Robin Eubanks is a technically astonishing trombone player. He fell in love with the sounds of JJ Johnson and Curtis Fuller when he was in his early 20s and actually lived in a Brooklyn home with Slide Hampton, where he heard the master practice. “I couldn’t play like those guys,” he says, but that just meant that he saw no point in copying their styles. Instead, Eubanks set off to find his own sound, which is built on neck-turning technique, beautiful tone, and an utter fascination with complex rhythms.
Klassik Rock Vol. 1 is the most convincing and fun record Eubanks has made in a while, a high-concept project that could come off as cheesy (jazz trombonist does Led Zep, Hendrix, and Sly Stone!) but does not. Here’s why it works: For every electric trombone solo or thick synthesizer line, there are three killer Nate Smith drum grooves, slippery funk in a complex time signature that is delicious, a soulful Corey Glover vocal, or a beautiful shift into dazzling jazz playing. Not that the synth textures are bad, on their own, but they work as a unified part of a really interesting, really smart approach that shuffling rock and funk into Eubanks’ unique groove-based music.
So, let’s start by ignoring “Kashmir” and “Thank You” for now. Plug your ears into “Shifting Centers”, which is built on an utterly compelling line for Boris Kozlov’s electric bass and the hyperactive drums of Smith, with Mike King playing piano and keyboards in a shifting rhythmic zone that makes Weather Report sound like kindergarten stuff. Not forced or strained, the groove pushes forward insistently. Eubanks’ trombone and Antonio Hart’s alto saxophone blast away at a funky melody that recalls the leader’s adolescent days playing in funk bands — a stabbing, bopping tune that grabs you. Hart plays a solo that blends Cannonball and Maceo, then Eubanks plugs in the ‘bone for his solo, yet the out-chorus features both horns improvising acoustically in conversation. Neither old-fashioned post bop nor some unconvincing “jazz guys plays funk” thing, it’s the kind of music that would light up a room of Medeski Martin & Wood fans. Smart and fun.
There’s a ton of this driving original music on Klassik Rock Vol. 1. “Bahian Parade” is a Brazilian-grooved acoustic tune that starts with a breathtaking solo cadenza for trombone and develops as a sensual fanfare; “Between the Lines” is an dodging rhythmic workout that blends electric and acoustic textures masterfully, piling up parts and rhythms over Billy Kilson’s drums and resulting in a Kilson/Eubanks duet that astonishes; “Ostinato” is a ballad-tempo song in 5/4 that sways over a two-note acoustic bass groove. If my own taste would erase the occasional vibrating synth sound from the ensemble on this last song, for example (and it would), that doesn’t diminish the pleasure of this terrific composition, which shifts into a wiggling slap-bass feel for the trombone solo halfway through, yum.
Maybe it’s a too-easy description, but these songs qualify as being called cinematic in that they don’t just set out a theme, them spin solos off the chord changes. Rather, they shift and transform. Talking about this sound, Eubanks says, “I let the music take me, like the song is a story. I’m like a writer or a director of a film. You lead people along a plot and give it a twist, give it a different rhythm. When I watch movies, those are the things that intrigue me.”
For sheer jaunt, there is the original song, “United Vision”, featuring a crazy-fun vocal from (trombonist) Kuumba Frank Lacy. It sounds like a chance meeting of Frank Zappa, George Clinton, and JJ Johnson on a street corner in Brooklyn. Lacy’s and Eubanks’ electric ‘bones share the lead in tight unison, with Kris Bowers’ organ shimmering over a groove that features an irresistible bass line build on three-note cells. It may be the only song on Klassik in 4/4 time, but even this song contains hip little twists and turns that take you by surprise. And, goodness gracious, it’s fun to listen to.
So, then, how fun are the actual rock covers? Sly’s “Thank You” is perhaps the most obvious one, but it’s not done simply. Eubanks recasts it with a tricky 9/8 groove that seems to run more like 18/8 in the way it cycles around. It’s a rich set of layers: “Boom-chaka-lacka” and solos everywhere, hip counter-melodies for the horns, and strong lead vocals too from Glover and an ensemble of harmony voices. Mainly, it’s the push-pull of that 18/8 groove that keeps you off-balance and leaning into it as a listener. The Hendrix song, “Fire”, really lets Robin go toe-to-toe on his electric ‘bone with brother Kevin’s electric guitar. It’s the only track here where my ears get a bit too much of Eubanks’ plugged-in horn, with its synthesized overtone that sounds inorganic and a little toy-like. I’d rather have heard Kevin’s amp duel with Robin’s actual brass sound.
The two Led Zeppelin songs fare better. “Kashmir” is extremely clever. Its famous obstinato throb begins simply on acoustic piano, with acoustic trombone riding atop it, a counter-intuitive move. Smith comes in very effectively, and the release is given electric heft by B3 organ. The harmonic content is rich, and the trombone cries atop a set of echoing synth lines so that what’s featured is actually the lush tone of a real voice. This section then segues naturally into trombone solo over what Eubanks calls a “flowing 6” Latin groove. Later, King takes an acoustic piano solo over a straight four rhythm. “The Ocean” naturally sets up as a polyrhythmic groove followed by the famous riff. This is the best feature for Glover, who sounds like he did with Living Colour, sneering and strong.
When you’ve finished your journey through Klassik Rock Vol. 1 you’ve had a good time and there’s a cool embedded lesson about how jazz, particularly the intriguing and virtuosic strain from the 1980s that went by the label M-Base in the 1980s and ‘90s, has found seamless reconciliation with the music that its practitioners grew up on. Robin Eubanks still plays like a man on fire, taking his youth and updating with pizzazz. Hopefully his music — and not just the classic rock covers — can find an audience eager to dance in 9/8.