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Saxin' bluegrass

Bill Evans spreads the 'soulgrass' message

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Somewhere in the high and lonesome range, carved in stone on of the side of bluegrass mountain is the commandment, "Thou shalt have no horns in Bluegrass." For saxophonist Bill Evans, that commandment was made to be broken. "I've never had boundaries on anything I've ever played," the former Miles Davis sideman says.

Bluegrass boundaries not only banned horns, but drums and the rock and roll that began leaking into the genre in the '70s. A handful of young upstarts including Sam Bush and Tony Trishka led the way. Trishka was in a bluegrass outfit called Breakfast Special, which featured a sax in '76. But until jam bands started using brass and reeds, horns weren't accepted, and still aren't in pure bluegrass. Evans is out to change all that, with the aid of Bush and Trishka who often sit in with him.

Evans says that the sound of fiddle and banjo sound great with a sax, and he's getting support for his theory from some unlikely places. A recent weeklong stint at New York's prestigious jazz club, The Blue Note, was so successful that the club invited him back for another run. The club, which had never featured a banjo or mandolin onstage before, hosted 100 members of the International Bluegrass Music Association for one of their sellout shows. "They went crazy and it was exciting, 'cause I was looking at their faces," Evans says. "I had more of those guys come up and say, 'Bill, thanks for doing this; this was just the greatest night.'"

To Evans, the combination feels natural. Jazz and bluegrass improvisations are similar, Evans says, and he proves that fact on a regular basis, standing shoulder to shoulder with Bush and Trishka trading solos, playing off one another. His theory of why the two haven't mingled more is not based on some decree handed down through generations. "It's just that most people with bluegrass stayed with bluegrass and most people with jazz stayed with jazz. And that's really the only reason they didn't blend more."

Evans calls his blend of bluegrass and jazz "soulgrass." "I can't call it newgrass, cause Sam already had his newgrass revival thing and the term jazz has been used so much. I thought, I can do something that's really off the cuff and name it after some bass fishing lure 'cause I like to bass fish. And then I thought, I'll just call it soulgrass and just go from there."

But, jazz, not soul, is Evans' background. In 1980, at the age of 22, the saxophonist was hand-picked by Miles Davis to help him put together a comeback band in which the saxophonist would be the lead soloist. In the process, Evans befriended the prickly trumpeter. He admits that if his first dealings with Davis had been onstage, "I'd have been so scared that I would have had to go to the bathroom every three minutes."

He thinks Davis would approve of what he's doing now. "Oh, he would have thought it was great," Evans says, laughing. "Miles would have probably looked at me and said, 'I figgered you'd be doing something like this.'"

Evans has been on the road playing soulgrass for two and a half years now, releasing the Grammy nominated Soulgrass CD in 2005, featuring Sam Bush along with Jerry Douglas and co-producer Bela Fleck. Despite acceptance from both jazz and bluegrass audiences, there were still problems. Evans couldn't find a label in this country willing to put out the record. It came out in Europe and Japan, but American companies kept telling Evans that they didn't know what they could do in terms of marketing the sound. "Listen," Evans said, "You can sell the pet rock. You got every name guy on there." But the labels didn't buy his reasoning. "The people at the Grammys said it was the only record nominated for a Grammy that wasn't out," Evans says, laughing. Instead, Evans sells Soulgrass from the stage, and online at his Web page: www.billevanssax.com.

And although the sound has been accepted by bluegrass fans at the country's leading jazz venue, Evans is having trouble getting into bluegrass venues. "I've been trying to get into Merlefest and Bonaroo and Telluride the last few years, and I've been having a hard time because they don't know who I am in the bluegrass world. Friends of mine, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, and Sam have been making some phone calls for me, saying, 'Hey listen, if you get Bill in, we'll play with him too.'"

Evans says playing with a banjo and a fiddle makes him play differently. "I enjoy it, people dig it and it's great. I can't see changing for a long time." He has an album in the works with Fleck, Trishka and Bush due out in September that he says will push his sound out even farther.

Even though the bluegrass venues haven't come around yet, Evans isn't discouraged. "I'm doing this not because I think its gonna be super successful. It's just something that inspires me."

Bill Evans plays Friday, February 23 at the McGlohan Theatre at Spirit Square at 8 p.m. Tickets are $17.50-$20.

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