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music-2-1545-banjo-RileyIn its fourth year, the California Banjo Extravaganza brings a spectrum of masters to the Rio

Bill Evans is one of the foremost bluegrass banjo players on the West Coast, and he’s determined to carve out as much space as possible for his plucky, often overlooked instrument.

His fourth Annual California Banjo Extravaganza, which kicks off a four-city run Thursday at the Rio Theatre, provides a vivid showcase for the instrument’s power and versatility. Featuring North Carolina old-time music master Riley Baugus and searing jazz expert Ryan Cavanaugh, the Extravaganza encompasses American culture’s often unbridgeable rural/urban divide.

“What seems to be happening is with each year the stylistic spectrum gets wider,” says Evans from his home in El Cerrito. “The first year we had three mainstream bluegrass players. This year we go as far in both directions as you can go.”

A student of old-time music icon Tommy Jarrell, the Appalachian-raised Baugus is “authentic by any definition,” Evans says. “On the other end, Ryan is building on Béla Fleck and Noam Pikelny and pushing it even further. He studied with John McLaughlin and Pat Metheny, and his ability to play straight-ahead modern jazz is nonpareil.”

Confusingly enough, Cavanaugh is best known in jazz circles these days for his work with former Miles Davis saxophonist Bill Evans’ jazz-and-funk-meet-bluegrass project Soulgrass. Saxophonist Evans spent his early years explaining to people he’s not piano legend Bill Evans, and when he got wind of banjoist Bill Evans, he sent a playful cease and desist letter asking him to stop using his name (“I wrote him back saying I wanted my bluegrass back,” the banjoist notes).

What makes the Banjo Extravaganza work is that Evans has assembled an all-star band capable of covering the musical expanse. With John Reischman (mandolin), Chad Manning (fiddle), Sharon Gilchrist (bass and mandolin) and Jim Nunally (guitar), the tour, which also hits Palo Alto, Berkeley and Winters, “would not be possible without this band,” Evans says. “The point is not just to feature the individual banjo players, but to put them in the context of the best musicians on the West Coast.”

INFO: 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 12, Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. $25/$35. 479-9421.

STRING THEORIST Old-time music master Riley Baugus is one of the headliners at the California Banjo Extravaganza on Thursday at the Rio.  PHOTO: ROSALIND WILSON

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