Bill, we are honored to have the opportunity to speak with you about your remarkable music career as a leading musician in the jazz scene!
Q1: When did you first start playing music?
I started playing piano when I was 6 years old. I took piano lessons starting at that age. I love playing the piano everyday, even now. I started clarinet in 7th grade, and tenor saxophone in 8th grade.
Q2: Last month, you performed with Gregg Allman, Warren Haynes, and Derek Trucks of the Allman Brothers, as well as the legendary Carlos Santana at the Comcast Theatre in Hartford, CT. When you perform with other artists, how difficult is it adjusting to their particular sound right on the spot?
It feels very natural for me to play with any group or style of music, to be honest. I love all kinds of music, and love to get inspired. When I sit in with someone I just play the way I play and add my personality to whatever music I am playing. It’s always inspirational to me to play with Warren Haynes and the Allman Brothers. Everyone in that band is very much into improvising and creating new music every night that they play. Very much like jazz musicians. Warren Haynes love to push the envelope and keep the inspiration meter high, which is something I really enjoy being a part of.
Q3: You’ve released numerous albums with many different artists. Which album are you most proud of? Which album showcases your style most accurately in your opinion?
I put my heart and soul into every CD I have ever done. When you take sometimes a year to write, record, and mix a CD…you become very close to that project. For me, it’s always the last CD that becomes my favorite. I love the way “Dragonfly” came out. It is a vision I have had for a while now and couldn’t be happier with its outcome. To me, vocals are just another instrument to use with the band. The voice, saxophone, banjo, guitar…they are all just expressions to me. Different sounds and energies. Put them all together and it becomes something unique. My style on saxophone changes depending on the style of music I write and perform with. I react to whatever or whomever I am playing with, so all of my CD’s in some way showcase my style in one way or another.
Q4: Your latest album, Dragonfly (2011), the 3rd album released by Soulgrass is fantastic. A completely unique sound from anything you’ve done before. What do you enjoy about Soulgrass and how is it different from your previous projects?
Soulgrass and the “idea” of soulgrass is to combine americana instruments (mandolin, fiddle, dobro, etc.) with the saxophone, and create a fresh and unique sound. Soulgrass has been evolving since 2005. I love the way the saxophone sounds with these instruments. To many people, it is something very different to their ears sonically, which ends up being very appealing and fresh to them after a while. For me, it is quite normal. The banjo is not a bluegrass instrument to me anymore, but an instrument that can create textures that give music a different pulse and groove which is like using different colors on a palate. With a serious groove, this can be contagious.
The third album in the “soulgrass” style was Dragonfly, and I just wanted to take it one more step in the vocal direction. Josh Dion, our drummer, is a very soulful singer who really adds a musical vibe to his vocals and to the song in general. We worked very hard in making this music sound natural and organic. You can tell with the way the musicians played on the CD that everyone was feeling it. We played the music live in the studio, with everyone playing at the same time. That is a rarity these days.
Q5: In 1982, you recorded Moods Unlimited. How have you changed as an artist since that first album?
Are you kidding? I’ve changed 1000%…My saxophone playing has changed A LOT. I think I have matured as a player and writer in a huge way. That’s 30 years ago, and I have been working on it all the time since then. I have gone through many musical styles from hip hop, soul, jazz, you ame it. I would play my versions of all kinds of music that inspired me at the time. I am always pushing myself to be a better saxophone communicator as well.
Q6: How did performing with the Miles Davis Group impact you as a musician and as a person?
It taught me what to do, what not to do, and to really believe in myself as a musician and player. That’s what it taught me. Not to be like Miles, but to be like myself. If I wanted to be like Miles, then I would do what was inspirational to me. Because that’s how HE related to music. He listened to his instincts. I try to follow that example.
Q7: In 1984, you released your first solo recording, Living in the Crest of a Wave. What made you decide to branch off on a solo project?
