Oliver Burkat

Anyone lucky enough to experience the retro-funk scene revival in recent years has undoubtedly enjoyed at least one or more dose of Soulive, the jazz/funk/soul power-trio that formed in 1999. This lucky person may also be wise enough to realize that you can’t have that stanky funk without a drummer who lives, sleeps, eats, and breathes the stuff. Alan Evans, drummer for Soulive and front-man, writer and producer of his new band, the Alan Evans Trio (AE3), is the embodiment of that person. Or that cat, I should say. Funk, anthropomorphized.

Sunday night at Brooklyn Bowl, funk was the ingredient du jour, and the Alan Evans Trio was the main course. But since nobody likes a stand-alone entrée, AE3 had some help in the form of Mr. Breakdown, a 7-piece ensemble from Nyack, NY, as well as SHMEEANS & the Expanded Consciousness, the brainchild of Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff, rhythm guitarist and breakdown master of Lettuce. The Expanded Consciousness enlightened with the help of perpetually cheesing bass-beast Chris Laughlin, Pete Levin on keys (Blind Boys of Alabama), and the unmistakable hop-crack gangster lean of Adam Deitch on drums (Lettuce, Break Science). Both were tasty appetizers indeed, making the oncoming main course that much more enticing. Between Mr. Deitch and Mr. Evans, Brooklyn Bowl was a funk-drum fiend’s paradise.

After such pleasing appetizers that would satisfy any normal appetite, AE3 took the stage for the final night of their 29-show tour in support of their debut album Drop Hop; everyone in the room had to unbutton their proverbial pants to make room for the main dish. Flanked by Beau Sasser (Melvin Sparks, Akashik Record) on organ and Danny Mayer (On The Spot Trio) on guitar, Evans fell in to a deep hole of soul. He and the rest of the room remained for the rest of the evening. Counting off the first tune, Evans shouted “1, 2, 3!” followed by a one-count drum fill, launching “They Call Me Velvet.” A diverse and charging tune, AE3 was obviously in the zone.

Following the introduction was the promise of “our greatest hits… all the way back from February – when we started… some brand new tunes… [that] we will record for our next album, right before we head to Bear Creek.”

Crushing their album’s opening track, “Authoritay” utilized Mayer’s swinging guitar rhythm complimented by a patient yet soaring solo, all backed by Sasser’s expert organ spurts.

Then the breakfast chef in me got a bit over-excited.

“Right about now,” Evans preached from his percussive pulpit, “we are gonna play a brand new tune, hot off the presses. And this song, ladies and gentlemen, is all about… pancakes. Pancakes! Drippin’ butter, syrup, and a side of bacon. This next tune is titled ‘Hot Cakes Meltdown.’” Hard, driving funk echoing a frenetic songbird, Mayer’s staccato guitar worked from verse to effortless solo and let all those in attendance know that they were still piping hot on the plate, begging the crowd’s full attention. Holding down the low-end bass with his left hand, Sasser had the pocket ingrained, giving Evans and Mayer their chance to shine and really open the throttle before a quick cut breakdown to end Mayer’s solo. It created a very chilled out vibe. Exploding into his own solo, Sasser didn’t hesitate to show the crowd why Evans chose him as a brother in rhythm on keys, highlighting his left brain/right brain duality. The band then segued seamlessly into their album’s title track “Drop Hop”, a straight-forward 12-bar blues strut. Gaining in intensity with every phrase, Sasser got a chance to really scream on his organ before Mayer jumped back in with a roaring blues solo emanating the band’s 60s/70s influences, all while reinventing the sound for the 21st century.

In tribute to a great influence, Evans quizzed the audience about the Mothers of Invention’s Jeff Simmons, and Simmons’ little-known song-writing collaboration with Frank Zappa (Zappa rarely had co-writers) before launching into the slow, soul waltz “Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up”, with Evans crooning.

Two songs from Drop Hop closed the AE3 set. “Crooooz”, a laid-back tune featuring guitar and key vamps, got the audience grooving and comfortable before transforming – as all great jazz groups do – into something barely recognizable from the beginning of the song. They explored all aural possibilities only to eventually find their way back to the head.

That indefinable feeling that comes from the perfect groove morphed into indefinite improvisation – all held together with artist mastery until resolution – is something that the AE3 has mastered in the studio and let run wild in concert. If there is one thing the musical brain loves, its resolution, and AE3 distributes.

