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Robin Eubanks: Master Trombonist... and Would-Be Rock Guitarist?

By Published: November 12, 2007
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Passing the Bass Lines Around and Solo Trombone

AAJ: I'm sure people have mentioned how amazed they are at the way the bass part is so seamlessly passed from player to player. "Pentacourse might be the ultimate example of this. But the bass sound is so uniform—I think everyone is playing the same gear, the same kind of keyboard bass, but there's no significant change in tone, and on record it seems to be in the same place, sort of in the middle of the stereo channel. Are you all playing into the same amp?

RE: I don't even know what bass sounds they're using. They're not even using the same patch. I know when I hear it in headphones, it does switch from left to right—and I wanted that. I wanted the sound to be even more distinct, and the way we're doing it live now, it's more pronounced. It depends on what kind of keyboard we have; we rent keyboards, or they're provided by the promoter, and the different keyboard bass sounds are different. But I like having the bass sounds change, just because it adds different color, and sounds like somebody else is playing. We do pan on the recording—the bass part Kenwood playing is a little to one side, and the one Orrin is playing is little to the other side. I wanted to keep that kind of separation.


But it does sound pretty seamless. I was shocked when I watched the video, because, like I said, I'm in front—I don't know what they're doing back there. And I liked how on "X-Base, the last song on the DVD, there's that big, rocked-out part, and when we first go into it, Orrin is waving his hands to tell Kenwood, "Okay, I'm ready [laughing]—it was only the second time we'd ever done it!

AAJ: It's like two outfielders going for the same ball.

RE: Yeah, calling somebody off—"I've got it! So they make this eye contact, and I'm up front thinking, "I hope they do this; I hope this works. And it kept going, and there wasn't any train wreck, so I assumed they had figured out some kind of way to communicate how to do it. But I didn't know what they were doing. But you pick people who you can trust, and you feel that they can do the job. I tell them, "It's your job to figure out when to stop, and when to start. I'm not playing that part—it's your gig.

So they figure it out. Then at the end of that song, when it goes back to that slower tempo, you can see Kenwood on the video throwing a stick down and going to the bass line, and not a beat is missed. It's pretty amazing that he can go from playing all that stuff, slow the tempo down, come in with the right notes—I was very impressed [laughing]. And I just can't say it enough: That was the second time we'd ever done it.

AAJ: "Indo is one of your best songs; you recorded it on your Get 2 It CD, and it's one of your most elegant and lovely tunes. It features the tricky mixed-meter time that's such an element of your work, as is the way the times blend so seamlessly in a way that makes the melody even more moving, instead of distracting from it. I love Orrin's restraint during your solo—his chords are very non-interruptive, very measured, if you know what I mean. Tell me about this one, and tell me when the bass shifts from Kenwood to Orrin. I'll guess it's when Kenwood takes over during Orrin's solo.

RE: Yeah, during Orrin's solo. Kenwood plays the bass line there, and then I play a little percussion pad. I try to do that when Kenwood's playing the bass parts, just to try to fill in the drum sound a little more—add in the extra hand that he's using elsewhere.


I really like that composition a lot also. The concept is to try to have different feels— almost like different genres—in one form. So it starts out with a little funk beat in seven, kind of slow, and then it goes into swing for about six beats, and then back into funk. But I try to make it sound organic. I think the way I explained it to the band was that it was as if you were listening to a radio, and you're moving the dial, looking for a station. You'll hear a snippet of this, and a snippet of that; you'll hear some country-western, the next station will be a rock station, the next'll be jazz, and then talk radio. It could be anything, but it just keeps moving in this kind of linear motion, because you're turning the dial.

That was the concept that I wanted—scanning down the dial of a radio, and hearing just a few seconds of each thing. Conceptually, that's the idea, but you've got to make it musical. The most important part is having the rhythm section make it seamless, and once they got the feel, it's easy—or easier, I should say—for a horn player, or horn players, to float on top of it, and make the melody come together. If the rhythm section isn't solid and unified underneath, then nothing's going to work. So this song begins with them, with them having that understanding. Once I explained that concept, and the time signatures, and the tempos—how it speeds up, slows down, the different feels, because the song does a lot of different things—they understood. And then you put the melody on top of that.

And to improvise on top of it is a whole other thing; you have to feel each section as it happens and try to keep your improvised line or ideas flowing through all these different, myriad things that are shifting underneath you. So it's fun; it's like an obstacle course in a way. "Pentacourse is the same way. It's a five-bar obstacle course; that's why I call it "Pentacourse. You just have to navigate the changes. I don't do it, but maybe it's like surfing—the waves go up, they go down, they slow. You just adapt to the environment and the situation. You just ride on it; you improvise. It's great. I like the feeling. So it's a fun piece to play, and I get to use the electronics on it.

I try not to use the electronics on everything, because I get tired of hearing them after a while, and, like I said, I use myself as a barometer—for better or for worse, if I don't like it, then I don't really expect other people to like it. If I think something is too much, there's a chance other people might think it's too much. Obviously, some people might not agree with my selection.

AAJ: Well, you also have to play it.

RE: Right. And if I feel like I'm hearing too much of the electric, it's great that I can just cut everything off and just play my horn. It's such a release, and a relief, just sonically, and attitude-wise, and vibe-wise. The band can go from this really heavy kind of rocking sound to a very relaxed acoustic thing. It's nice to have that kind of latitude in the music.

AAJ: You already mentioned your solo piece "Solo Latin. Another solo trombone number is the one that starts off the record, "Me Myself and I. It sort of acts as a sort of bridge to the group piece "Mojo Jojo. I really love it "Me Myself and I, and I'll say that, first, there's nothing that new about looping, but when the looped double trombones come in alongside your solo lines it's really startling in the best way. Second, the electronic percussion that comes in later completely changes the whole feel of the piece, although that loop stays the same, and your new solo line sort of pulls the piece out of its impasse. Any thoughts on this one and on performing solo with loops and electronic percussion in general?

RE: Well, I love playing solo. I'm trying to work up to doing a solo set. I have done a couple; I did something in Budapest last September, a solo set with my electronics, and it was really nice. I've done it a few times, and I'm trying to work up so I can do a solo tour. That would be pretty amazing to be able to do that.


But I think it's great. I mean, I play trombone! I'm a trombone player. And the fact that I can pull off doing a whole solo set with percussion, have a trombone choir and all these other sounds that don't sound anything like a trombone at the same time—as one person—is great. Like on "Solo Latin, you have nine or ten parts going. People have told me they close their eyes and hear this big band—then they look up and see one guy up there. For me, that's really gratifying. It's nice that I can give people this musical experience by myself.

And the electronics and technology let me do it in a way that was impossible to do it before. People have done solo trombone performance for a long time—George Lewis and a lot of other great players have been doing solo trombone stuff for a long time. But without the aid of the electronics and the technology that's been developed, there are only certain things that you can do.

So for me, it's just great. And I love percussion; I'm like a closet percussionist. I always make sure I say it's percussion pads, what we used to call MIDI percussion—because I respect percussionists so much, and I'm not a percussionist [laughing]. I can keep time, and I can put some rhythms on percussion pads. That's about it.

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