings, something that seems to be a fad these days. The dynamic range is mediocre at best with the usual volume compression intended to sink to the loudness wars on CDs, rather than reproducing the level of strength at which the musicians played.
In the rock world, the sax carries with it something of a stereotype as being mainly a jazz instrument. Bill Evans can play jazz with the best of them, but his new album Rise Above shows that a sax player is no slouch at rock, and make music that shows creativity as well.
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