|Saxophonist Bill Evans puts the fun back in funk on the aptly named "Big Fun, his latest for ESC Records. With a supporting cast of Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, Ricky Peterson on Hammond B-3 organ, Hiram Bullock on guitar, Clifford Carter on piano, Manolo Badrena on percussion and James Genus on bass along with special guests Randy Brecker, Robben Ford, Les McCann, Mickey Raphael and Willie Nelson (yes, THAT Willie Nelson), the former Miles reedman has concocted his most grooveconscious outing to date while making no concessions to his own natural stretching aesthetic.
From the opening title track, an earthy throwdown fueled by Colaiuta's slamming backbeats and Ford's sizzling blues-drenched guitar work, to the urgently funky closer "Street Corner Man," Evans digs in on tenor and soprano to deliver the goods with a touch of swagger tempered with tons of soul. The Voodoo Horns (a crack studio section comprised of Conrad Herwig on trombone, Lew Soloff on trumpet and Evans himself overdubbing alto, tenor and baritone horn parts) lend extra punch to this decidedly kicking affair.
"This record was so much fun to make," says Evans. "It was just a big party in the studio with these cats. We laughed and joked our way through the whole session so I thought "Big Fun‿ would be an appropriate name for the cd. Even though Miles has a record called "Big Fun‿ from years ago, I thought that this title definitely characterizes what we did in the studio.
"Essentially I wanted that groove idea on this one," he continues. "I wanted that slinky sort of thing and I wanted to play more on this one so we played live in the studio, the same way I approached the Soul Insider cd."
Highlights along the way include the comfortable marriage of jazz and groove on "Road To Bilbao," an infectious number grounded by Vinnie's syncopated hookup with James' fat-toned acoustic bass lines and spurred on by the nimble interplay between Bill's soaring soprano sax and Randy's superb muted trumpet work. Jazz legend Les McCann reprises his role from last year's Grammy nominated Soul Insider , providing sly, earthy vocals on "Catch You When You Fall" and "That's That!" And The Red-Headed Stranger himself makes a star turn on "For What It's Worth," the haunting Buffalo Springfield's anthem from the '60s that still carries particular potency in today's tense geo-political climate. Elsewhere, Evans stretches out on tenor sax on the swampy funk of "Houdou Basin," trades some blazing licks with Randy Brecker on the serious funky "Midnight Creeper," which also contains an explosive solo by the drummer's drum hero Colaiuta, and Bill soars majestically on soprano on the ballad "Real Heroes," a poignant tribute to the fallen heroes of the 9/11 tragedy. Another touching ode is "Blues For Stanley," Bill's homage to the late tenor sax legend Stanley Turrentine. "Originally I wrote that song for the Soul Insider cd and talked to Stanley about doing it together. We had everything worked out. We planned on him coming up to New York to record this track, everything was set up and then, unfortunately, he passed away. So I never got to record it with Stanley but I liked the vibe of the tune so much that I just did it as a tribute to him using guitar instead of the other tenor part."
Perhaps the biggest surprise on "Big Fun‿ is the cameo appearance by country icon Willie Nelson. Evans explains their connection. "I met him when I was playing with Miles (1981-84). Miles' manager was also Willie's manager at the time. A few years ago I went to Nashville and started collaborating with some of the musicians there, eventually coming up with some kind of country-jazz hybrid thing and I notified Willie that I was doing that. Shortly thereafter, he happened to be playing in New York and invited me down to sit in on his set. It was a blast and I've done a number of shows with him since then. Basically, I just do what I do on top of what he does. And at some point he had mentioned to me, 'Let's do something together. When you do another record, I'd love to be on it.' So I thought I would just pick a song that both me and Willie might like and just record it and see what happens."
As it turns out, "For What It's Worth" was an inspired choice. "I love that song and Willie loves that song," says Bill. "He's done it live now with his band and he loved recording it with us. It came out great in the studio and was just a fun thing to do." [Bruce Hornsby provides harmony vocals on that stirring track while Evans drops in a wry quote from Miles Davis' "Jean Pierre" at the tag].
Another Miles Davis alumnus, guitarist Robben Ford (who toured with Miles in 1986), rips it up in aggressive fashion on the highly-charged title track. A founding member of the Yellowjackets, Ford has in recent years established himself as a leading light on the blues-rock scene with his own powerhouse trio Blue Line. "The first time I actually heard Robben was in Miles' band," says Evans. "And I heard his own records since that time and liked his playing. We've been talking over the years. I'd run into him on the festival circuit all over the world and we'd talk about doing something together. So I finally came up with this track for him, shipped him out an ADAT and said, 'Just play on it. Do whatever you feel.' We plan on doing some live shows together in the near future."
In replicating a full Tower of Power-esque horn section on several of the tracks to "Big Fun‿ , Evans pulled out all of his horns for multiple overdubbing. "I always have a blast doing that," he says. "And Gil Goldstein did a great job on some orchestrations and arrangements. I just wish I could take my alto and bari out on tour with me because it's so fun to stretch out on those horns too. I especially love the way the bari adds such a cool thing in there. It just swings so hard. You play so much differently on that. You can just really crank, man. It's a fun thing. I'd love to have all my horns lined up on stage every night. It would be a blast. But they're not travel-friendly."
Meanwhile, Bill is touring strictly with his tenor and soprano, the two axes on which he has established such a distinctive voice over the past 20 years. And now he follows up that success with "Big Fun‿ (ESC Records), his most infectious and funky outing to date.
Author: Bill Milkowski
Bill Evans: soprano, alto, tenor, baritone sax
Willie Nelson: vocals
Les McCann: vocals
Ricky Peterson: B3 organ, vocals
Clifford Carter: piano, vocals
Hiram Bullock: guitar, vocals
Robben Ford: guitar
Vinnie Colaiuta: drums
James Genus: bass
Manolo Badrena: percussion, vocals
Mickey Raphael: harmonica
Vaneese Thomas: vocals
Randy Brecker: trumpet
Bruce Hornsby: vocals
Lew Soloff: trumpet
Conrad Herwig: trombone