Kevin Eubanks: Refocusing and Looking Forward

Matthew Warnock By

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After a while it's hard to say what comes first, the musicians or the compositions. When you play together for a long time those personalities start to rub off on you and it starts to affect what you hear right away.
For millions of people across the U.S. and abroad, Kevin Eubanks will always be associated with The Tonight Show band, after his 18 years alongside Jay Leno. But for those who have followed Eubanks' career off the set, where he has been a highly prolific composer and recording artist, it's his work as a guitarist that makes him memorable. Sure, his infectious laughter and banter with Jay Leno was fun to watch night after night, but six-stringers in the audience would look forward to the commercial lead-ins, when Eubanks would strut his stuff on his custom Rivera guitar.

While many miss Eubanks, after he left the show in May 2010, fans of his music are no doubt looking forward to the future as the guitarist can now spend more time writing, recording and taking his band on the road. Wasting little time after leaving The Tonight Show, Eubanks has already recorded his first post-Leno album, Zen Food (Mack Avenue Records, 2010). The record finds Eubanks in familiar company, with drummer Marvin "Smitty" Smith, saxophonist Bill Pierce, keyboardist Gerry Etkins and bassist Rene Camacho. The record is full of melody driven, hard groovin' tunes that put the focus on all of the elements that make Eubanks one of the top guitarist of any genre on the scene today.

The next phase of Eubanks' career is sure to be filled with more albums of the same high caliber as Zen Food.

All About Jazz: Your band has been working together for quite some time now. When you sit down to write for the group, do you tailor the songs to fit that instrumentation? And have you ever thought of bringing in other instruments because of something you've written?

Kevin Eubanks: The band's been together for years and that's just the band I've been using, so I wrote the songs because of the instrumentation I had. This wasn't really a record date, it's a band that's been together for a long time so I wanted to record this particular group and I wrote specifically with those instruments, and those players, in mind.

After we did the recording, we did gigs when we could because most of us were on The Tonight Show, mostly on weekends, that sort of thing. I wanted to record this band, so I wrote the music and we got together and said "Let's make this recording." Later on, I ran into Mack Avenue and told them that the record was already done and they took it from there. So, the band was first; then there was the music, because of the band and then we found a record company to release the album.

AAJ: That's kind of a rarity on today's jazz scene. A lot of albums feature pick-up bands or all-star groups that are just put together for one record and maybe a tour before they move on to something else. Is it important for you to have that steady band to write for and to take out on the road when time permits?

KE: Yeah, I think it really allows the music to evolve, the songs get to develop more and the more we play the more intuitive we are with each other. I have a very good idea of what to expect from everyone when I sit down to write a new tune. It all kind of happens together. There are some things that you wouldn't think of. After a while it's hard to say what comes first, the musicians or the compositions. When you play together for a long time those personalities start to rub off on you and it starts to affect what you hear right away. You know that the saxophonist or the drummer play in a certain way and so you write a melody or groove that brings out their personality. It all starts to meld into one thing after a while.

There's nothing wrong with all-star bands and satisfying promoters with that sort of thing, with what I call the special interest albums, such as "The Music of Wes Montgomery" or "The Music of Duke Ellington," those sorts of things. I love having a band and going out on the road with those guys. They're like a family to me at this point. It gels better with those guys, it's more emotional. You can count on each other so you take more chances with things because you know it's going to all work out.

When we play concerts, we'll sometimes start with just drums and sax and let it develop from there, and I have full confidence in the guys that we'll take it someplace musical because we've worked together so many times. With an all-star band you might not have that confidence. Not that those types of groups are great and fun to listen to, but they might not have built that level of confidence yet that comes from playing with the same guys on a regular basis over a long stretch of time.

AAJ: One of the things that struck me on the record, say on a tune like "Spider Monkey Café," is your use of melody and melodic development in your soloing. With such a focus being put on chops and the harmonic side of jazz from today's guitarists, is playing in that melodic style something you've worked on to kind of differentiate yourself from other more harmonic and technical focused players?

KE: I think it just kind of happened over time, as I've gotten more comfortable with myself and life in a way, maturing over time. I think I weigh my words more these days. I leave more space to notice what's going on in the world around me. I think that those changes are also reflected in my music. I'm taking more time to listen to the other musicians around me, to slow things down a bit and let the melody develop naturally.

Melodies kind of transcend things; if you give them some space it adds some extra weight to it. You can ponder an idea then it can develop into something from there. When you're talking about music that isn't vocal based, then melodies maybe don't receive the focus that they should.

AAJ: On a tune like "The Dancing Sea," which has a solid groove going on, did you come up with the rhythm part first and build the melody and progression from there? How do you approach writing those groove-based tunes?

