BILL EVANS, IN GOOD COMPANY
Native and Fine Records 906-9
Some musicians’ visions and scope far outstrip the confines of their chosen instrument. Earl Scruggs obviously had listened to more than the country music of his day. A close listening to his earliest work with Bill Monroe reflects not only an understanding of the swing vocabulary of that day, but an internalization and execution on an instrument, that up until that time, was never used in quite that manner. His phrasing and musical vision took the instrument into new places, and he became the most copied banjo player of all time.
Bill Evans demonstrates his far-reaching vision and music vocabulary on this current release. Not content to regurgitate a rehash of banjo clichés, Evans walks out on the limb and takes control of the entire tree. There is a progressive bluegrass setting with the Infamous Stringdusters covering John Martyn’s “Walk To The Water,” featuring two banjos. In addition to performing with established groups, he also gathers two groups of A-team musicians for this project. The first iteration features David Grier on guitar, Mike Marshall on mandolin, Darol Anger and Tashina and Tristan Clarridge on fiddles, and Todd Phillips on bass. This stellar cast explores spaces and places that go beyond bluegrass without ever completely leaving the genre altogether, as on “Some Other Creek.”
A second iteration includes Grier with Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Rob Ickes on resonator guitar, Matt Flinner on mandolin, and Missy Raines on bass—another dream team that is tuned in on a more hard-edged bluegrass exploration of the musical frontier. This last iteration features vocals by Tim O’Brien and Laurie Lewis on the old folk song “Follow The Drinking Gourd,” a rich, not to be missed track. O’Brien plays some funky bouzouki to good end here. They go on to support Ned Luberecki and Evans in a banjo duet on “Big Chief Sonny,” a pure bluegrass tribute to Sonny Osborne. Then they burn into “Dakota,” another solid Evans original. “On And On” is not the old bluegrass standard, but a Sarah Siskind song performed here by Joy Kills Sorrow and Evans. It is a pensive piece that reflects the best of the new acoustic string band sounds that are becoming more prominent in the world of acoustic music.
The gem in the crown of this project is the four-song Beatle medley performed by the first iteration described earlier. They move through these songs like movements in a minor suite. From the warm, soft opening of “Mother Nature’s Son,” they build through “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away,” “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” and then they explode with the chord into “A Hard Day’s Night” that climaxes with the whole band playing George Harrison’s original 12-string guitar break as a unit. A powerful and musically exciting ending to a great medley. As a thoughtful reprise to this project, Bill Evans performs in a trio with Cindy Browne Rosefield on bass and Corey Evans on drums. This Evans original, “They Say You’re Never Lonely In Louisville” brings to mind another Bill Evans, an intellectually evocative piano player whose compositions and readings were musical magic. That magic is here on this jazz waltz, an outstanding piece from first note to last.
This project should be high on any discerning listener’s list for best recordings of the year. There is so much more here than can be described. The depth of the performances has the sheen of well-polished wood. (Native & Fine Records, 1563 Solano Ave., #454, Berkeley, CA 94707, www.nativeandfine.com.)RCB