by S. Victor Aaron
Since the mid-sixties, jazz musicians have sought to combine electronic instruments with jazz to create something new and fresh sounding. The most obvious result of this mix is called fusion, but others have managed to do it taking different approaches that uses these instruments to actually expand their musicianship, instead of watering it down. The latest to take such an alternative approach to combining jazz and technology is trombonist Robin Eubanks.
I might as well get it out of the way right now and note that Robin Eubanks is the older brother of The Tonight Show’s guitarist and bandleader Kevin Eubanks. A highly advanced trombonist of the J.J. Johnson variety (which ‘bone player worth his salt isn’t?), he’s played in bands led by Sun Ra, Jimmy McGriff and McCoy Tyner.
He’s been putting out records on and off under his own name since the late eighties, but my own exposure to his work came primarily from his extensive tenure as a member of The Dave Holland Quintet. I’ve enjoyed his contributions to Holland’s band so much for so long, I’ve gotten to view Kevin as that guy who is Robin’s brother, not the other way around. (Tangent Alert: Kevin, incidentally, had guested on a Holland release, Extensions, years before Robin joined the band, and acquitted himself quite nicely on it.)
After a six year layoff from recording as a leader, Eubanks assembled a most unusual trio consisting of fellow Philadelphia native Orrin Evans on keyboards and Kenwood Dennard on drums.
Evans was a pianist in the Mingus Big Band but also quite familiar with electronic keyboards and how to get grooves, textures and melodies from it. Dennard has played for Dizzy Gillespie, Jaco Pastorius and Maceo Parker, so you know the guy can both swing and groove with the best of them.
But what makes this getup so unusual is not just being a trombone-led trio; all of these guys supplement their main instruments with more high-tech ones to give the band a bigger sound than what is normally suggested by a trio. Eubanks plays trombone, of course, but he sometimes adds percussion pads and loops both. Other times he’s playing a pretty wigged-out sounding electric trombone. And the bass? It’s a keyboard bass supplied by either Evans or Dennard. Yes, that’s right; Dennard is playing the synth bass while drumming.
Eubanks calls the whole concept “1 + 1 + 1 = 4, and more.” But by having no more than three players do all the work, Eubanks gets a leaner, meaner group that is better able to integrate together and glide through the tricky change-ups with greater ease. Adding to the freshness and spontaneity, the whole CD we’re discussing here was recorded live. No later overdubs or other studio trickery that might have diluted the energy and integrity of their music. They’re putting it all out on the line.
As you can imagine, such a setting must be seen as well as heard, and Eubanks recognized that as well. Which is why the CD comes with a DVD showing the actual concert footage for five of the CD’s nine tracks. It is a treat to behold.
The music itself oftentimes recalls the Holland Quintet with its odd meters, tight interplay, complex-but-melodic song structures, and of course, the trombone. But Eubanks brings in additional influences beyond bop, which I’ll expound on in a minute.
The live set kicks off with just Eubanks and his trombone, providing some sharp soloing for a minute before settling into a line that he repeats. With the subtle flick of a foot pedal, that line is looped in and Robin plays the same line as a different note of the same chord and loops that as well, creating a two-man trombone chart. He adds the third line “live” as the improvision line, or sometimes changes the chord. Then he approaches the percussion pad and locks in some of the thwacking he does there in three layers.
Each layer is very simple and anyone could do it, but it take some imagination to put together the simple pieces into something more substantial and meaningful (and downright funky). To be honest, I didn’t really care for what sounded like Eighties-ish programmed Sonar drums when I first heard it, but watching him put it together in a live setting earned my appreciation of what he was trying to accomplish.
Eubanks gets back on trombone and rides on his repeating trombone chart some more before abruptly cutting off all the loops and ends the piece just as he started: solo trombone.
That piece, “Me, Myself and I,” serves as an extended introduction and the ending unaccompanied trombone ends as a segue into the next selection, “Mojo Jojo,” where the remaining two players of the band join in. This is a uptempo piece with an unusual beat and some nifty chord changes, and features some melodic keyboard playing from Evans. But this is Dennard’s turn to shine.
What sounds to the mere listener as a competently funky bass player is in reality the drummer playing keyboard bass with his left hand while locking down the groove with his remaining three limbs. At one point he’s kicking out a drum solo while still maintaining the bass line, until Evans relieves him of bass duties mid-solo so we can see what Dennard can do on the kit when he’s totally freed up.
“Solo Latin” might be Eubanks’ most amazing track of this collection. As in “Me, Myself”, it’s just him armed with a trombone, percussion pad and loops. He starts on the pad to layer in Cuban-style rhythms (about 4 or 5 layers deep), looping in each layer one at a time until it sounds like a large percussion session is playing.
Once that part is set up, Eubanks switches over to his horn and layers in a phrase to create a front line of trombones, over which he solos on top. At some point, his “live” trombone sounds duplexed, creating an even bigger sound. The song has a second, more somber section, which he loops together three different takes on the same phrase, and solos on top of that (one of the things I love about the trombone is that it can emit such a lonely, bluesy sound).
And it’s all done by one man. Truly incredible stuff.
During the introduction for “Blues For Jimi Hendrix”, Robin talks about growing up around Kevin, the guitar playing brother, and digging all those guitar-based records with him but only having a trombone to play along with. But technology finally allows the older brother to fulfill his dream; the straight bluesy rock jam of this song features Eubanks on an electrified trombone made to sound a lot like a wah-wah guitar. It’s a well-timed break from all the more cerebral songs of the gig.
The final song featured on the DVD, “X-Base,” ventures even further into rock territory than the Hendrix tribute, and it’s the “jam” track of the set. It starts with a mean bass/drum beat, with Evans and Eubanks throwing in some knarly, dissonant lines in unison before the tempo quickens and Eubanks launches into some fiery bop improvising.
Soon afterwards, he’s trading fours with Evans while adding some heavy metal effects to his horn.
And there are still four more tracks on the CD. I won’t delve much into those, as the DVD selections covere
d above should alraedy give you a nice flavor for the CD. But I will say that “Indo” has pretty, soulful melody, while “House Of Jade” is the only non-original–from Wayne Shorter’s Juju–and is nothing like you’ve heard it before.
Records such as this live set from Robin Eubanks and EB3 reinforces my faith in jazz as a living, evolving music form well into the 21st century. Jazz has always been about moving forward and taking chances doing so. Satchmo did it; so did Ellington, Parker and Davis. In taking his cue from those prominent figures, Eubanks is merely following in the real jazz tradition. I can’t wait for Volume Two.
Purchase: Robin Eubanks & EB3 – Live, Vol. 1