“Check Your Lugnuts”, a reference to the hardware that maintains a tight fit between drum and drum head, was the perfect close to the AE3 set. Between Evans’ syncopated ride cymbal bell-hits were dirty chord progressions crafted by decades of research. A band tighter than a snare drum head, the AE3 proved that whether on wax or in person, they are a band for all ages, delivering heart-felt, powerful soul, blues and funk to those of us smart enough to listen.

Alan was nice enough to sit down and chat with L4LM before the show, where we learned about the tour, the album, and one of the best venues in the world.
L4LM: AE3 recorded Drop Hop in 5 days. You wrote every part and sent them to Beau and Danny to learn before the recording session; how long did it take you to write those songs?

Let’s see… Some of those tunes on the album, maybe 2 or 3 of them, I had in the can from when I built my new studio at home. They were kinda like the first thing I did to see what it sounded like in there. And then I had the idea to record an EP. That was back when Beau and Danny and I were just like “yeah, we’ll record a few tunes…” So then, I got home from Jam Cruise, and I was like “Man, you know what? If I’m gonna have this opportunity to record, I might as well just do an album.” So I just wrote the rest of the album. That was like a tune a day, or sometimes maybe two in a day. I don’t know… all in all, it took me a week or so to write the whole album…

Beau and I have been playing together for a while now on his regular gig, because we live like right next to each other. After one gig, we just kind of got in to something, and it just hit me – it definitely inspired me. I don’t like writing tunes just to write – honestly I just can’t – there has to be some kind of purpose or inspiration, you know?

L4LM: For sure. How does your experience differ between playing with your brother (Neal Evans, Soulive) and playing with Beau?

Mmmm… wow…that’s a… good question. I mean, playing with Neal… it’s kind of like no one’s there… it’s very invisible. Obviously I know he’s there but…it’s really hard to explain.

L4LM: You’re just in each other’s heads, I suppose?

Yeah, yeah – we’ve literally been playing together our entire lives, so it’s just a different thing. So there’s obviously differences between playing with Neal and other cats. But, playing with Neal for so long, it makes it very easy for me to find other cats to play with. In that, I know from a few seconds in that “nope… nope… you’re outta here” It’s just not gonna work, know what I mean? It’s not me trying to be a jerk or anything, it’s just that the bar is pretty high. So it doesn’t take me long to figure who I can actually really play with, who gets what I’m doing, and I get what they’re doing. So in that way, it really helps. Obviously, every player is different, and their take on things is totally different. That’s the one thing that I can point out that helps me play with other cats.

L4LM: How did your parents influence your musical tastes and the instruments that you play?

Well, music has always been a part of life for us growing up – there was always music on. There were drums in the house, so I was hitting drums when I was like 9 months old, and Neal about the same. One of our uncles played piano, another played drums. All of a sudden Neal comes home one day from school and told my parents he wanted to play piano, just out of the blue – so they just went out and got a piano. The thing is man, music was just always, always on in our house. And our father was very cool – [one of] the biggest things with music with my father was listening – we’d walk thru the room and he’d say “hey, sit down here” “listen – who’s playing tenor here? Who’s playing bass?” And that was just huge man – that gave me a huge appreciation for music – for songs – for musicians. And that’s why I play different instruments. It was never just about the drums – never “practice all day” – it was just about music. And these instruments are just secondary. I’ll play any instrument. It’s just about the music, you know?

L4LM: Definitely. In that vein – I don’t know if you guys notice this when you’re up on stage – but when I go to a show, I’m really there to listen, and it really bothers me when people around me are talking too loud during a show, especially in an intimate place like City Winery, for example. We’re all trying to listen, and listen closely – not enough people understand that I think. Listening is so important.

I hear that – it’s interesting – we go to Japan a lot – and it actually takes a little while to get used to – because in Japan, if you break it down, and play something really quiet, you can literally – and this is not an exaggeration – you can literally hear a pin drop in the joint. Because people don’t say anything, they’re just chillin’, listening, you know? It’s actually a little disorienting at first, because you’re going from playing in San Francisco, then you hop on a flight, [and all of a sudden] you’re in Japan – you break it down [and] it’s like wooooaaaahhhhh… So yeah I definitely dig that when people are really paying attention.

L4LM:  I saw that you give drums lessons sometimes. How often do you practice and how often do you teach?

How often do I practice? uh….

