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

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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, thats really gratifying.
Robin EubanksName one contemporary jazz trombonist.

Robin Eubanks, right?

Eubanks is only one member of a notoriously musical Philadelphia family—you're probably familiar with some of his brothers—and was playing trombone at a tender age. He moved to New York City after graduating from the Philly-based University of the Arts, and has collaborated with an enormous range of musicians. He did serious road time with both Art Blakey and Elvin Jones, was a prominent participant in the 1980s M-Base movement most associated with Greg Osby and Steve Coleman, worked for Talking Heads and Barbra Streisand—he's played a lot of styles of music.

If you attend jazz concerts with any regularity, you've almost certainly gone to see the Dave Holland Quintet; the bassist's group is one of the top draws in instrumental music, and it's hard to imagine the band without Eubanks—his thrilling trombone solo cadenzas and contrapuntal interplay with saxman Chris Potter seem integral to the Holland group, as are his tricky, time-shifting, sectional compositions. Eubanks is the sole Quintet member to also perform in Holland's Octet, Big Band and new Sextet.

Eubanks has been releasing records under his own name since his 1988 JMT debut, Different Perspectives, and he's never made a bad CD. Karma (JMT, 1991) and Mental Images (JMT, 1994)—both since reissued on Winter & Winter—are particularly noteworthy but this is largely a matter of taste, as all his records feature his indelible, genre-smashing compositions and impeccable, vibrant musicianship.

Eubanks' Live, Vol. 1 (Kindred Rhythm, 2007) is, however, his best one yet. It's a DVD/CD package by his trio EB3 of drummer Kenwood Dennard and keys player Orrin Evans; obviously, it's a live recording, and on it the band performs mostly Eubanks material that he's previously recorded, often with his much-larger group Mental Images. EB3's a small band, but its sound is startlingly large—with Dennard and Evans doubling on keyboard bass and Eubanks playing both acoustic and heavily effected, looped electric trombone (as well as electronic percussion), this group's sound is much greater than its number of members would indicate.

It's also a fantastic band—funky, virtuosic and frighteningly tight. A quick glance at the release's DVD will demonstrate just how much the players are enjoying themselves, the bandleader as delighted as the other two. And he should be happy, because in this group, Eubanks seems to have combined all his musical appetites and abilities.

I spoke with the hard-touring trombonist (with a Holland group or EB3, he's probably headed to your town) about EB3, the new CD/DVD, the joys of electric trombone, and much more.

Chapter Index
  1. Why a DVD? Why Such a Long Time Between Records?
  2. Passing the Bass Lines Around and Solo Trombone
  3. Is This Jazz? and "Mojo Jojo" as the Ultimate EB3 Song
  4. Electric Trombone and Wanting to Be Jimmy Page, Not James Pankow
  5. Composing and Working With Dave Holland



Why a DVD? Why Such a Long Time Between Records?

All About Jazz: I want to talk about your new recording with your band EB3, Live, Vol. 1. This is a live recording done at Montana Studios in New York City about one year ago. This is a great record, and features a bunch of your compositions (plus a tune of Kenwood's and one by Wayne Shorter) refitted for the trio of yourself, drummer Kenwood Dennard and keys player Orrin Evans.

Everyone in the band takes on extra musical roles, especially on keyboard bass; there's no actual bassist in the group, so Kenwood and Orrin cover that role. The overall sound is sparser than some of your musical projects, but incredibly tight and funky; it really shows off your great compositions. Before we discuss the band or music, I'm interested in just the fact that this is a CD and DVD package—obviously, seeing a DVD is very instructional in just how this band produces its sound. This is your first record under your name since your self-released CD, Get 2 It (Orchard, 2001). Why include a DVD with the CD? And why so long between Eubanks records? I know you haven't been idle.

RobinRobin Eubanks: Well, I did a showcase gig for Western Arts Alliance in Albuquerque about a year-and-a-half ago. [Bassist] Lonnie Plaxico and [keys player] George Colligan were both playing with [saxman] Ravi Coltrane's band; it was a double bill with Ravi's band and EB3. Lonnie and George had played with my other band, Mental Images, for many years, and a lot of the music that EB3 was playing had been covered in the Mental Images band also. So they got to hear a lot of music that they were very familiar with, done by EB3. After the gig, they told me that it really sounded nice, and that it was really tight—Lonnie told me, "You should never have a bassist in your band again, and I'm your bassist!

