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Interviews

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

By Published: November 12, 2007
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Is This Jazz? and "Mojo Jojo" as the Ultimate EB3 Song

RB: In a sort of tangentially related area, I don't really call what I'm doing jazz, because I have so much respect for jazz, and the history of jazz. I don't want to do anything that's diluting jazz, or diverting from jazz, or whatever people are calling jazz. I don't even know what jazz is, really. I'm just playing music that I like to play. People can call it whatever they like.

I'm really going off base, but pull me back if you like [laughing]. When we started the M-Base movement back in the eighties, I was the main person pushing the idea that we should name it something. I said, "If we don't name it, then the press and media will call it something. 'Urban-techno-funk,' or something. But if we name it, we define it, we say what it is, we control it. If somebody else names it, they define it.

And at the same time, I was playing with Art Blakey, and I had so much respect for Art, and for the history of jazz music. And at the same time, there was jazz-rock, jazz-this, jazz-that—everybody was hyphenating jazz, making it a prefix to whatever genre they were doing, to add validity, or whatever. I'm not really sure why they were doing it, but there were all kinds of jazz hyphens; all kinds of stuff was going on back then.

And I thought it was taking away from what people's perception of jazz was, so if you were talking about mainstream jazz, they'd say, "You mean that old-timey jazz? And I was playing with Art Blakey at the time, so we didn't like that term too much [laughing]. So I just said, "Let's just call it something else, and we came up with the M-Base thing.

Robin Eubanks

I have similar feelings about this music—it's so rocked-out and electrified, and I'm not sure what to call it yet. I feel like I should come up with something. But I have a whole lot of respect for jazz, and the people who are trying to maintain a tradition. That's great. I have respect for that; it's just not what I want to do. And hopefully, they can respect that some people want to do something else. And that's all I'll say about that, unless you have more questions about it. I forgot where I started off!

AAJ: Well, I almost feel foolish going back to just discussing songs, because you've gone into much deeper territory there. And to completely miss your point, I have to say that I have always loved the term M-Base.

RE: Yeah. [Saxophonist/composer] Steve Coleman came up with that. He and [altoist] Greg Osby were the ones who kind of put all that kind of stuff together at that point.

AAJ: Well, when someone says M-Base, you always know what they're talking about.

RE: I liked that we named it something. It was different, and it served its purpose at the time.

Oh, and about "Me Myself and I —I remember I read one review after we'd played a gig in London. The reviewer thought it sounded more like a Gabrieli classical brass piece than like jazz—until the drum parts came in. I never had thought of it like that; I heard it as all one thing when I was writing it. And you mentioned the same thing—that it really changed once the drums came in. And that's nice, because I never thought of it like that, because before the drums parts came in, I was hearing the drum part in my head. But when you listen to it, you hear this three-part harmony thing, and it does sound kind of classical in a way, and the drums change the whole vibe when they do come in. I do like to hear the insights other people have about my music; it's often stuff I wasn't hearing initially, but once it's brought out, it makes a lot of sense. And I hear it that way now. Everything changes when the drums come in.

And that one goes into "Mojo Jojo, which is actually the only song from the CD that was written specifically for EB3.

AAJ: Well, it feels like an EB3 song.

RE: Right. And writing for this band is just making me think so differently, because I have to think, say, "Okay, does this line sustain itself with just the trombone playing it, or should I have keyboards doubling it? Should Kenwood play this bass part, or should Orrin? There are a lot of different things to think about that I had never had to think about when I was composing before—mostly because there are only three people. Although we're doing multiple things, we can only do two things at a time! So you have to take this into consideration when you're arranging and composing. You have to figure out who's going to do what when—and how. It's interesting in that regard.

I'm always just working on my sequencer. I use [the music notation software] Sibelius to compose, and [MOTU sequencer] Digital Performer. I just heard the bass line of "Mojo Jojo when I was walking around, and started singing it. Then I tried to figure out what meter it's in, because I just write what I hear—then I figure out what time signature it's in later. The only reason you've even got to figure that out is so other people can play it.

So I was just hearing it in my head. I heard the melody on top of the bass line, and the little counter-rhythms, and the melodies—it's kind of the basic stuff I do all the time. All of my pieces have that same stuff somewhere. So I liked it. I did I little of it in my studio, just to give Kenwood an idea of what it was supposed to sound like, and sent him a file. Then I had him come over, and it was just me and him playing it together as I tried to figure out the chords and the different sections.

Robin

It's nice because it features everybody in the band. It's a nice opener because there's an extended keyboard solo in the beginning, before the song even starts, and then Kenwood does this little break to set up the groove. Then I come in with the melody and I solo, and then Kenwood has his solo, there's that keyboard bass thing, and we take it out. It's a nice opener in that it features everybody and it really gives you an idea of what the band is about. It's got everything we do, except that I don't use electronics on it.

AAJ: Other than that, it really embodies what this band is all about. I think it's the ultimate demo to play to anyone who wants to know what this group sounds like.

RE: Right. Maybe I'll start playing some electric trombone solo in there at some point. You know, when I'm doing electric trombone solos, especially when I'm thinking about someone listening to it on a recording, I usually play a phrase of acoustic trombone and I repeat it two or three times, just to get that in people's ears and heads. Then I play that exact same phrase with the electronics on it, so they can relate it to what they heard before, and think that it's the same instrument. Or think it might be the same instrument, anyway.

Otherwise, it can sound like, "What happened to the trombone? Where did this guitarist come from? I'm always thinking how to bring people with me on this little journey; I don't want to lose anybody along the way. When they're seeing it, it's one thing—they can see that it's one person. But if you're just listening to it, it's different. So when I did it on the Get 2 It recording, I made a point of repeating a phrase acoustically before I would add the electronics to that same phrase—so people can get drawn into it.

So that's how it works on the "Mojo Jojo thing. I came up with the title because I'm always playing with my daughter, who you see at the very end of the DVD. She loves the Powerpuff Girls, so we have to play Powerpuff Girls, and she makes me be the bad guy, because I'm big. Mojo Jojo is the bad guy.



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