Regardless of the lineup, the angular blues lines and implied harmony remain all about the groove for Evans. "Big Fun" is anything, but the exception. Evans’ rhythm sections have included the likes of world-class drummers Vinnie Coliauta (Sting, Zappa) and often Dennis Chambers (P-funk, Mike Stern, John Scofield), and guitarist Hiram Bullock (Jaco, Letterman Band). On this album specifically: Bruce Hornsby, Les McCann and the Voodoo Horns (of which Evans is part), Evans finds soul with a sense of humor, while keeping the backbeat from sounding like its off an MTV video or Clear channel radio. It’s a slammin’ party, but also a journey. Just when we thought we didn’t have to think while listening, though you’re going to want to many times.
A close, if unlikely collaborator for Evans is Willie Nelson, each guesting on each other’s projects. "I’ve got a standing invitation to join him onstage," Evans explains, "and when it came time to put this project together Willie asked, ‘Well, what am I gonna do on it?’" Evans laughs. It was a strange coincidence that both Miles and Willie would’ve had the same manager, but ultimately fortuitous for Evans, in that connections were produced with both.
Bill Evans own career as been long and varied. Though 20 years have past and the stint with Miles lasted only a few years, it always comes up, follows, and in some ways defines all those who have gotten the nod, as much as anything. It wasn’t that long ago that Evans had to pass when the Stones wanted him to accompany them on tour. He had his own prior touring commitments, the up-and-down side of staying busy in this business.
Just back from a very successful tour of Japan, Evans focuses on the task of writing and recording his next album as he discusses potential ideas in this informative interview.
JAZZREVIEW: So how's the fishing been lately?
BILL EVANS: Not too bad. I've been fishing with Phil Magnotti, the engineer who does all my records. He's got a boat on Long Island Sound. We've been having a great time catching a teem of fish.
JAZZREVIEW: Is that where you usually go or do you travel?
BILL EVANS: I travel to fish usually, but periodically l go out and fish with Phil. Its just been remarkable this year; the best in 20 years. You know, it’s heavy action, light tackle and a lot of fun.
JAZZREVIEW: This is deep sea or freshwater?
BILL EVANS: No, its ocean. Where are you calling from, Mike?
JAZZREVIEW: San Antonio. You ever get down the Texas?
BILL EVANS: Not that much. Not in the last couple of years. Actually I played a concert at North Texas, in Denton. . . when was that? I think it was May or June. I went down for one concert.
JAZZREVIEW: Last time we talked you said you wanted to do more clinics and teaching.
BILL EVANS: Yeah, and you know, it never seems to pan out because I've been so busy. I was sort of on the road, on and off, for seven months.
JAZZREVIEW: Which band was that with?
BILL EVANS: Well, let’s see, I did my usual spring tour with my own band in Europe for five weeks. Then I did a Vital Information tour for a month in the states with Steve Smith and Tom Coster. Then I did six weeks with a band that Randy Brecker and I have together - the Randy Brecker/Bill Evans Soul-Bop Band. We did all the festivals in Europe in the summertime. And then, I just got back from Japan where we did the Blue Notes. And it's been great, I can't complain. I love the place.
JAZZREVIEW: Is that the Soul Insiders group; is that what you're calling it?
BILL EVANS: Yeah. The one in Japan and one I did in Europe with my band.
JAZZREVIEW: How did that tour go? Did you receive a good reception?
BILL EVANS: Oh, [an] unbelievable reception. We did half of my stuff, half Randy’s stuff and couple Brecker brother tunes, but it's essentially a groove thing with improvisation at the highest level. It’s a great band. You put that together and the audiences go bananas!
JAZZREVIEW: You’ve been with ESC, the German label for a while now, right? They’re really collecting a lot of serious, cutting edge players. What’s up with that?
BILL EVANS: I was the first artist on the label because Joachim Becker’s been a friend of mine for long time. I knew him from when he was over at Lipstick Records in Germany. The label is very musician-oriented. It’s based around musicians who travel and tour with a group, and [who] build audiences not only with their recordings, but also with their touring and ability to reach a live audience. That’s sort of what it’s based on.
He [Joachim]doesn't just get demo tapes. He's not going to sign anyone who's not in that sort of realm. It's very difficult for people to actually be in that realm because it's difficult thing to do. It takes time. It's not just [about] having a CD--it’s having background, having the support of people and companies, etc. So we’re able to be sort of the small family that works.
JAZZREVIEW: That answers my next question as far as the quality players. I know the label's been in existence for around eight, ten years.
BILL EVANS: Yeah, maybe about eight years, I think.