And then he mentioned how visual it was, watching the bass parts switch between players, and seeing me do my looping and layering thing. I never thought of it as visual, because I'm in front. I can't see what's behind me; I don't get a sense of what it looks like for the audience. But when George and Lonnie told me that—and they're really good friends of mine—I trusted their opinion, and started thinking about it. It made sense. Like, when I do my "Solo Latin piece. If you just listen to it, it just sounds like a song where each part's just coming in, one at a time—what's the big deal? But when you see it, and see what's going on, then it has a much more significant impact.

So I realized that that was really something about this band: What you see and what you hear doesn't quite add up the way they'd normally add up. The visual aspect is really a strong component that contributes a lot to people appreciating what the band is doing. So I definitely wanted to add that visual component to the package. Besides, the internet is making everything so visual now—YouTube, things like that. People really want to see stuff now. So that's why I decided to do a DVD.

And the reason it's been awhile since the last record was just that I wanted to do the projects myself. I did Get 2 It, myself, and put a lot of money into it, and with this project, I was just waiting to get the funds—and the concept—together. Really [laughing], I don't know—time just kind of started flying by! And suddenly it was like, "Oh, it's been awhile, hasn't it? And I've been teaching, and crazy busy—Dave Holland's band has been really busy. Time just flew by, and I didn't even realize it had been that long. When the EB3 concept came together, it just seemed like it was the right time to do it.

I just really wasn't into doing stuff with record labels, and I actually did this project on my own. I was going to put it out on my own, but Ravi is a friend of mine—we both have the same manager—and he heard it, and said, "I would really like to put this out. And he had that distribution element, which I didn't have. So that's why I did it with RKM, Ravi's label.

AAJ: You own the masters, though, don't you?

Robin RE: Oh, yeah. That seems to be the way things are going—and it's about time, actually, that musicians own the music that they create. Dave was on ECM for thirty years, and he didn't own one note of his music. Now he's got his own label, Dare2, and a lot of musicians are doing the same thing. It's good timing, because the whole label dominance and monopolistic ownership of music are definitely on the way out.

AAJ: You point out that the DVD really shows how the music works. Watching it was really helpful to me. It shows how these great bass lines are actually played by the whole band—mostly by Kenwood and Orrin, but sometimes by yourself.

You've never led a smaller band, but I don't think you've ever led a better one, either. And while this band can sound like a trio, it's capable of sounding like a much bigger group. This band also shows off your acoustic and your electric playing, so it includes everything you do. A band like this is really portable. Why'd you form this band, and what do Kenwood and Orrin add to the whole?

RE: Part of it was logistics—sort of like the smaller groups of bebop came out of the big band era during the war. Economics just demanded a certain thing. And traveling with basses these days can be a major problem financially, with the levies that are applied by the airlines.

AAJ: You've got to check them.

RE: You've got to check them, and it's so arbitrary. You get charged if it's considered overweight, or oversize—and this is per flight. It's just ridiculous. Even Dave, who's probably the most celebrated acoustic bassist around now—and my favorite—has to run around after every flight looking for his bass, trying to find out where it is. Plus they're charging him all these dollars. It's just crazy. And I see this and think, "Wow, Dave Holland is going through all this. I don't want to go through it!

So that was part of it. I played with Jimmy McGriff's band, and he didn't have a bassist—you know, he played the bass lines on his organ. I'd also worked with samplers and sequencers for a long time. So I knew that the keyboard bass would supply what I needed, just in terms of hearing the bass parts.

My original idea was to have the keyboard player play all the bass parts—but at one rehearsal, Kenwood asked if he could try playing some bass parts, and I said, "Sure. And of course, he had no trouble with that. He can play bass parts on the keyboard while he plays drums with the other three limbs—he does even more than that. I've seen him play bass and drums with two bass drums and a snare attached to one of the bass drums—so you've got a bass and snare thing happening—while he plays chords with the right hand, bass parts on the left hand, and sing. All at the same time.