KE: In that case, the groove came later. First came the repetitive line which we do much more with when we play live. The record is just a snapshot of what we were doing on a particular day, but live we can take those moments and really stretch them out. When we play that song live, someone will just start on that line and then it'll develop from there. It'll go wherever the music takes us, but the groove is always added later. That song starts from the top and then trickles down to the groove from there.

AAJ: You also like to use octaves in your soloing, which for most listeners will bring to mind Wes Montgomery and his classic use of that technique on his records. When you use octaves, are you trying to go beyond what Wes did with them, are you aware of that connection or is it just another timbre for you to bring into your melodic palette?

KE: No, I don't really think about it. They're just a powerful tool on the guitar. The guitar is one of the few instruments where we can play octaves, and we probably have the most versatility when it comes to putting them into our solos. Octaves allow you to simplify things, but they also make your statements that much stronger, there's more weight behind your melody lines when they're doubled up like that. It brings the intensity up, but I'm never really thinking about Wes when I switch over to octaves in a solo.

I think the fact that Wes did so many great things, but people focus a lot on octaves, that sometimes it overshadows all of the other great things he did. I remember once that someone asked me to do a chapter in a book on Wes titled "Wes and Octaves" and I turned it down. It's such a slight on him to just talk about octaves, I think that's really gotten out of hand within the history of guitar. He did so many great things with chords and melodies but octaves always get kind of blown out of proportion.

I think he's the greatest ever, so I'm not saying "Oh these are my octaves, don't compare me to Wes." I would love it if people compared me to Wes [laughs]. They just add to the intensity. And sometimes when you're playing with "Smitty Smith" behind you, you need to do what you can to bring more intensity because he'll be right on top of you, pushing you to take it to the next level.

AAJ: There's also a solid legato feel in your left-hand, particularly when you go double time. Is that a sound that you've worked on over the years or again, is it something that just worked its way in over time?

KE: I think I was always hearing that sort of thing because I grew up listening to trombone players. Playing with guys like Slide Hampton and my brother Robin Eubanks, he'd kill me if I said his name first [laughs]. I heard all this lyrically playing and warmth coming from those guys and their trombones, so I got used to hearing music that way.

When I have my guitars made, I have bigger necks put on them. I use really thick strings. I had a compressor built just for me called a DMS-1. I want everything to be as warm as possible. I use that as a starting point and go from there. That lends to a more legato feel, things are smoother with that kind of tone. Working on your sound is something that guitar players really need to spend a lot of time on.

There are a lot of variables in your tone, but the main thing is the guitar in your hands. You can get a compressor and a good amp and then hopefully have a sound guy that won't turn the treble up on you that you worked so hard to develop. "Oh, the guitar was a bit dark so I brightened it for you." Thanks for erasing the last 20 years of what I've been working on with one knob on your board.

I just keep trying to remember that it's my hands and having a good instrument that amplifies what I'm hearing in my head. When you have a good, warm tone a note will stick around for a while. It won't die off right away. It'll ring out and last longer, kind of like a horn player.

AAJ: It seems that a lot of jazz guitarists spend the majority of their time working on changes and harmonic ideas, and very little time really developing their tone. As compared to a classical guitarist who would work on tone the majority of the time and repertoire the minority. But it seems that all of the great players had a deepened sense of tone. That they had worked on it just as they worked on changes. Have you noticed that in the great players? That what makes them stand out is that they're developed their tone, and really thought about how their tone reflects their harmonic and melodic choices?

KE: I would agree with all of that. I really think that it's a challenge with guitar because there are so many moving parts. The guitar, strings, the amp, this, that and the other. Whenever I teach, I always stress that people pay more attention to the basics. What guitar they're going to use, what strings, what kind of amp, those sorts of decisions. I tell them to practice on an acoustic guitar. Get a warm sound on that first and then plug in.

Figure out when kinds of strings you want to use. Do you want round wounds or flat wounds? And when you do figure out what you want to use, with strings or an amp or whatever, there's a reason behind that decision that's based on a tone that you're looking for. And also, don't forget that those are just tools, real solid tone comes from the player, from their hands as much, or more so, as it does their equipment.

AAJ: Exactly. If you gave Wes Montgomery a five dollar Harmony guitar from Sears he'd still sound great because all of that warm tone came from his hands, not necessarily the guitar itself.

KE: Absolutely, how you play the guitar is as important as the gear you have in your rack.

AAJ: Speaking of gear a bit. What are you using to get that crunch sound on the record? Is that a pedal or are you just overdriving the amp to get those sounds?

KE: I really don't like to overdrive the amp, I use a Stewart power amp mostly. Just clean power, no tones on the amp, just clean power. I had this preamp built so I can control the tone between the guitar and the amp. There are no tone controls on the preamp itself. I mean how many tone controls do you really need. The amp takes care of the power and I'll take care of the tone.

AAJ: There are two pictures of you on the album cover, one holding a solid body and one holding an archtop. Who makes your guitars for you and are you solely working with a luthier to customize your instruments or from time to time will you pick up an off-the-shelf Gibson and use that, too?

