Robin Eubanks Mass Line Big Band – More Than Meets The Ear (2015)

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More Than Meets The Ear (ArtistShare) is the first big band record offered by Robin Eubanks, but in tracing his career, it feels as if he’s been doing this all along. There has always existed a high degree of syncopation in his music that gave it the intricacy and power of a big band, whether is was one within the context of his forward-looking EB3 combo or within the fresh, inventive acoustic ensembles led by Dave Holland that was the finest mainstream jazz had to offer in the aughts. But in going all-in with the large band concept this trombonist, composer, arranger and bandleader found a way to amplify (both figuratively and literally) his own, encompassing but distinctive personality.

This project also reaches back to Eubanks days as an M-Base pioneer, and his fearlessness in incorporating technology and contemporary currents into a music form that seems to resist it results in jazz that looks both far ahead and a little behind. That not only accounts for Eubanks’ willingness to wring alien sounds from his trombone – much as Miles did from his trumpet in the 70s – but also inject plugged-in instruments into his big band wherever he felt he could do something that propelled the music further, such as using the electric as well as acoustic bass of Boris Kozlov. And of course, having the best musicians at his disposal helped in carrying out his ambitious designs; joining Kozlov were jazz luminaries such as Marcus Strickland (tenor sax), Antonio Hart (sax) and, for the final time, the late Lew Soloff on trumpet.

Understanding these major forces integral to Eubanks’ music goes a long way in putting the pieces of the puzzle together, as when “More Than Meets The Ear” energetically and gracefully exhibits immense agility in coordinating the competing sections and does so over a contemporary groove and — briefly, at the start — Eubanks’ own trombone transformed to resemble the sound of a rock guitar. Just when you think this risk-taking was just a brief fling, he inserts a chill hip-hop chill groove near the end, as a trio of horns trade licks.

And then there are the tunes he originally wrote for all of those exquisite Holland records. “A Seeking Spirit” was a highlight on the masterful Prime Directive that was full of high points; here, Eubanks sticks largely to the original arrangement, even front-loading the sax solo over the Caribbean sway. Only this time, he’s bringing a lot more horns to bear, and it does nothing but illuminate Eubanks’ heady melody. The leader himself leaves a spirited solo, no effects mind you, to prove he can deliver the goods the old fashioned way, too. Finally, a real swing appears on “Full Circle” (from the Holland Quintet’s Critical Mass, but it won’t last long: the beat changes up to a contemporary one, although the original horn arrangements linger a little longer. Eubanks’ solo start innocuous enough, until he suddenly punches in the effects pedal and rocks it.

“Bill and Vera,” named after Eubanks’ parents back in Philadelphia, goes into yet another direction. A cool, blue organ courtesy of Mike King) kicks things off, accompanied by a majestic mass of brass; it’s like Philly soul-jazz scaled up. “Blues For Jimi Hendrix” is a tune we first visited on Eubanks’ EB3 gem Live, Vol 1, and like then, this is a no-nonsense twelve bar blues that provides a launch pad for realizing Eubanks’ guitar god dreams via a tricked up trombone.

Elsewhere, extended performances such as “Metronome,” “Yes We Can – Victory Dance” and Cross Currents” explore so many styles such as Afro-Cuban, funk, calypso and modern jazz within the course of a song. The dynamism sustains the momentum and keeps you engaged simply because you get curious as to what’s going to happen next.

That might be just what big band jazz needs to get revitalized. Robin Eubanks had invested a lot of himself as a musician to thrust the venerable jazz orchestra concept into the twenty-first century. And, I would add, he got his lofty goals accomplished.


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