Millions of people know him as an affable, guitar-wielding long-time bandleader of the most popular late night show in television history. Now that Kevin Eubanks has left his eighteen year stint as Jay Leno’s musician sidekick on The Tonight Show, it’s time to become acquainted with the Kevin Eubanks that’s been around for nearly twice as long: the seriously good progressive jazz guitarist Kevin Eubanks.
Myself, I got to know this side of Eubanks as a fan of the British bass giant, World Trio (1995). Just when he was getting his musical mojo going good, though, Eubanks became consumed by the Tonight Show gig he inherited from former Jazz Messengers bandmate Branford Marsalis, and World Trio was the last record Eubanks has led or co-led for the remainder of his time working weeknights at a television studio in Burbank, California.. After making a string of lite-jazz records for GRP in the 80s that tended to hold him back artistically, Eubanks appeared prominently on Holland’s superb Extensions album (1989), and Holland returned the favor by providing his bottom end sound to several of Eubanks’ much improved albums of the early 90s. Their rapport is most evident on the excellent 1995 three-way collaboration with percussionist Mino Cinelu,
Now freed from that responsibility, the erstwhile recording and composing musician is now a full time recording and composing musician again. Eager to returning to the artistically satisfying immediacy of a “normal” working musician, he assembled a quintet and began honing some new songs in front of live audiences after hours at Los Angeles’ famed The Baked Potato jazz hotspot even before he wrapped up his Tonight Show engagement last spring. He and his crack band that included Marvin “Smitty” Smith on drums, Bill Pierce on saxes, Gerry Etkins on keyboards and Rene Camacho on bass, headed into a studio to put these fresh compositions to wax. Zen Food, out on the streets since yesterday, is the product.
Eubanks has frighteningly fleet fingers but even when he is going at blazing speed, there’s form, purpose and character to his single-line notes. He has a very modern approach that owes some stylistic touch points to Montgomery, Benson, McLaughlin and Lee Ritenour. His ability to navigate effortlessly through harmonically complex or ambiguous pieces no doubt made him an ideal partner for Holland and though the music offered here bear little resemblance to Extensions or World Trio, Eubanks exploits those same attributes of his for this record. Best of all, this is jazz fusion music that has a “live in the studio” feel to it, most likely because the tunes were worked out in front of live audiences at The Baked Potato. As the producer, Eubanks wisely retained enough of the club sound to capture much of the energy and spontaneity of a club date.
Though Eubanks is pictured on the album sleeve brandishing an electric guitar he reaches for the acoustic a lot, but nothing is lost in intensity when he does: his blistering runs on the winding, momentum-building opener “The Dancing Sea” (see video of Baked Potato performance below) makes that abundantly clear. If that doesn’t do it for you, the brief but tornadic closer “Das It” will. On electric for the fast-moving “Los Angeles,” Eubanks tactfully mixes in octaves, single notes runs, and unison lines with Pierce and Etkins. “6/8” is a slick slice of straight ahead organ jazz and Eubanks nifty note bending as he rips through his solo sets him apart from other guitarists who plays in that genre. For midtempo numbers like “Spider Monkey Cafe,” he lets the rich and interesting melody come to him. Admiration” is a cozy duo between Eubanks and Etkins on Rhodes, a modern recasting of the 17th century hymn “Praise To The Lord, The Almighty,” but although it changes almost nothing from the basic melody of the old song, he oddly claimed a full copyright credit for this song. The two other slower tunes, “I Remember Loving You” and “G.G.” opt for relaxed grooves that don’t go anywhere in particular even though they are well performed.
Eubanks might be the main lead player but he gives his guys in the band room to stretch out, too. Smitty is propulsive on “The Dancing Sea” and explodes during his solo on “6/8.” Etkins pulls off a believable McCoy Tyner impersonation during much of “Offering,” while Pierce blows a deep fried tenor sax solo on “The Dirty Monk” (free streaming of track in link below).
Zen Food marks Kevin Eubanks’ return to being a musician, or rather, being a musician without simultaneously being a TV personality. Being able to concentrate on the former full time again might be a loss for viewers of Jay Leno’s show but a net gain for listeners of Eubanks, especially fans of his more serious minded post-GRP output.