JAZZREVIEW: I saw that Stern’s going to have his next disc on there. Think you might end up working together again?
BILL EVANS: You never know. It’s funny, because when you eventually lead your own band, that's what becomes the most important thing to you. There’s only a few times when you really do tour; spring, summer and fall. That’s when the festivals are so most of us have our own groups that tour at those times, at the same time. It can be kind of difficult. You have to make the commitment to give up one of those periods to form a different band, such as the Soul-Bop Band that Randy Brecker and I put together. We had to both decide not to go out with our own bands and join forces and create a new group. I'm sure at some point in time Mike and I will eventually run into each other again, probably onstage.
JAZZREVIEW: Can you talk about the making of "Big Fun?"
BILL EVANS: Sure. Making "Big Fun" was sort of the culmination of touring off the "Soul Insider" record, and what I wanted to do for the next record. I wanted to go in under the same guidelines that I gave the "Soul lnsider" record, which was to play live in the studio [with] a very, sort of, groove/soul format. [It] was my own style, what I think of that sort of music, and that was just what I did. I wanted to make it a little more of a playing CD for myself. Basically, [I] just wanted it to feel like you’re catching a good night live at a concert. I wanted to catch that same vibe, as much as I could, in the studio.
The way to do that is you have to get musicians that are very compatible on-and-off stage, so that the vibe is very much conducive to putting out that kind of music. Fortunately that’s exactly what happened in the studio. It was just a lot of fun. You get great musicians, get everyone in the studio having fun together, and it’s almost a party vibe. Then you’re going to be creating the kind of music that you want. This kind of music is not difficult music, its just music that has to feel good. It has been well received everywhere in the world and I’ve been very happy about that.
I’ve gotten compliments and hundreds of e-mails from people that really like the record, people who like the "Soul Insider" record that said, "we didn’t know what you were going to do next, but you really did follow it up with a great CD with "Big Fun." Hearing those things is great because that’s really what I was trying to do. I look at it as a sort of mission accomplished if I can cover some of that ground.
JAZZREVIEW: For What It’s Worth is a real standout. What made you choose it and have Willie Nelson and Bruce (Hornsby) sing on it? It’s a great tune.
BILL EVANS: Well, I’ve known Willie and I’ve been sitting in with Willie’s band for the last several years. In talking to Willie about it, just in general, I told him that I was going to be recording a new CD. He said, "Well, what am I going to do on it?" and I said, "Well, let’s do something!"
So to follow up on the earlier conversation, I like the tune, For What It’s Worth a lot. I didn’t know whether he [Willie] was going to like doing it; he said that’d be great, learned it and we went in the studio. He overdubbed his part after we laid a rhythm track down first, because of his schedule He’s doing 300-dates a year and to try to catch him while you’re doing your CD is difficult. So he did spend a few hours in the studio and did some great versions.
I knew Bruce Hornsby for a while. He played on a few of my CD’s in the past and it just came together really well. It’s just one of those things. He liked the song so well, that he ended up recording it. At the concert called "Guitars and Stars," Willie Nelson and Sheryl Crow sang with him on that. Vince Gill and I played on it and it actually became popular on his double CD set. That came out after my record was out. Willie’s also a very bluesy singer, so it seemed to be very compatible with the music that was going to be on that record. You have to go for it and see what happens.
JAZZREVIEW: Are you familiar with a guy named Jackie King; guitar player?
BILL EVANS: Yeah, I know Jackie. As a matter of fact, many of the times that I sat in with Willie, Jackie was playing guitar. He’s not actually playing with Willie right now. I think he left 7-8 months ago?
JAZZREVIEW: How did you approach writing the tunes for "Big Fun" and "Soul Insider?"
BILL EVANS: Well, I go by feel first. I try to figure out in my head what I want to have come out of the speakers, what I want to play live. What’s going to the next thing that I want to play live is something that represents myself, and also something that sounds like the next thing for me. Then I sit down and usually play either the piano or keyboard. I have a small studio at home and I just start putting it together. I’m always keeping in mind and very observant of where I think this music’s going, and write it. Sometimes I’ll spend time on songs that I know will not fit on a particular project that I’m working on, and I save them. It takes time, but I try to keep the focus and make the record sound like everything belongs on there. I work for a few months writing the songs and putting them together. I’m just beginning the next phase of my next record right now; putting the music together and starting to write. I’ll probably record in January or February. It’s a stage where you just start putting little ideas together: what you want to do, what you want your next record to sound like, and what you want to play live in front of an audience.
JAZZREVIEW: How would you describe what you’re working on now - that record?
