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Soulgrass: Jazz and Bluegrass --Musical Cousins --Stage a Reunion

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  • Steve Berry
    Jazz and Bluegrass --Musical Cousins --Stage a Reunion By CRAIG HAVIGHURST January 23, 2007; Page D5
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 25, 2007
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      Jazz and Bluegrass --Musical Cousins --Stage a Reunion

      By CRAIG HAVIGHURST
      January 23, 2007; Page D5

      <http://online.wsj.com/article_print/SB116950744233384217.html>

      Jazz and bluegrass made similar journeys in the 20th century, from maligned to refined. These days, both are celebrated with presidential medals and enjoyed at high-rent festivals all over the world. Still, it is our nature to put music in boxes, and many may assume that the urbane jazz box, with its horns and drums, and the bluegrass box, with its rustic roots and its stringed instruments, would have (or should have) little to do with one another.

      In fact, bluegrass and jazz, particularly bebop, are musical contemporaries and cousins -- progressive departures from the dominant sounds of their day, forged during World War II. Both drew a line between the traditional and the modern in their respective forms. Even musically there were similarities, beginning with common roots in the blues. Both were inclined toward blazing tempos, rhythmic intricacies and intense, even competitive improvisation, suggesting that these schools, despite coming from cultures as distant and disparate as 1940s New York and 1940s Nashville, might one day meet and mingle to good effect.

      They have, though with far less frequency or commercial potency than the jazz-rock fusion movement or even "newgrass," the acoustic string-band counterpart. Jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton recorded with bluegrass innovators the Osborne Brothers and fiddler Richard Greene in the 1960s. Mandolinists David Grisman and Mike Marshall have updated and augmented Django Reinhardt's hot swing oeuvre. Perhaps most conspicuously, banjo innovator Béla Fleck has reached large audiences with his funky, sax-and-percussion-saturated Flecktones band.

      But few jazz-grass mash-ups have had the pedigree and potential of this week's six-night stand by Soulgrass, beginning tonight at the Blue Note in New York. Led by saxophonist Bill Evans, the group takes its name from a 2005 concept album. It began when Mr. Evans, a wide-ranging listener, cold-called Mr. Fleck with an invitation to record. Mr. Fleck, who knew Mr. Evans's work, rounded up his old friends, a peerless team of progressive acoustic musicians: mandolinist Sam Bush, dobro player Jerry Douglas, and fiddler Stuart Duncan.

      Mr. Evans -- who is no relation to his famous piano-playing namesake -- planned to bring a rangy and contemporary rhythm section, including bassist Mark Egan, alumnus of the Pat Metheny Group and Gil Evans's orchestra, and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, a technical wizard who did years with Frank Zappa and Sting. A Nashville rendezvous was made between two groups with no history of collaboration and no real game plan, just a lot of faith.

      "They're different languages, but they're both valid languag<es," Mr. Evans said by phone from his home in Westchester County. "Jazz obviously has a little bit more harmonic depth to it, and I think the forms may be a little bit more intellectual. But the essence of both kinds of music is their expression. They're both improvisations. They're both a form of music where the instrumentalist is creating something fresh and new. And that's what ties everything together."

      That doesn't mean there weren't language barriers. Mr. Evans was surprised when he laid out his charts and the bluegrassers divulged that they work by ear, not off the page. It gave Mr. Evans a chance to be amazed when the Nashville veterans picked up the complex tunes in just a few minutes. "Guys in bluegrass have the biggest ears in the world," he said.

      Mr. Evans absorbed a lot of his adventurous spirit directly from Miles Davis, the restless legend for whom he worked in the early 1980s. His name thus made, he became a musical cosmonaut, exploring hip-hop, world music and funk. He has a following in Europe, a solid artistic reputation, and nary a concern about critics who disdain any departure from orthodoxy (another common point with bluegrass). He's long been a regular with guitarist John McLaughlin, and he has a muscular, R&B-saturated modern jazz band called Soul Bop with trumpeter Randy Brecker.

      Released by the German label BHM, "Soulgrass" drew a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Jazz Album last winter. Eight of the album's 10 pieces are Evans originals, with a Bill Monroe tune, "Shenandoah Breakdown," and a Miles Davis tune, "Jean Pierre," added as lodestars of their respective genres. In places, the disc sounds like a busier, more daring version of The Flecktones. Regular Flecktone Victor Wooten plays bass on half the tracks, lending his fretless slurs and deep funk pocket to the spirited, free-wheeling set of pieces. Mr. Fleck, who loves nothing more than playing with musicians who challenge him, stands out, his staccato tone and harmonic control meshing delightfully with Mr. Evans's voluble, joyful saxes.

      Mr. Evans is not dabbling in bluegrass space. He reconfigured his road band around a fiddle and banjo for a 2006 tour in Europe. This week's shows mark the start of a U.S. tour, a no-pun-intended grassroots journey to see if his fellow Americans like the music. His regular fiddler, Christian Howes, will be at the Blue Note. The rest will be high-order sidemen. Richard Bona is a distinguished electric bassist from Cameroon. Drummer Dave Weckl plays with Chick Corea and Mike Stern, ensuring that like the album, these sets will be rooted in funk and slippery, worldly polyrhythms.

      Two bluegrass stars round out the band, including mandolinist Sam Bush. His résumé in country/bluegrass looks like Mr. Evans's in jazz, replete with star sideman turns and important studio and stage collaborations. He's an aggressive picker, resolute about rhythm and happy to blaze up the neck. At the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, he's a rock star, yet he understands how Bill Monroe played that seminal bluegrass mandolin.

      Filling the important banjo chair is New Yorker Tony Trischka, one of the few players in the world as qualified as Mr. Fleck for the gig, because he was Mr. Fleck's first important teacher and in many ways the father of banjo fusion. As it happens, after two nontraditional projects, Mr. Trischka has a new album out today called "Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular," featuring duets with banjo greats like founding father Earl Scruggs. The new record reminds us that the best crossover players frequently return to the wellspring of tradition for refreshment.

      Mr. Trischka says his efforts to bring the banjo to stages like the Blue Note has been a life's work. He remembers, not that many years ago, hearing a fund-raiser on a New York classical-music station: "And they said they had a matching grant, and if they didn't have, like, $5,000 by the end of the hour, they were going to play some banjo music. It was a threat."

      Mr. Evans and company remind us that in the hands of master musicians, bluegrass offers nothing to be afraid of.

      Mr. Havighurst is a writer and media producer in Nashville, Tenn.



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