L4LM: And it’s OK to say “not much” because I know, as a drummer…

(Laughs) Nah, nah, I wasn’t gonna say “not much,” I was gonna say “never.” (laughs) You know, I attempt… to practice. But the thing is, I really dislike playing drums by themselves… I don’t know, it’s just boring. So what happens is, I sit down in the studio and I start playing something, and I get an idea for a song, and then I go over and pick up the guitar… (laughs)

L4LM: Ha ha. More like practicing music making.

Yeah, exactly, so to me, I realized a long time ago that that’s just not me. I went through that phase of just like, shedding drums for hours and… it’s just not in me. It’s not who I am. I guess my kind of practicing is just writing music. I’m just listening. A lot of my practice is just listening – I just can’t help it – anything I hear anywhere, it just seeps in, and I’ll go home and try to figure out the tune from what I heard… That’s just my thing.

The thing about me and lessons is – I’m not the type of cat who people come back to every week. A lot of it is more philosophy… I get a lot of drummers who come for drum lessons, but what I try to instill in musicians who come to me, younger or older, is that it’s not just about teaching drums – and I’m just talking my philosophy of music – I mean yes, you can sit in a room and practice 12 hours a day, but the problem with that, is that you’re not communicating with anyone but yourself – so when you get out on a gig, you’ve got nothing to say. So yeah, practice – but also take a hike, go walk somewhere, get some exercise, experience life. So you have something to bring to your music. I also tell people, “be a drummer, that’s great, nothing wrong with that– but pick up another instrument”, try and get in the heads of your fellow musicians on stage. You don’t have to be proficient at it, but just attempting to play a different instrument will give you an appreciation for what other cats on stage are doing, and it will automatically open up your ears; you’ll be listening, and learning, while you’re playing with these cats on stage. So that’s what a lot of my “drum” lessons consist of. And if I don’t see you for 5 or 10 years, that’s cool, you know? If you’ve taken something from it, that’s all that really matters to me.

L4LM: What do you love to do when you’re not playing music?

I love exercising man – I love messing around with my car… I love hangin’ out with my family, dude – we just kick it. I just love enjoying my time off, and just experiencing life.

L4LM: Besides other musicians, what external (non-musical) sources inspire your musical creativity?

Well, I guess for me, I never know where it’s gonna come from, so I just leave myself open to everything… it’s funny man, you just never know – I could get up in the morning, go downstairs, and start making some food, and it just hits me. Or I’m sitting in line at the bank, and it hits me – you just never know. So with that said, I don’t point to any one, or two, or any fifty external experiences from just music – but I just kind of walk around and soak it all in. License to be a space-cadet, you know? (laughs)

L4LM: Where did the phrase “Drop Hop” originate?

I thought it went with the style of music and the time period that I was thinking of when writing the music. I just kind of imagined: sometimes you see these old-school album covers from the 60s or whatever – some random cats – and they have some title – “Drop Hop” – what does that mean? I have no idea. But it sounded relevant to the specific time that I imagined in my head. It’s about conveying a feeling rather than a meaning.

L4LM: You just played about 30 dates in 40 nights or so. How has the band progressed while on tour?

Well, everything gets tighter every night, then we discover new things. When we first started, it was much more serious, trying to play all the tunes right and everything, but as that happens and you get that together – we’re finding we’re having a lot of fun with it on stage (laughs) – we’re definitely doing stuff that I wouldn’t do with Soulive, which is cool – this is kind of more my personality that is coming through. The cool thing is too, Beau and Danny and I, we have a very similar humor (laughs), so it’s developing into this really great thing – you can tell how much fun we’re having on stage, and we’re trying to drag people along (chuckles).

L4LM: How does Brooklyn Bowl compare to other venues you’ve played, and why did you decide to end the tour there? Or was the decision more logistical?

There is no venue that compares to Brooklyn Bowl, you know what I mean? (chuckles)

L4LM: Agreed, Agreed.

It’s an amazing spot, man. When we got the opportunity to… it was just kinda perfect. We’re playing Northampton the night before, and Beau and I live right there, so logistically it would have been great to end the tour right there (chuckles). But, to end it in New York at Brooklyn Bowl is pretty, pretty special man, I’m really psyched – Obviously, I’ve played there a bunch, but to go play there for the first time with this band, as our last night of the tour, I’m really, really looking forward to it. It should be a really good time.

And a good time it was. Thank you so much Alan for taking the time to talk with L4LM. And thank you for reminding us that when dealing with music, the most important part is listening. We look forward to another album and tour.

Download the Whole Show Here:  http://archive.org/details/aet2012-09-30.mk21.flac24