Bill Evans and Bryan Baker blow hard at Jazz Cafe

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There were three stars of tonight’s show at the Jazz Cafe in Camden: saxophonist Bill Evans’ serpentine solos that floated like the proverbial butterfly but stung like a bee; guitarist Bryan Baker’s truly head, ear and eye-popping solos; and the Jazz Cafe’s newly installed sound system that produced a wall of sound as muscular and clear as the music being dished up by these US monsters.

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Evans was only recently in London for two barnstorming nights at Ronnie Scott’s, backed by fellow former Miles Davis alumnus Darryl Jones on bass and Steely Dan drummer Keith Carlock. The gigs were initially billed as Evans and guitar maestro Mike Stern (yet another Miles man), but due to the latter legend being incapacitated in a freak accident breaking both his shoulders after a fall (which he’s thankfully recovering from) guitar ‘stunt double’ Bryan Baker stepped in to fill Stern’s sizable shoes, and based on tonight’s performance it’s not hard to see why he got the call. Evans’ mentions the fact he first played with Baker 10 years ago when the guitarist was just 19, and it’s nice to see Evans following Miles’ habit of showcasing prodigious younger players – as he himself first appeared with Davis aged just 22. Baker is extraordinary. His backwards baseball-cap and tattooed biceps could place him in any rock or metal band, but perhaps he’s only legally allowed to play jazz, such is the complexity and intensity of his burning rock-edged solos, which boil up into volcanic torrents of notes, blurring from dizzying altered intervallic zigzags into blitzkriegs of thrashing octaves. It’s astonishing stuff.

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Evans is no slouch either, his feathery tone and equally quick lines fluttering and buzzing from rasping lows to coruscating highs, his playing has an effortless flow, brimming with ideas. Bassist Dave Anderson and drummer Joel Rosenblatt offer the perfect blend of stylistic malleability and dynamic groove power – and yet the sheer volume of the gig is both a help and hindrance tonight. So while it’s a pleasure to hear the newly refitted Jazz Cafe’s sound system roar like never before (it really is a giant leap on from the dusty old one) most of the gig feels distinctly rock as opposed to jazz in both sound and presentation.

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If there are shortcomings then it’s in the material – Evans first came to prominence with Miles and showed just how much he could do over one tense funkily-implied chord – whereas tonight it’s often a blues and countrified base from which solos and songs are launched. ‘Slow Rolling Ride’ is one of several tunes plucked from his latest vocal-led album, Rise Above, Evans singing with a very fine soul-edged voice that’s substantially rich and resonant, as is his keyboard playing (between solos) on a Fender Rhodes that’s positioned centre-stage. Yet the shallow lyrics and often-obvious melodies seem throwaway compared to the interstellar soloing, while a more intricate piece like ‘Soul Bop’ proved the band could stretch beyond static chords and bluesy foundations with ease.

Yet this is road-toughened festival band that is used to playing to huge crowds on the international circuit, which, when crammed into a great but medium-sized venue such as this, was in fact just a little overpowering. But that hardly seemed to matter to Evans, the amazing Baker and the fine rhythm section – as all looked like they were having the time of their lives and the crowd loved it too.

– Mike Flynn
– Photos by Roger Thomas