BILL EVANS: You know, I don’t know yet. It’s too early. I’ve just started. More acoustically, I think, maybe using a lot of different instruments.
JAZZREVIEW: Still with vocals?
BILL EVANS: I don’t know. Could be, might not be. I could say no, and have half the record be vocals. I just don’t know. When I’m in the first week and a half of a 3-month writing project, I don’t know where it’s gonna go. But at this point, I’m thinking more acoustically. I always have a bit of rhythm and groove in my music because that’s what I like, but I like to be put in a position that’s new for myself, because that’s what’s inspiring to me. So in order for me to be inspired, I have to come up with different to put myself in places. I like to be put into a different place, so I force myself there. Now I’m thinking in terms of acoustic guitar, mandolin and harmonica; different things to create different sorts of grooves that are interesting and fun. I just try to see what I can come up with. I think if I get the right players at this point in time, when I do record and I get these songs together, it could be a very interesting sound especially for me.
JAZZREVIEW: What got you thinking of something like mandolin and acoustic, and so on?
BILL EVANS: I don’t know, really. I did a lot of that on a record I did in ’97 or ’98 called "Starfish and the Moon," where I used acoustic guitars and stuff like that. I don’t know, it lends itself well to my saxophones, I think, and the particular style I like to play. I like to play all styles of music.
For me it’s just something that for the time, it might be my next step. I’m sort of hearing that in my head. I’ve sat in with different groups with acoustic guitars and I just love that instrument. I really want to play over the next CD. I want to blow like hell over this thing and play some things that I think really represent me. We’ll see what happens.
JAZZREVIEW: Do you ever find yourself collaborating when you write?
BILL EVANS: Well, my motto is this: if you can write it yourself, write it yourself. If you need someone else to write it to make the song better, write it with someone else. I don’t particularly like to write with someone else just for the sake of writing with someone else if it’s gonna be my own project. It’s got to be where I actually think they’re gonna add something that I can’t add myself. But if I have a clear idea in my head of what I want to write, then I’ll write it myself. Sometimes I think you can just get lazy and say, ‘Oh, I’m just writing with a couple keyboard players or some guys who are coming up with tunes.’ Writing is a very arduous thing and something that takes time. It’s emotional [and] all consuming. You can end up putting a lot of pressure on yourself, but in the long run it’s a very rewarding process, especially when you’re playing one of your songs in front of 3000 people in Rome and they’re humming the melody. I mean, you know that you’ve done something right.
I think people will know more of you and your music if you write it. I think that just tends to be a real personal thing if you can. There’s nothing wrong with co-writing. I’ve co-written lots of songs, but when I’ve really felt that it was essential. I may write some songs with [guitarist] John Harrington. I think that he could really add something with acoustic guitar and come up with something special. But you know, it’s the early stages right now. I’m not exactly sure where it’s gonna go.
JAZZREVIEW: So would you say that’s part of your musical philosophy?
BILL EVANS: Yeah, I would say that’s one of them. I just try to be as natural as possible, you know, because it’s going to sound the most real when I’m inspired. If I can get inspired, like if the hairs on my arms stand on end because I’m actually so excited about it, then I know I’m on the right track. That’s what I’ve got to do.
The great thing about getting live musicians and playing in the studio is I can hear the songs much better than when I play them all myself in my home studio. Its like, wow, this is the way it should really be. That’s really exciting. When you write songs for a few months, and you’re so used to hearing them and all the little nuances that you’ve put on it, then you hear someone who can play it better; that’s the greatest.
I think there’s not enough live playing with groove CD’s out now. They’re so overproduced these days. I think it’s sort of my answer to the smooth jazz situation where the level of musicianship is many times very low and very over-produced. Everybody’s so self conscious about fitting into the format. I’m not doing that. I’m doing what’s inspiring to me, and the audiences around the world seem to be relating to that. So for me, that’s the obvious direction.
JAZZREVIEW: Do you expect to see yourself working with Willie again? I saw you both on Letterman a few months back.
BILL EVANS: On occasion. It’s a fun thing for me to do. It’s always something where I just show up. I’ll show up at concerts if they’re in the east. Or if I’m in a certain part of the country and he’s there, I’ll show up and sit in and play. Willie’s really great about that and has given me open invitation to sit in and play with his band whenever I’m around and feel like I want to do it. That’s very cool. I’m sure there’s going to be situations where I’ll be popping up, sitting in with the guys. They do so many shows and it’s a lot of fun for me. I’ve become good friends with the band and Mickey Rafael, who’s the harmonica player in Willie’s band. He is on my "Big Fun" CD, a really good harmonica player. Actually he plays on a bunch of the tunes. I have a nice rapport with the guys in the band too, so it’s more than just sitting in with the band. It’s a bunch of friends now.
