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Bill Evans Sax

Bill Evans is an American jazz saxophonist who first came to prominence as a member of the Miles Davis group in the 1980s as well as the fusion band Elements. Evans has recorded over 17 solo albums and received two Grammy Award nominations. Deeply intrigued and ultimately inspired by American roots music, Evans wrote, produced and recorded “Soulgrass” in 2005, garnering a Grammy nod in the process. Soulgrass was a breakaway new fusion of jam, rock, funk, roots and jazz, blending the banjo, fiddle, mandolin and dobro, combining the best musicians from Jazz and Americana. Three more CD’s followed in the Soulgrass genre. After 10 years of touring and breaking new ground with Soulgrass, in 2015 Bill introduced the “Bill Evans Band”, a hard hitting montage of Jazz, Rock, instrumental and vocals. “Rise Above” is Bill’s latest and most accessible release to date (2016). On this, his 24th solo offering, Evans explores rich and haunting vocals from special guest singers, including legend Gregg Allman, Warren Haynes, JJ Grey, Anders Osborne, Murali Coryell, and Josh Dion.

The Bill Evans Band will feature at Melbourne jazz club Bird’s Basement from May 30 to June 4 as part of the club’s own international jazz festival. Joining Bill on stage will be Dean Brown, Poogie Bell and Dave Anderson. Australian Musician caught up with BIll for a little Q&A.

Bill, you had a formal education in music. How has that helped you achieve the successes you have had to date?
I am inspired by different kinds of music and how it relates to the saxophone so being able to play piano as a young kid allowed me to write my own music at an early age. Listening to jazz starting at the age of 6 or 7 years old gave me an early start at learning and hearing “the language of jazz. “ I learned the Hayden concerto on piano by ear when I was 7 years old. My father taught me 3 or 4 bars a day, everyday when he got home from work. That was great ear training and I didn’t even know it. By the time I started to play saxophone in 8thgrade, I had a pretty good ear for hearing pitch, harmony, etc. Miles used to pull me over to the Fender Rhodes every night to play. That was stressful! One night, at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angelos, I had to play piano with him in front of Chick Corea, George Duke and Joe Zawinal. Talk about nervous! Wayne Shorter was there as well, and said “I liked what you did.”

A lot of guitarists tell us that they look to saxophone lines and vocalists for their lead inspiration. Do you find yourself drawn to any other instruments when looking for ideas?
I get ideas from different instruments as well as different kinds of music. I have been inspired to write music influenced by Hip Hop, rock, country, bluegrass, folk, Americana, you name it. It may be a vocal line, or just a bass line. Sometimes just the drums. Hearing something new in my head, and then making it a reality is one of the reasons I still do this music “thing “. To be restricted to one kind of music is just what it sounds like, a restriction. That doesn’t work for me and never has. People who have followed me over the years, know that I’m always changing. I don’t paint the same picture everyday, and I don’t play the same music every year. Boring. I have a short attention span. Maybe that helps.

Who are the other brass players in jazz that you look up to, past or present?
The ones I most respect happen to also be ones that I have had to a chance to either have played with or still play with. Miles Davis, Randy Brecker for starters. Me and Randy have had a co-led band called the “Soulbop Band “ for over 15 years. Its allstar members change every year. All kinds of music in that one.

You have collaborated with so many musicians in your career. What qualities do you look for in the musicians you choose to work with?
An open mind and selflessness. They have to be good people FIRST. After that, the ability to play music at the highest level and push the boundaries of what they do which will, in turn do the same for me. Everyone in the different bands I’ve had over the years have enjoyed hanging out together as well and I’ve been touring with my own group for over 27 years. People who like hanging out together, like playing music together. The audience can get a good feeling from my bands.

photo from greeceCollaboration seems to be more prevalent in jazz than any other genre that I’m aware of. What is it about the jazz community that makes this possible?
I love to collaborate with musicians of OTHER genres as well because we can create something that is fresh, innovative and gives us the CHANCE to create something that has never been created before. Like my “Soulgrass “ band that I had together for 12 years. Banjo, fiddle, vocals. People loved that band. How cool is that?
Jazz is a language . Like French, German, whatever. When jazz musicians collaborate and play jazz, they are basically having a conversation together in the “jazz“ language. It takes years to be able to say something in the jazz language that people actually want to listen to. The better you are at playing jazz , the better the “conversation“ between musicians, and the more the musicians will have to say and it will be something people will actually want to listen to.

