Bill Evans and the VansBand Allstars at Ronnie Scott’s – and in Poland

Wolfgang Muthspiel might have missed out on Miles Davis's 1980s talent parade but Bill Evans didn't, and the influence still runs deep

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Bill Evans and the VansBand Allstars in Ostrów Wielkopolski, Poland, 16 May 2024. Clockwise from top left, Bill Evans, Felix Pastorius, Keith Carlock and John Medeski. Photos © Szymon Ratajczyk

Readers might remember Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel’s droll observation, of a period when every new jazz star (there were fewer in the 1980s, before jazz became another arts publicists’ property) seemed to pass through Miles Davis’s band, that he “never played with Miles”. The sentiment was immortalised in the track I Never Played With Miles, on the 2001 album Echoes Of Techno.

Well, Bill Evans was there on the ground floor of Davis’s 80s comeback, recording six albums with him, and the connection has long served him well in the profile stakes. The VansBand concept goes back many years and this edition assembled some outstanding contemporary names – John Medeski (kyb), Felix Pastorius (elb) and Keith Carlock (d). Felix’s might resonate most, for his surname alone.

Miles’ stylistic shadow still falls over the band, the first set opening with an urgent Tony Williams type hi-hat pulse and Evans’ soprano sailing over Medeski’s Rhodes. Evans’ voice is immediately recognisable, even if he restricts himself to a narrower vocabulary than 80s peers such as Michael Brecker and Bob Mintzer. Felix sports the same bun hairdo as his father once did, but mostly stays seated, eschewing his dad’s talc-assisted stage-sliding trick.

The second piece is another Miles-type funk groove, with Evans now on tenor and Medeski on the Hammond B3. Like the first piece, it achieves variation with sudden tempo shifts. As so often, the punters identify with the rhythm and cheer Carlock’s drum break. The band have been three and a half weeks on tour in Europe and are well-integrated with no sign of being roadworn. Evans does a namecheck and says they’re pleased to be in London, adding “We like the rain” and announcing that they’re playing tunes from his forthcoming CD, his 27th leader date, Who I Am.

The next is Meagre Moon (for his cat) featuring an urgent dub groove, the Hammond skanking and Bill on soprano. The reggae and soprano sax mix reminds of Sting and Branford Marsalis and underlines how deep the mid-80s run in the band’s blood. The last tune before the break (I couldn’t make the second set and get the train back to the coast) was Continuum from Pastorius père, with the Evans observation “Who better to play it than his son?” Felix obliged with a long, improvised solo introduction with much variation, which, had this been the late 70s, would have been a revelation. The band fell in and Bill stated the as yet unplayed theme. There were more solos, but the band’s chief effect seems to have been an ensemble one, emphasising style, mood and, indeed, the historical continuum.

Bill Evans & the VansBand All Stars, Ronnie Scott’s, London, 21 May 2024

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Bill Evans and the VansBand Allstars – 149th Jazz at the Museum
(The same Evans band played Poland five days earlier, whence reports Szymon Ratajczyk)

Jazz At The Museum is a concert series taking place in Ostrów Wielkopolski, organised by Jerzy Wojciechowski. From the beginning, the event was intended to show Ostrów audiences the most important Polish jazz musicians, but also the world stars of the jazz scene.

This year the event celebrates its 30th anniversary and the organisers invited a list of exceptional performers who, with their performances at the Ostrów Cultural Center, made the anniversary unique and special. Concert No. 149 (sic!), which took place on 16 May 2024, featured a world-class American saxophonist – Bill Evans, known, among other things, for playing in the band of the legendary Miles Davis, as well as with Herbie Hancock and Mick Jagger.

In Ostrów – but also during the entire European tour – he played with the band Bill Evans and the VansBand Allstars, which consists of keyboardist John Medeski, bassist Felix Pastorius and drummer Keith Carlock. These musicians do not need to be introduced to jazz lovers, as Medeski is a pianist and composer, leader of the American trio Medeski, Martin & Wood, and an enthusiast for and virtuoso on electric pianos and Hammond organs. Carlock is a prominent American drummer, finding his way in a variety of musical styles, who has performed with Toto, Sting, John Mayer, Diana Ross and Chris Botti, among others. Felix Pastorius – yes, the name is no accident, he is the son of the famous Jaco Pastorius – is a bassist, known for playing in the Yellowjackets. Such a combination of musical individualities on stage resulted in an outstanding, energy-filled, two-hour concert, which will surely remain in the memory of listeners for a long time.

Bill Evans and the VansBand Allstars – 149th Jazz at the Museum, Ostrów Wielkopolski, Poland, 16 May 2024. Text and photos: Szymon Ratajczyk (ratajczyk.art). Editor: Damian Kacprzak