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Bill Evans: Soul Insider

Soul Insider

Andrián Pertout speaks to saxophonist Bill Evans from New York about his collaborations with Miles Davis and Willie Nelson, as well as about the current state of contemporary jazz.

Saxophonist, keyboardist, composer and producer Bill Evans’ musical career literally began with a bang, for at the age of twenty-two he joined forces with legendary trumpeter and jazz icon Miles Davis to materialize his historic eighties comeback.  “Bill Evans is one of the greatest musicians I’ve come upon,“ Miles once said in an interview for People Magazine.  “He and Gil Evans.  There must be something with those Evanses.  Must be a breed.”  In the years to come he went on to work alongside John McLaughlin, Gil Evans, Lee Ritenour, Herbie Hancock, Dave Grusin, Mick Jagger and Andy Summers, among many, as well as to carve out a formidable career as a jazz artist in his own right.  ‘Soul Insider’ represents Evans’ twelfth album as a leader, and is a soul and funk extravaganza featuring Bill on tenor, alto and baritone saxophone, together with vocalist Les McCann, organist Ricky Peterson, guitarists Dean Brown and John Scofield, bassists James Genus and Tim Lefebvre, percussionist Don Alias, trumpeter Lew Soloff, trombonist Conrad Herwig and background vocalist Vaneese Thomas.

Tell me about your first musical experiences.  How did you boot up?

BE: ”Well, it’s interesting – I just basically started playing piano when I was like five years old.  My parents bought a piano, put it in the house – and I have a brother and two sisters, and I happened to be the one that gravitated towards the piano.  And my mother would always say that I was so focused and so determined to learn how to play.  She said that my concentration was amazing, for a five year old.  I’d just sit down and just concentrate on the piano, and she said that I would go into this sort of like hypnotic state when I was a little kid.  So that’s my first experience with playing piano at a really young age.”

And when did you start playing the sax?

BE: ”I was about eleven years old.  My parents took me to hear a local high school jazz group, a local jazz band I should say.  And when the saxophone player stood up and started taking solos in front of the band, that was for me.  I said, ‘You know, the piano’s great, but I really want to stand up in front of the band and play saxophone.’  And my mother said, ‘Oh, here we go!’  And that’s pretty much how it started.  But I was fortunate when I was growing up, because between my father and my aunt we had Stan Getz and the Oscar Peterson Trio records, Ahmad Jamal, Woody Herman and Benny Goodman.  So there were a lot of great jazz records around the house, and that’s what influenced me.”

Oh right, usually the first thing you go for as a little kid is the rock stuff.

BE: ”Well, that time, when I was coming up, which was the early sixties, because I’m forty-two now, it was like the Beatles and all that stuff, it never interested me.  When people were listening to the Beatles, I was listening to Woody Herman and Stan Getz.  That was my upbringing.  I didn’t actually get into rock n’ roll until I was way into my late teens.”

And did you actually do any formal studies in music?

BE: ”Yeah, I studied classical piano for a number of years, and I played saxophone in college.  I went to North Texas State University for one year, and William Patterson College I graduated from in 1980.  But I think in jazz music, the study that you have to do is privately with good teachers.  And I was able to study with a guy named Bennie Green, I spent some time with Joe Henderson, with Dave Leedman, with Steve Grossman, Eddie Daniels; a lot of good saxophone players I was able to take lessons with.  And that really is the key, and seeing musicians live.  I used to go downtown Chicago when I was a kid and see Sunny Stint and Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, I saw all the great saxophone players.  And that was a great influence of mine.  You know, when you’re twelve, thirteen, fourteen years old and you want to play saxophone, and you could sit right in front of the masters as they play.  You know, you’re able to formulate a vision in your mind of what you want to do.”

The early eighties must have been exciting times for you…  What was the feeling in the air surrounding Miles Davis’ historic comeback?

