The Tonight Show guitarist is back to jazz most certainly, putting two bands into action: one on original tunes and the other on creative covers.
Some jazz aficionados might have reservations about Kevin Eubanks because of his time spent leading the Tonight Show band for Jay Leno, a 15-year stint that ended in 2010. Sure, that band wasn’t really playing jazz, but neither is Jonathan Batiste on Colbert’s new show. Who can begrudge a jazz musician a payday?
Eubanks is from a hugely musical family out of Philadelphia — his two brothers are the galactically brilliant trombonist Robin and the crackling trumpeter Duane, and pianist Ray Bryant was his uncle. He headed to Los Angeles and TV semi-stardom in 1992 to play with Branford Marsalis (the original leader), Marvin “Smitty” Smith, and other friends, and he had already recorded a batch of albums. He was one of the few guitarists in the world who could boast that played with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. At a minimum, Eubanks had earned respect.
The guitarists's recorded career has had ups and downs. He was one of the “Young Lions” who played with Wynton Marsalis, Chico Freeman, Bobby McFerrin, and many others at the acclaimed 1982 concert at the Kool Jazz Festival in New York, and one of his tunes was featured on the Elektra-Musician recording that hit in 1983. He would soon record as a sideman with giants like Oliver Lake, Billy Hart, and Dave Holland — and he would join forces with contemporaries such as Greg Osby, Gary Thomas, and Steve Coleman. As a leader, he made some soft-around-the-middle pop jazz for the GRP label after a debut that promised more. But there were also strong outings for Blue Note (Turning Point from 1992 and Spirit Talk from 1993) just before Hollywood called.
In recent years, Eubanks has made good on a promise to refocus on music. The Messenger from 2012 featured Bill Pierce on tenor, Smitty Smith, and the leader’s two brothers playing brass. It had snap, crackle, and pop without abandoning the sense of groove Eubanks was always good at. And his work with Dave Holland’s Prism band has been close to revelatory — letting him take a shot at the kind of harder-edged “fusion” playing that veers fully clear of “smooth jazz”.
East West Time Line is the guitarist’s most complete statement as a leader in . . . decades. He lets two bands go at it: the “west coast” band that has been his main vehicle, with Smith and Pierce, Rene Camacho on bass, and Mino Cinelu’s percussion; and a new “east coast” band anchored by a monster rhythm section (drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts with Holland on bass) and filled out by pianist Orrin Evans, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, or both. Choose your poison, as they say.
“Time Line” is the opener, a bustling tune that sounds like an urban rush hour. And sure enough it is the east coast band, with guitar and trumpet playing the head together with punch. Watts defines this band as he does every band, noisy and musical at once, and he goes toe to toe with Eubanks on a first solo that uses a rounded tone but an aggressive attack. Payton is lyrical, even silky, amidst the swing before the head returns. The coolest and most thrilling tune from the east coast band is “Carnival”, which slyly mixes different guitar sounds, a punching attack in a few different rhythmic modes, and superb playing from Evans.
This band can also be tender. “Water Colors” finds Eubanks on acoustic guitar, and Watts is still wonderful, all cymbal color and restraint. The leader’s solo is almost stolen by the beauty of Holland’s bass accompaniment. “Poet” starts as a duet for Eubanks’s electric guitar and a chiming electric piano from Evans. Eventually, however, Holland and Watts enter and Evans and the leader switch to acoustic piano and guitar. The tune is luscious in all the right ways, evoking the kinds of folk melodies that bands like this played in various forms on old ECM records in the 1970s and 1980s. “Something About Nothing” brings Eubanks’s sound closest to 2017, with a grooving rhythm feeling that owes a dash to electric Miles Davis and a bit to hip-hop, but mainly blends Evans’s Rhodes piano with wonderful jamming.
The west coast band gets the second half of the program, and theirs is a string of different kinds of standards, reinterpreted. Ellington's “Take the Coltrane” is playfully reimagined over Latin hand percussion. Pierce is wonderful, but things get even more enjoyable as Eubanks solos and then he and Pierce play a unison line that evokes “A Night in Tunisia” against the light syncopated pattern. They also take a crack at Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On”, and it couldn’t be more fun. After a short ballad introduction featuring Pierce’s soprano sax, the trio swings it like mad. Eubanks plays an appealing, up-to-date version of Wes Montgomery’s snapping octaves style. Pierce re-enters on the bridge, and you just can’t believe they end it on a fade after only three minutes.
“Captain Senor Mouse” is, of course, from Chick Corea. Without Pierce, the band sounds maybe too much like Return to Forever. Better, I think, is “Cubano Chant” (Uncle Ray Bryant’s tune), which sashays with Latin sway and lovely soprano saxophone work. The most impressive performance from the west coast band, however, is a fairly traditional version of “My One and Only Love”, with Pierce on tenor and no percussion or drums, evoking the classic Coltrane performance (from his Johnny Hartman session). Eubanks’s electric accompaniment is rich in color and variety, and he solos with a sense of true discovery.
Is it pressing the meaning of the song order too far to say: this kind of music is Kevin Eubanks’s one and only love? He plays this last old, wondrous song with care and love. It’s not “Young Lion” stuff, but of course Eubanks is no young lion any more at 60. He looks ahead at times, but he looks backward too, both smart stances for any artist.
Eubanks dares to evoke a real lineage of jazz guitar on East West Time Line: from Wes Montgomery to Ralph Towner, from Grant Green to Al Di Meola. But he does it unselfconsciously and with a nimble ease. He’s not copying but he pays some respects. And, for a guy with friends on both coasts, it is remarkable not to hear a single cliche among the various musicians on this record.
For years we’ve been talking about Metheny and Scofield, Ribot and Frisell, Halvorson and Monder. Eubanks, the TV guy, the “young lion”, the Philly brother who may have gotten a bit slogged down by the smooth jazz sound? He has a claim to our modern guitar attention. He’s earned it.