JAZZREVIEW: What about Hornsby? Have you been sitting in with his band? What’s your relationship there?
BILL EVANS: No, I’ve just liked his music. We got together a few times on a social level and he’s been nice enough to play or sing on he was on my "Push" CD. There’s a number called "If Only in Your Dreams" which he played piano on, and he’s played on a couple tunes on that CD which was from 1994. Maybe that’s the last time, I can’t remember. But you never know, I mean maybe this CD coming up. . .may be a great thing for him to play a couple of tunes on. I’m not sure. I’d like to work with guys from I like Bela Fleck a lot. I think he’s great.
JAZZREVIEW: That’s amazing, I was just going to mention that.
BILL EVANS: Yeah, I mean I like those guys. I sat in at the Bottom Line several months ago with a band called The Wayfaring Strangers. That’s sort of a bluegrass/jazz group. Tony Trishka was playing banjo. We did a duet on this burning up-tempo tune on soprano and banjo, and it brought the house down. And I thought: there are some ideas there I want to incorporate. . .some interesting things to make inspiring sessions so when someone buys the CD they go, "You want to hear something interesting, check this out." That’s what I want people to say or "Did you hear Bill’s latest CD? You’ve gotta check it out, its wild!"
JAZZREVIEW: It’s like new, interesting textures.
BILL EVANS: Yeah, exactly. As long as [I] plant those sort of seeds; planting maybe banjo, acoustic guitar and whatever together, and just see what grows out of that, [I] can come up with some really cool things, instead of going in with your traditional piano, bass and drums. I mean I’m going to solo over anything, but I think I’d rather just keep coming up with some new ideas and see what happens.
JAZZREVIEW: I think banjo and mandolin can be. You don’t hear them that often so they can be really hip and inspiring.
BILL EVANS: Well, that’s the reason why, because it’s so god-dang bizarre. No, I’m just kidding you, man.
JAZZREVIEW: But there are great people out there that can do anything on those instruments.
BILL EVANS: Right, right, exactly. I mean you never know. It’s always worth checking it out, as long as you’re not getting the instruments for the sake of the instruments. The number one thing is you have to have songs and you have to have written something. The music is the most important thing, not what instruments you’ve chosen. So if you can put that combination together, then you have something.
JAZZREVIEW: I think Bela would be a great choice or Bill Frisell.
BILL EVANS: Sure. Absolutely. All those guys would work out well. It’s all a possibility. I’m just going to have to wait and see because I never choose the musicians before I’ve written the music. The music changes as you’re writing it and then all of a sudden you didn’t get the right guys.
JAZZREVIEW: Of course, sometimes you can be surprised in a good way by something you never saw coming.
BILL EVANS: Oh, absolutely. Anything can happen.
JAZZREVIEW: Do you still work with McLaughlin?
BILL EVANS: No. You know the last concert I did with John was in 1986, but I sat in with John a few times in Europe. Trilok Gurtu and I were thinking about doing some things together. I’ve worked a little bit with him in the past and played on a couple of his records. I want to continue with Randy Brecker and do a Soul/Bop tour again, at some point next year, and do my own tours. So I am branching out a little bit because it’s interesting and fun musically, and it works. The audience likes seeing you in different situations.
I realized that from this summer because the band with Randy went over really well. People really liked it and the response was even greater than we thought. So it turns out to be a really good idea when I think about something with Trilok Gurtu. He’s such a phenomenal drummer/percussionist/world musician, whatever-you-want-to-call-it, that we could come up with some grooves and things that I think would really turn an audience on. It’s all sort of in the works. We’re going to try to get a percentage of that happening. Randy and I want to also record a live Soul/Bop record sometime in the spring, too. Probably in Europe, I don’t know.
JAZZREVIEW: You were talking tours mainly occurring spring through fall. What are you doing in the winter, writing, and clubs?
BILL EVANS: I’m actually going to be recording and doing this thing, probably February and March. It’s going to take some time. By the time I record it and then do whatever final overdubs I want to do, then mix the CD and all the other things that have to do with putting a record together, you’re talking a month and half, two months. Then you’re already into April when I go out again. So that’s what’s going to happen.
I am going to play in a few weeks. I’ll be a guest with Les McCann in New York at The Iridium, with Cornell Dupree and Buddy Williams. That’s going to be fun. And there are a few things that I’ll be doing here and there, but essentially when I start writing, I don’t go out of town. I’ve chosen not to or I’m just not going to do myself justice. I’m not one of those really fast writers who can put together a record while they’re on the road.