BE: ”Yeah, it that was definitely an exciting time.  I came right from college to Miles Davis.  I was really fortunate because Miles put an advertisement in the newspaper, and I just applied for the job and got the gig…  No, I’m just kidding (chuckles).  No, it was actually a recommendation from Dave Leedman.  That’s how Miles operated.  But we were good friends.  I was introduced by Dave and from that point on Miles and I became really good friends.  In 1980 I hung out with him every day, and before we even started doing much playing.  And then he said, ‘I think it’s about time we get a band together.  Who should we use?’  ‘Well, who do you want to use?’  And he said, ‘Well, who’s on the scene, I don’t know anybody now.’  And I said, ‘Well, there’s a young bass player, about my age, called Marcus Miller, he’s great.’  He said, ‘ Let’s try him.’  And I said, ‘There’s a guitar player Mike Stern, that’s a possibility.’  So I helped him get John Scofield.  And we were really good friends.  So that enabled me to have a different sort of relationship with him, to also be someone that could help him put a band together.  That was fun.”

Music today is driven much harder by the dollar factor.  How does a person survive these days ‘as a serious muso’, or let’s say ‘as a person doing music for art’s sake’ rather than just for money or fame?

BE: ”Well, basically you just have to make counterfeit money, and just make a lot of it, do a real good job (laughs).  No, I feel very fortunate because I tour three or four months of the year and I also do a record once a year, and I’m able to make a good living.  And I guest star on other people’s records sometimes, but I think it’s not such an easy thing.  You have to have a total dedication for it, and still it can be difficult.  You know, there aren’t so many bands like Miles Davis, in order to give you a big start.  That was a terrific break for me, because it put me on the map almost immediately.  That was a nice thing, but there aren’t so many of those bands now.  But what I tell kids today is that some of the great bands of the future may be not together yet.  And they could be the members of the some of the most historic bands of the next hundred years.  So you don’t have to necessarily see everything right in front of you now.  If you strive to do the best you can, and you want to be the best musician you can, and just see the vision, sometimes the vision comes to you.”

I guess I meant that these days, even in jazz there is pressure to conform to what the record companies want, unless you do your own thing…

BE: ”It depends on the label, and it depends on the country.  And what the musician really believes in doing.  I mean, I’m on a smaller label in Germany that does a very good job of distributing, and I do what I want, every year it’s like he doesn’t know what I’m going to do.  I just sort of tell him, ‘Listen, here is my idea now,’ and I just do it.  And I’ve been fortunate in that many of the ideas that I’ve had are my own, and are what I’m inspired to do, yet we can still sell CDs, because fortunately enough my taste is not so avant garde that people can’t relate to it.  And that’s purely by chance, because I’m doing the music that I want to do.  Every one of my CDs is a little different to the next, and that’s sort of like my personality, because I have a very short attention span.  But in the States it’s very much a ‘smooth jazz’ environment, and what I mean by smooth jazz is all the bands sound exactly the same, the level of musicianship is very low, and they’re all striving to get on radio that has a criteria of, ‘don’t be too loud, do not have the guitar player play loud, you have to sound like you’re using a loop.’   I mean, there are all these different rules and regulations that musicians in the States have to follow, if they want to play that game.  I just don’t play that game.”

What is the purpose of your own music?  How do you see yourself?  How would you like others to see you?

BE: ”In a nice suit really, if you think about it (chuckles).  No, I just want to be a melodic musician.  I want them to see me as someone who is striving for his own thing.  That’s what I’m trying to do every year.  You never seem like you really found it, which is sort of frustrating but good in another respect, because you never get bored.  But just someone who is trying to find his own sound, that sometimes gets it and sometimes doesn’t.”

What do you go for when you write music?

BE: ”What inspires me at the time.  I have to write music that’s inspiring, I’ve gotta write something that’s like, ‘Wow, this is a great song!’  You know, I have to think, ‘Wow, this is really cool!’  And something that’s like, ‘I really like the way that this thing sounds.’  It’s gotta do it to me like that, or I can’t do it.  And what usually does that to me is something new and fresh, which is why I’m doing this ‘Soul Insider’ CD this time, because this is what inspired me.”

Tell me about your latest album ‘Soul Insider’.

BE: ”The music is about feel, trying to capture that funk, soul feel that feels really good.  And I think I got the right musicians for the record.  I mean, I knew I wanted a B-3 player, and Ricky Peterson is the definitive B-3 player in the world.  And Dean Brown is just one of the funkiest guitar players, and we’ve done a lot of stuff on the road together in the past.  James Genus and Tim Lefebvre were just amazing bass players that could play anything.  I need someone that can do that.  And for a groove, Steve Jordan.  I always wanted to play with him.  I’ve known him for a number of years, and it worked out that he was the right drummer for this particular date.  It was a really easy date to record, and a lot of fun.  And when we did it, the songs just flowed.  It was like a big party in the studio.”

