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Interviews

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

By Published: November 12, 2007
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Electric Trombone and Wanting to Be Jimmy Page, Not James Pankow

AAJ: "Blues for Jimi is, obviously, your tribute to Hendrix; it's a sort of "Red House -style blues that you recorded previously on Get 2 It. This starts with a great acoustic trombone cadenza—a specialty of yours that we've all seen with the Dave Holland Quintet. Just like you were saying you like to do, it starts with the acoustic trombone before your electric trombone comes in with its thick, effected sound. Your playing is phenomenal here—not just in terms of all the Hendrix-inspired effects, but just in terms of soul and melody. I think you ably demonstrate how well trombone works in terms of electronics and effects: You've got the slide in place of the bent strings on a guitar, and you really push the vocal quality that people noticed and used in trombones for eighty years now. Tell me about this one.

RE: Like I say on the DVD, I grew up with a guitarist, my brother Kevin. So I grew up listening to funk, and rock, and R&B. Then the horn bands came in a little bit later, but I was really drawn to all the rock and funk—I was way into Led Zeppelin. I liked Black Sabbath, too, and Grand Funk Railroad. I was really into guitars, and guitarists like Hendrix, and Jimmy Page, and Terry Kath, who used to play with Chicago.

So I had tried putting effects on my horn a long time ago. When I was a little kid, even—because that was the music I was into, but all I could play was the trombone. The only trombones I was hearing in the music I was listening to were Fred Wesley with James Brown, and then James Pankow with Chicago—those kinds of things.

Robin

But I always wanted to sound like the guitar, and that was hard to do, but the technology kind of developed to the point that I was actually able to do it. Actually, I was invited to be a guest soloist with a band in Lausanne, Switzerland—François Lindemann's band. We were doing a gig, and preparing for recording, and the saxophonist had a microphone clipped to his bell. During a break, I asked if I could borrow it, and I clipped it to my bell, and I asked if I could plug the other end into the guitarist's rack. And when I did, I said, "Wow! All these bells and whistles went off. I said, "This is it!

Before that, [trombonist] Al Grey and [saxman] Eddie Harris had done a lot of stuff in that area. Actually, Al Grey was a friend of mine in Philadelphia, and he took a mouthpiece of mine and had it drilled for me so I could get a pickup on it—and it was a good start, but drilling a hole in a mouthpiece wasn't really the way I [laughing] wanted to go. But when I put that mike on my bell and plugged it into this guitarist's stuff, I saw my future right there.

So I ran with that, and I've been working with electronics for fifteen to twenty years now. The technologies just continue to develop, and I got to the point where I was able to get the sound that I wanted. I got a guitar multi-effects unit—which guitar players have been using for decades—and started tweaking with the parameters, just turning buttons until I got sounds that I liked. I got this one quasi-guitar sound that I liked a lot.

It makes me feel like I'm playing a guitar, almost. And from listening to that music, and loving that music so much, it's easy for me to emulate it on the trombone with the slide—because the slide is like bending the strings, and I can do all the wailing sounds, and use multiphonics to get feedback sounds and double-stops, and all that. It really makes me feel like I'm this rock guitarist [laughing] when I'm doing it.

It was funny just to be looking at people's eyes when I first started doing it, seeing their faces. I really got this power trip in the beginning—when people started covering their ears, I would just break into this huge grin.

AAJ: The power of rock. If they don't like you at a jazz show, they talk over you. But it doesn't matter if they talk when you're amped up to nine.

RE: It was so great that a trombone player could make you cover your ears. It was probably pretty immature of me, but [laughing] I got off on it.

AAJ: You'd waited a long time for that.

RobinRE: Totally. But anyway, I always loved the Hendrix stuff. Band of Gypsys (Capital, 1970) was always my favorite of the Hendrix albums, just the sounds and the playing—and the fact that I can actually emulate that and get that feeling, and play that kind of slow, "Red House kind of blues that he did, is just so much fun for me. The band loves it, too—Kenwood loves playing the bass parts and the drums on that, then having the organ come in gives it that really bluesy kind of feel.

You know, I relate to that kind of blues more than I relate to "Now's the Time. The jazz traditionalists, or whatever, might disagree, but that "Red House -style blues is much closer to the roots of blues than the traditional jazz version is. I'm not knocking it; I love playing that kind of blues too, but I do get a thrill that I can emulate that other blues feeling—and it's a feeling that's hard to describe unless you've had a chance to play guitar, to play it. It's wonderful, and I just break out into this big grin every time I get a chance to do it [laughing]. It's really like living one of my dreams. And it was always just a fantasy before, but now I can do it.

AAJ: On this record, that tune is sort of the beginning of a little psychedelic suite where the album gets seriously electric. There's "Jig Saw, Wayne Shorter's "House of Jade and "X-Base, and the last two really feature the electric sound of the band. Was this the actual order of the set?

RE: I don't think so. I sequenced it later. I just wanted to get everything recorded; I knew we could put them into the order I thought was most effective later. Actually, "House of Jade was the very first thing that I recorded. I recorded that before everybody else got there—before they got on stage, anyway. So I started with that one. When I did it live, I thought, "Oh, I'll just start with this. It's not going to get any more electric than this. But I forget the order we did it in.

As for the record sequencing, I didn't even realize that all the heavy electric stuff was toward the end. I know we did end with "X-Base. There were four pieces that we didn't include in the DVD portion. There was one song I didn't include at all, because I didn't like the performance. This was only the second time we'd played, after all. We actually played "Mental Images, and it segued into "Indo, but I didn't like the way we performed "Mental Images, so you just hear the end of it—all the electronic stuff. Then I segue into "Indo. That's what you hear at the beginning of "Indo.

AAJ: How does your playing vary from acoustic to electric trombone? Are there things you play on acoustic that just don't work on electric, and vice-versa?

RE: Oh, totally. With the effects, I have to leave space so the effects can take effect. Like, you play a note, and then you hear what the effects do to the note, to the sound. You have to learn how to shape the effect—what to play and what not to play.

Robin

I remember one time I was doing a gig at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam. I had my electronics, and there was some kind of technical malfunction, so I had to play the second set without the electronics. But it made me play the acoustic differently. I had to shift mentally, and I did some physical adjustments, and it made the acoustic sound more electrical—just the way I was bending notes, and the way I would phrase things, was different. It was affected by my experience of playing the same song electrically.

So the two definitely help each other, and feed off of each other. When I play a blues now acoustically, I'm able to use some of the phrasing I would use on electric; I might not have played that way before when I was playing all acoustic. They affect each other, and I'm enjoying the experience.



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