BY BOB DOERSCHUK | FROM THE WINTER 2018 ISSUE OF DRUM!
In their first incarnation as a jazz organ trio and later as pioneers of funk/jam-band fusion, guitarist Eric Krasno, keyboardist Neal Evans, and drummer Alan Evans, aka Soulive, focused on improvising. That’s what fans in both genres expected, so that’s what the group delivered. Guest musicians often sat in and joined in the fun, in effect enabling the Evans brothers and Krasno to fan the jam flame for hours.
So what’s with their latest album, Cinematics Vol. 1? If your pleasure involves feasting on course after main course of long solos, then these tracks feel at first listen like hors d’oeuvres, sweet but brief and gone in just a few minutes.
According to Alan Evans, it just sort of happened that way. He, his brother Neal, and Krasno were touring in Japan late in 2017 when they decided it was time to record some new material. They booked a studio and showed up with a few ideas. As usual with Soulive, there was little discussion beforehand about what they wanted to do. But there was one thing they agreed on before tracking began.
“None of us wanted to solo,” Evans remembers. “We were all on the same page. The whole Cinematic concept happened just like that. It wasn’t like, ‘We’re gonna make some movie soundtrack things.’ We just played. Then afterward we were like, ‘Okay, I guess that’s the concept!’”
To be clear, Cinematics isn’t literally about soundtracks. You won’t hear swooping John Williams–type melodies or Ennio Morricone’s meticulous, eerie ambiences. Instead, Soulive offers what sounds like backing tracks. A few elemental motifs crop up here and there — a guitar figure over eighth-note keyboard chords and backbeat drums on “King’s March,” a very simple piano line on “Sidekick.” But mostly, it’s all medium-tempo and in 4/4, which could invite musicians to play over the top or listeners to clear their thoughts and savor the purity of the groove.
Evans elaborates, “All we wanted to do was groove! Long, drawn-out solos just don’t do it for me anymore. Of course I go back and listen to older albums where that’s the vibe. But that’s where we are right now. Even the melodies aren’t really developed; they’re hinted at. It helps you paint a picture in your mind rather than having it all there in front of you.”
To expand on that concept even more, just ask Evans how he feels about drum solos specifically. After an exasperated groan, he replies, “Man, I’m telling you, if I never take another drum solo, I’ll be totally happy. The drum solo in particular is such an oddity. You get to the drum solo and what is the first thing that happens? Ninety-nine percent of the time, everybody else stops playing and you’re left there on an island to just pound away by yourself! It’s so bizarre because especially in our scene, a solo is about communication between everybody. But a lot of times when I’m at a show and they get to the drum solo, I’m like, ‘Ugh. I’m going to go get a beer.’”
Still, every now and then duty calls and Evans has to come up with a solo that might keep people from fleeing to the concession stand. “When that happens, I try to create something melodic,” he says. “I’m playing music I hear in my head. I might draw on cats like Elvin [Jones]; on a Coltrane album, he would leave tempo altogether and just make a statement. There are drummers who are in tune with that. There can be touch, dynamics, a sensitivity in the playing where it’s not just bashing as fast and loud as you can.”
Evans talks a lot about melody, perhaps an unusual concern for a drummer to keep front and center in his playing. Then again, Evans doesn’t actually think of himself primarily as a drummer. “To me, drums are just another instrument that I play,” he insists. “I started playing guitar when I was 11 or 12. I also play bass, a little keys. I sing. I can tell you a lot more about microphones and mike preamps and guitar amps than I can about drums. Actually, I never liked the sound of drums. I have drums in my studio but it’s boring for me to just sit down and play them.”
So Evans’ approach is all about feel. He’s essentially self-taught, but as the son of a drummer he was instructed to channel the physical pleasure of performance into his playing. He learned his way around his father’s kit by playing along to his favorite albums, beginning with Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, featuring Harvey Mason on drums.
“Then one day when I was around ten years old, I was playing my father’s drums in the basement,” Evans remembers. “He came down, stood behind me, and then he took my left hand and put it in his hand. He did the same thing with the right. Then played so I could feel what he was doing. It was the same concept as teaching a kid how to ride a bike. He’d let go, I’d lose it and he’d grab back on. He’d say, ‘You feel that?’ Then he’d let go. It got to a point where he didn’t have to do that any longer and I could do it on my own.”
This emphasis put Evans on the path he follows now. “I really don’t give a shit about trying to play like a drummer,” he says. “When people ask me for lessons, I’m like, ‘Hey, if you can figure out what I’m doing, teach it to me! Because I don’t know what the hell I’m doing!’ I’m just playing what I feel inside myself. It’s great to have a certain level of technique but at the end of the day it’s about communication, telling a story, and bringing people together. If you think about it that way, it’s so liberating.