It was time for me to record my first record. I had some ideas, and Bruce Lundvall asked me if I wanted to record for him and I said yes.
Q8: Where did the name Soulgrass come from and how does it connect with you as a group?
It is a name I made up in my head. We play some very soulful music reminiscent of James Brown in some songs, and some bluegrass inflections with Ryan Cavanaugh on banjo for others…so I just combined the 2 musics and came up with “soulgrass.” It seemed to make sense. It does scare some people. The ardent jazz fans and the strict bluegrass fans have a hard time with it sometimes, but the blending of both styles together works beautifully.
Q9: When you first started performing professionally, what artists were you listening to at the time when brainstorming new ideas for songs?
I listened to bands like Weather Report, Pat Metheny Group…I liked the contemporary groups of the time, which would be the middle eighties. I like the Police, Sting…things like that.
Q10: What have been some of your favorite highlights of performing live over the past 30+ years?
There are too many to name. That would take a large chapter. I loved playing with every band I have ever put together or have been a part of. There are so many great players out there that are inspiring to play with…and I have been lucky enough to have played with a lot of them. Great times with John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Lee Ritenour…I have had lots of different bands of my own that were exciting…with Dennis Chambers, Jim Beard, Dave Weckl, Steve Smith, Vinny Colaiuta…my Push Band in the mid 90’s…so much fun over the years! I love my current soulgrass band. These guys really turn it on every night. Josh, Mitch, and Ryan are real team players that keep the music at the highest level. I love that!
Q11: What is it that you love about music?
Music is a drug. Once you have it in your blood, you can’t get enough. It’s something you have to always have in big doses. One time I went on a fishing trip for 4 weeks up in the wilderness in Northern Canada…no music. I just about went nuts not hearing some music. I was singing to myself all the time and couldn’t wait to hear something when I got out of the woods. The car radio was broken when we finally did get out and I had to buy a radio right away just to hear something It was that bad. So I know it’s a “need” that I have.
Q12: Where do you see yourself going from here as a musician?
Going? I’m just going to keep playing and recording music that inspires me. I’m going to keep pushing the “American Roots” sounds with Soulgrass. There is still so much more that I want to explore with that.
Q13: How do you personally go about writing a new song?
I get an idea either at the piano, or in my head. I sing it into a small voice recorder much of the time. I also write at the piano a lot. I love to just sit down at the piano and noodle around for a while and see what comes up. Occasionally a good song pops up.
Q14: You received a number of Grammy Awards and nominations over the span of your musical career. what do those awards mean to you and what does it feel like knowing that the music you create continues to reach people all over the world?
I don’t think awards should be given to music. Who can play YOUR music better than you? Is an apple better than an orange? Get my point? People get too carried away with “awards” when it comes to music. The general public will buy more of something that has the “Grammy” moniker on it. There are some really great CD’s that come out every year that are never given a Grammy nomination. It’s insane. The CD’s of mine that I never thought would be looked at by the Grammy people, got nominated. Go figure.
Q15: Looking back on your career, what artists have influenced your style the most?
Miles Davis, Joe Henderson, Mike Brecker, Dave Liebman…but over the past 20 years, I have felt comfortable just playing my style of the saxophone. Every notable musician throughout history has tried to emulate someone when in the process of leraning. Then, you naturally move on and your own style emerges. It happens in a slow, but natural way. Soon, it’s only you that is being projected.
Q16: How does it feel when you hear artists say that you are the main influence behind the music they create?
It always feels great. It’s a compliment. They say “wow, I love all of your trio recordings.” I say, “that’s not me. That’s the other Bill Evans” Hahaha!
Bill thanks again for taking some time to speak with us today about your legendary musical career. It was an honor. We wish you nothing but the best and can’t wait to see what you have in store for the future!
Thanks…I can guarantee that I will never play it “safe”…life is too short for boring music. No boundaries is a place I feel very comfortable living in.