Robin

He used to do that stuff a lot, especially in the eighties; he had a loft in New York, and he used to do one-man shows. So I've known Kenwood for a long time, and when he suggested playing some of those bass parts, I thought it'd be a great idea. It worked out really, really well, obviously. I don't know how he's able to do it; he's just developed that technique over the years. He plays really good piano anyway, so his left hand is very well-developed on the keyboards, and he's developed a really amazing technique in terms of keeping the feel and the groove. I remember that he told me one time, "You'll never have to worry about the bassist and the drummer not knowing what each other is doing.

AAJ: Yes, the two parts spring from one mind.

RE: Right. He can do accents and hits that separate bass players and drummers in a normal situation wouldn't be able to do. They couldn't know the other one was about to do something like that unless it had been arranged. So it works out really well, and he really grooves with it. He was a great choice, and having him really brings out a whole other realm of the music that I wasn't even thinking about when I was conceiving the band—because he wasn't the first drummer. Having him really opened up the whole band, because now the keyboard player can play two-handed solos—which is what a keyboard player would normally do. That opens up the sound immensely.

And Orrin Evans is a young pianist from Philadelphia. I worked with him in the Mingus Big Band, but he was also a really, really good friend of my brother Duane; they came up together in Philly and played a whole lot together. He was always just really, really talented and creative. I'd really listen to his solos when we were playing with the Mingus Big Band; he'd always do a lot of unexpected things.

So when I wanted to make a change in the keyboard chair, he was definitely my choice. The way this band is constructed, the more creative someone is, the better everything is, because you're so exposed, and the music can easily go in different directions. There are only three people! The fewer people you're dealing with, the easier it is for things to really take off in certain directions, because you don't have to communicate the idea that that's about to happen to as many people.

And when he's playing bass lines and chording on the keyboard at the same time, then he's controlling all of the harmony at that point, so he can go in every direction. So you really want someone there who's very creative.

I think that some people don't realize—because I haven't spoken about it very much—that the performance on the DVD is only the second time the three of us had ever played together.

Robin AAJ: I have to admit I'm shocked.

RE: I was shocked too, by the way it came off. I thought, "Wow! That really bodes well for the future if it sounds this good and we've only played together twice.

AAJ: The band sounds very tight.

RE: About a week earlier, we did a set at Tonic down in the East Village [New York], and we just took that gig so that the first time we played together wouldn't be in front of a live audience for a DVD! I said, "We've got to play someplace once. So the DVD was done a week later. It was pretty amazing how well it came together. We had played together as a group, but not with Orrin. I was really impressed with the results.

We did a tour in Europe in April, and it came together even more—much more. So I'm really excited by the development of the music, and also by the response we're getting. The press has been good, and the people are liking it. I thought it sounded good, and I thought it looked nice—I thought it was an interesting idea.

But you never know how people are going to receive something that's different. For me, the first thing is that I have to like it. If I like it, I think there's a shot that other people might like it. So I thought it was good. But the stuff I've read, both online and in the print media, has been beyond what I hoped they'd say. Some of it is [laughing] almost embarrassing. But I'll take it!

AAJ: Your tunes aren't easy to play; they're not simple. But the first thing I noticed on this record was just how much fun the band seems to having. It's not that it's not tight—it's very tight—but it still sounds like people are having a good time. The band is, but the audience is too.

Robin EubanksRE: Yeah. I think they do realize that it's something different. And Kenwood's got this history of playing the keyboards and the drums at the same time, but he doesn't get a chance to do that very often. And I don't get a chance to do my electric trombone stuff that often, and Orrin's not called on much to play bass parts at the same time as keyboards. So everybody is asked to stretch, and reach beyond the normal requirements of other bands. And people are really appreciating it, and stepping up to the plate, and finding stuff inside themselves that they can express, because they're called upon to do more.

So I think that's part of what you're hearing and seeing. It's fun! It's fun that we can actually pull it off. I know that when I'm doing, say, the "Solo Latin thing, and I'm using electronics, anything can happen when I hit that "record button. When it comes off, it's great—I think I even flash a little smile on the DVD: "Wow, it actually worked! I'm amazed and pleased that it actually sounds okay, because it could easily sound awful [laughing]. Every time we play, it's a challenge for me to stay focused on the next part I'm going to play, because that part's going to be heard for a long time.

AAJ: Sometimes there is no better feeling than relief.

RE: This is true.


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