Randy Brecker is great at that. He can put together a fantastic CD while he’s traveling all the time, working in the hotel room. He can do it because he’s a great writer. Most of his "34th N Lex" CD, which I think is great, he put that together while on the road, writing music on a little keyboard in his hotel room. I can’t do that. I have to be nestled down in my house working every day [laughs].
JAZZREVIEW: What kind of gear are you using in the home studio?
BILL EVANS: I keep it very simple. I use a Mac G4 and I use Performer.
BILL EVANS: I’m actually going to start ProTools in a couple weeks. I use Performer right now. ProTools is just a little easier to bounce things around with Phil, the producer.
JAZZREVIEW: Do you do everything in software or do you actually have a physical board?
BILL EVANS: Well, I’m changing now. I been working a lot at the piano and I’m getting in a whole bunch of stuff this week. I’m going to be doing most things in software and I’m just going to use one keyboard. I try to keep just a few bass sounds, a few keyboard sounds. I try to keep it very simple so that I’m not caught up in sounds. I just want to use the instruments that I’m writing with at the computer as a tool, and not as the end-all.
JAZZREVIEW: So you’re using this to write with, not to actually record tracks with?
BILL EVANS: Yeah, exactly. I’m not doing this to try to get a finished record. I’m not trying to get the best guitar sound, the best bass sound or the best keyboard sound. I’m just trying to do something to convey the song that I’m writing, to convey the melody. That’s it. I can come up with some pretty good demos, but I’m not trying to do that. That’s what the live musicians are here to do. I’m going to get a few sounds there’s so much out there now a few libraries of sounds and I’m just going to keep it very simple. That’s what I’ve always done and that’s worked well for me in the past.
JAZZREVIEW: I was going to ask you the question about Miles. The last time we talked you’d mentioned that you’d learned to be yourself from him and how important that was. How did that happen, just through the osmosis of playing and hanging out?
BILL EVANS: He did tell me you know I could just see that from how he operated. It’s really just common sense. On the other hand you have to have the opportunity to be yourself. You have to be able to have a record company that says, "Be yourself." You have to have agents and people in the beginning who are booking you saying, "Play whatever you want." That’s the biggest advantage to trying to be yourself.
There are so many great musicians that can’t be themselves because of either financial pressure or record company pressure. I keep striving to be myself, to pull it off as long as I can. I’ve been fortunate enough to do it this long. I don’t care if it’s a big label or not. All I want the record label to do is get my music out there and allow me to do what I do. I’ve turned down tours with famous pop bands and I’ve had possibilities as sidekicks on TV shows with bands. I’ve turned all that down to just be myself. I’m in it for real. I’m not in it to just mess around. This is what I do, and it hasn’t been for financial reasons that I’ve chosen to do this.
JAZZREVIEW: So neither of those things: playing with a big name pop band or something doesn’t interest you at all?
BILL EVANS: Sure, it interests me. It’s just never come at the best time. I was asked to do the Rolling Stones Voodoo Lounge tour. This was back in the mid-90s, but I already had two solid tours of my own booked. How bad do I want to work with my own band? If I want to work with my own band, I need to work with my own band. In doing so, you have to sacrifice. That happened to be one of the bands that I had to sacrifice. When I’m on a break it would be fun. I mean, it’s financially very lucrative. I wouldn’t put anybody down for doing it, to say the least. It just hasn’t come at the right time (laughs).
JAZZREVIEW: What do you tend to do for inspiration besides fishing?
BILL EVANS: Golf. There’s a golf course almost across the street from me and I’m there just about every-day. I like to divide my time between hitting balls and playing golf and writing music. I also like to I’m a distance swimmer so I like to swim five days a week. It’s a portion of my day. I’m sort of very health conscious to stay in good shape because I think that helps you play when you’re traveling on the road. I mean between July 2nd and August 16th the band with Randy Brecker, we were on 51 airplanes. So unless you’re in some kind of shape you’re just going to die. You know what I mean? That’s pretty rough.
JAZZREVIEW: That’s pretty stressful.
BILL EVANS: Yeah (laughs) to say the least. Unless someone has done it, they have no idea how difficult that really is.
JAZZREVIEW: Yeah, plus your sleeping schedule’s always changing.
BILL EVANS: Oh, you’re done! You’re done and you’re just cooked. You absolutely do not have a chance (laughs).
JAZZREVIEW: Thanks very much and all the best to you, Bill.