You have played with many of the greats in jazz. Is there a common denominator with them which helps to explain their greatness?
They have blind faith in what they do. Period. They believe with utter confidence in what they are doing and are not afraid to go for what they hear in their head. They also have the luxury of being able to do that. When you have the entire world listening to everything you do that is a gift. Miles always told me to go with my instincts and believe in myself and my music. I have tried to stay true to that piece of wisdom he instilled in me at 21 years old. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy, but the payoff is great. You just have to be able to climb the mountain and not look back. You are basically buying a one way ticket. No safety net. If you have a safety net, you’ll use it. No net for me. Painful at times though. I won’t lie to ya.

Everyone who has played with Miles Davis, has a favourite Miles story. What’s yours?
When he first called me on the phone he said “Are you better than Charlie Parker, Lester Young or John Coltrane?“ I said “Miles, I’ll just play as well as I can . That’s all I can say.“ He just started laughing on the phone. Me and Miles became good friends and I helped him ease out of a 5 year retirement. I introduced him to Marcus Miller, Mike Stern, and John Scofield. I’m going to write a book one day about that period. There are a lot of interesting and funny stories with me and Miles.

Tell us about your main sax … where and when you acquired it.
It is a Selmer Mark VI from 1956. The soprano is a Selmer from 1972. I’m not sure where I got it from but I’ve been playing that tenor saxophone since the early 80s. I had acquired a number of them. My soprano, I bought around 1985 after my soprano was stolen off the stage after my first concert with John McLaughlin at the Hammersmith Odeon in London England in 1984.

Is the saxophone a difficult instrument to capture in the studio and what lessons have you learned about achieving great recorded sax?
I don’t’ think it’s a difficult instrument to record. The better the microphone, the better the sound but the sound really comes from the individual playing it . I prefer the feeling you get from a “live recording“ but there are things you can only do in the studio, so they both have their merit. I use DPA condenser mics live, and a Bill Evans signature mouthpiece . They really capture my true sound, so that’s exciting to me. The microphone on soprano really captures the warm sound I prefer on that instrument. I use a Dukoff #8 on soprano. Stock mouthpiece.

Improvisation is a big part of what you do on stage and can present some thrilling results. On the other hand … have you ever been in a situation with a band on stage where the tangent just went too far to a point where there was no return?
Are you kidding? That’s part of it! When you are playing with “jazz musicians“ who can really play, everyone is really going for it. It always has the option of going to a place that puts it on the edge. I think that’s what makes the music unique and separates it from other kinds of music. Jazz is not meant to be “safe “ To me that just doesn’t work for me. All of my bands, whether we play funk, groove, rock, Americana … with fiddle, guitar, organ, banjo, you name it…its’ always on the edge. Always. I don’t know any other way. I have been a guest with many well known rock bands, and they always want me to stretch and go for it. I think it’s what people expect from “jazz musicians”

Bill Evans is a famous name in jazz. The late great piano player died in 1950. Has sharing a name with him caused moments of confusion in your career?
For starters, Bill Evans the piano player died in 1980. When I was 16 years old I played piano in a jazz trio just outside of Chicago Illinois . The place we played, a Holiday Inn, would put on their marquee outside “Jazz- Bill Evans Trio “ and I used to watch people come inside and say “that’s not Bill Evans the piano player!“ and the manager would say, “his is name is Bill Evans and he’s the piano player!“

What can you tell us about your upcoming Australian shows? Who will be in your band and what are your thoughts about set list at the moment?
I was just working the song list .There is a lot to choose from. This will be very exciting. I’m bringing the funkiest drummer on the planet in Poogie Bell. He has played with so many legends. He spent years with Marcus Miller for one and has never been to Australia before. Dean Brown is the most versatile and funkiest guitarist I’ve ever worked with and I’ve played with a lot of guitarists! Our rapport is really unique. We are constantly playing off each other on stage. People LOVE watching him too. He bounces all around the stage. The last time he was in Australia was with me in 2002 . Dave Anderson on bass can play anything. He has been with Art Garfunkel, Blood Sweat and Tears, Randy Brecker, and countless others.

Since the audience in Australia hasn’t seen or heard many of the transitions in my bands and music, I want to play different songs from the different periods. I will be singing, playing piano, telling stories, and having fun. I hope its not another 15 years before I return again. I love Australia. I almost moved there after the last time I played there in 2002. We will groove on stage, burn on stage, laugh on stage, sing on stage and kick some serious butt!




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