Now two years removed from his fifteen year stint leading the Tonight Show band for Jay Leno, Kevin Eubanks makes his second post-Leno album The Messenger. However, this is probably the first one entirely conceived and recorded since he left that show. With Hollywood a fast-fading image in his rear-view mirror, how will the full-time gig as an independent musician impact the kind of record Eubanks makes today?
I think the answer is, just how you’d expect someone to sound like whose mind is entirely engaged in making music for the sake of making music.
Eubanks, as I found out from his time with Dave Holland, is a seriously good guitarist able to handle even the most abstract, improvisational forms of music, and do it in his own, unique way. You just know there’s probably nothing he can’t tackle, and he tackles a lot on The Messenger. And, if that’s possible for someone who’s been making records since 1982, there is even more maturity. Sure, Eubanks has the goods and he will show them to you with such highly nuanced and original solos as found on, say, “Sister Veil,” “Resolution” and “M.I.N.D.”, but is just as comfortable leading from behind, staying in the rhythm mode on the one blues number, “Ghost Dog Blues” and settles comfortably in an accompaniment role for the pretty slower numbers, “Queen Of Hearts” and “The Gleaming.” What’s most appealing about his guitar is that, yes, he starts with a lot of polish as you’d expect from his pedigree, but his tosses a lot of dirt on it (especially when he makes his axe cry on “Sister Veil”), keeping it a little grimy so it appeals to your soul like it will to your head.
Eubanks also keeps it grounded by performing most of the tracks with his working band of Billy Pierce on woodwinds, Rene Camacho on bass, Smitty Smith on drums and Joey De Leon on percussion. Brothers Robin (trombone) and Duane (trumpet) join in on a handful of tracks, guys who don’t have to be close kin to want to have on your record. Both of them are participating on the sly funk number “JB”; Robin plays the modern role, hooking up his ‘bone to effects, while Duane improvises in a very straight jazz way. Both approaches work for this song.
Eubanks borrows only two songs for this album, but applies some very creative treatments to them. He builds a riff off of John Coltrane’s “Resolution” which is connected to the head, which is funkified and referenced sparingly; kind of like contemporaneous modal funk-jazz. As vocalist Alvin Chea from Take 6 quietly scats his way through the song, Pierce solos in the pocket, followed by Eubanks’ dazzling guitar solo. Jeff Beck’s “Led Boots” is tackled as well, and Chea’s vocalese take on a much more major role, undertaking the bottom-heavy signature guitar riff with his mouth, while Eubanks grooves on both a wah-wah guitar and an acoustic guitar. I’m still not sure if I like Shea’s scatting on this song, though everything else about this rendition is convincing.
Eubanks can rock as well as he grooves: “The Messenger” and “420″ are songs that do both equally well, the former consisting of jazzy changes and the latter chugging along at a 6/8 pulse; Duane’s muted trumpet injects an element of Miles into “420.”
Eubanks does perhaps a better job revealing what a diverse and dynamic musician he is on The Messenger than on anything else he’s done. The downside of this is that some focus and coherency is sacrificed by necessity, but if that’s a problem, it’s a good problem to have. Kevin Eubanks might be too talented for his own good, but that beats every other alternative out there.
The Messenger is set for release on February 19, by Mack Avenue Records. Feature photograph by Raj Naik.