On your web site you make fun of the fact that your latest album was “recorded live with everyone in the studio playing together… a truly dying art.”  What do you consider to be the main difference of this recording approach, as opposed to multi-tracking?

BE: ”I think that a lot of soul, R&B and funk is all feel, it’s how the musicians relate to other musicians.  Especially in music that is sort of this combination James Brown and Gene Harris, that bugaloo-type sound.  I think that the sound of that kind of music is very much created by live musicians.  I don’t think that you can get as unique a feel, and have it swing as much if you multi-tracked all the musicians.  And that’s why I had everyone play live in the studio, where we could have eye contact.  Ricky could see Steve, I could see everybody, everybody could see me.  So when we played the take, the only difference from being in a live club was that there were no people there except us.  But that’s why I think the album sounds so alive to musicians and hopefully to the audiences, because that’s what it was.  Those takes that you hear on there were takes that were done from beginning to end, start to finish, finished.  And however long the song was, the tune was finished, except for when I overdubbed other saxophones, sax section stuff.  But my record ‘Escape’ was multi-tracked, and it’s got merit, there are certain things multi-tracking does, it gives you another kind of freedom.  You know, to be able to mess with the different parts.  They’re both good, it all depends on what sound you’re going for.”

In what direction do you personally feel that contemporary jazz in heading?

BE: ”I don’t like what’s going on in America at all.  I’m so against this ‘smooth jazz’ attitude.  It’s non-creative, suppressing, and a going nowhere vibe that I think you owe the listener something creative, something heartfelt and something real, and in the States, that’s not happening.  In Europe, it is happening.  They want you to play your heart out, they want to follow your career and hear you play something creative without having boundaries.  I don’t really know where contemporary jazz is at right now, but I can only hope where I think it should go, and I just hope that people keep on experimenting and blending different type of music together, in order to see what will happen.  Because that’s the only way that music can grow and be innovative, if people take chances.  And if people just wanna stand up there and play a happy song in a major key and have it go nowhere, you’re not gonna be innovative at all.  The music will go nowhere and it will stop and die, and then everybody will become truck drivers.  But nothing against truck drivers, we need them, but you know what I’m saying.  So I think you’re going to have traditional jazz, it’s always going to be there, it’s part of what I do – I’m a jazz musician first, that just loves to play all kinds of music – I just hope it will keep growing and innovating into different styles, different kinds of hybrids.”

How do you feel about breaking away from the jazz scene?  Do you prefer to stay within that boundary?

BE: ”Well no, I love playing all kinds of music.  As a matter of fact I guested with Willie Nelson on a bunch of shows last year.  And that was completely different because jazz musicians are usually like, ‘Country music, you’ve gotta be kidding me!’  Willie Nelson’s got a very open mind and he called me.  It was me and Keith Richards, and we sat in on some shows with Willie Nelson and had a great time.  As a matter of fact I wore a cowboy hat on some of them.  Yeah, just for the fun of it.  Music doesn’t have to be serious all the time.  I love playing all kinds of music, I really do, I’m open, and so that’s where that one’s at.”

What do have in the cooking pot at the moment?

BE: ”There’s a tour, I’m coming over there.  And it’s with Vinny Caliuta on drums, Ricky Peterson on organ, Dean Brown on guitar, and James Genus on bass.  And it’s going to be an extremely groove-swinging-funk-slamming time.  Vinnie Caliuta is one of the most incredible drummers in the world, and Rickie Peterson is a very exciting organ player, if not the best.  He’s been playing with Dave Sanborn’s group for the last fifteen years, and as well as that he’s produced many of the Prince CDs, behind the scenes.  He worked with Prince for a number of years.  And Dean Brown is great, and James Genus is a fantastic acoustic and electric bass player.  You know, we’re going to put on a hell of a show I think.  For Australians it’s going to be a lot of fun…”

“Soul Insider” out on ESC Records.  For further information visit the Official Bill Evans Web Site. Email: bill@billevanssax.com, or contact Simon Higgins, Vorticity Music, 529-531 High Street, Northcote, Victoria 3070, Australia.  Tel: (03) 9482 4603, Fax: (03) 9482 1623, Mobile: (0412) 675 106.  Email: m2@netspace.net.au


'Mixdown' Monthly ~ Issue #82, February 7, 2001


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