KE: A gentleman named Abe Rivera, who lives in Long Island, makes all of my guitars. He made the solidbody on the cover, which I used on The Tonight Show forever, as well as the archtop you see on the record as well. He makes all of my guitars with the exception being the flattop, which was specially made for me by Martin.

That guitar has a nice, big thick neck on it as well as a big body. When I'm playing well on that guitar, when I'm really warmed up, that's the tone that I really strive for in my playing. If I can't pull something off on that guitar, if there's a run that I just can't nail with the Martin, then I'm probably not warmed up or practicing enough. That guitar is like the acid test for me because that is not an easy guitar to play unless you're on point. Then, it's like butter.

Guitarists sometimes forget that we have to work to get a good sound. You have to work on long tones, just like a horn player, you can't just get up there and start playing. You have to warm up. You have to keep the instrument warm. As guitar players we forget all that because we just plug in and play. Your mind should be on your hands and your technique, which should be right at the root of what's going on in your playing.

It's so easy to just go well, "I'm not really warmed up today so I'll use more sustain on the amp." We've all had those days, but ideally those guitars really bring out the best in me when I pick them up and play. Dick Boak really did a great job on that Martin. He made sure that he had his engineers over there come up with a great guitar. It's just a wonderful guitar.

AAJ: Do you use the archtop for a clean tone and then switch over to the solidbody when you want to dial in that crunch?

KE: No, actually the whole record was done on the archtop. I didn't use the solidbody at all. Sometimes when I play those tunes live, I'll use the solidbody, but when we got into the studio the archtop just sounded better. But live, especially a tune like "Dirty Monk," I'll use the solidbody because that can be a really slammin,' rock-blues song when we do it live.

It's kind of funny, for songs like that and others, playing them with the solidbody will take me in more of a rock direction. But when I do the same tune on the archtop, it'll go to a whole other space for me. I kind of felt good about putting the picture of the solidbody on the album cover because even though I didn't use it on the record, that instrument inspired me along the way as I was writing and working out these particular songs.

AAJ: You mentioned earlier that you're doing some teaching. Do you have plans to be more involved in guitar education, either through publications or actually going out and working with groups of students in person?

KE: I would like to. I don't know where that's going to really lead. I'm developing a good relationship with Berklee College. I've been working with an ensemble from the school, writing music for them and then we'll rehearse it together and do a concert this fall. I work with the Monk Institute, as well. It seems like I'm being drawn into teaching more these days.

I'd like to find a more creative way of doing it, so that you don't lose any of the musician's personality while they're learning. So it's not paint by numbers, or do things just like I do them. Also, it's not just about jazz or guitar or whatever, it's about music and art. I'd like to relax that whole notion a bit that Kevin is jazz. I like all kinds of music and forms of personal expression—it's like this record. I used my solidbody, which is thought of as more of a rock-blues instrument, leading up to the album and it influenced my playing on the archtop, which is thought of as a jazz instrument. I just think that that kind of exclusive thinking stops you reaching more for things.

So I would like to somehow, if I do get deeper into teaching, which seems like it's happening, is to encourage people to see things not as jazz or blues or rock, but as a creative way to deal with sound. To not lose their personality along the way, to have a leader in the classroom and not necessary be a teacher. They need to pay attention to the "2 plus 2 equals 4" fundamentals of music, but it shouldn't be an exclusive endeavor. If you want to play the guitar with your teeth, fine. If you want to play with your toes, fine. I would rather focus on people expressing themselves, making music that people can relate to, that's what's important to me.

It doesn't matter if someone gets an A in a class or whatever. In the real world that stuff doesn't matter. "Oh, you got an A in that class. Well, no one cares because you sound terrible." Be more creative. Be more musical, I would like to encourage that more. That's not really teaching, it's more about instilling confidence and leading people down their own path rather than telling them what scales to play over what chords.

I also want to encourage the musicians, or students, or whatever you want to call them, to check out the fundamentals of their art form. There are certain principles in anything where you're learning or developing a skill, whether it is music or science, it's all the same. You have to be able to go into a room and study with passion or will, which are two different things. Passion is what drives people to work hard, to spend long hours on one thing because they feel that that's what they were born to do. No matter what you're studying, it's a universal thing.

But there are going to be days when you have to dig deep and work hard to take care of the things that passion did yesterday, that's where will comes in. Everyone has days when you just want to lay around and watch TV, but you need to bring your will to the table on those occasions so you can work through the laziness and continue to grow and further your learning.

Now, whether you continue in music, or science or business or whatever it is you're working on, or not, if you develop those skills and that high level of discipline then you'll be successful at whatever you do. You might have to leave your passion for a while to make a living, but your will kicks in and allows you to become successful no matter what the situation is.

If you can creatively discipline yourself to take care of business today, tomorrow and the next day, even if you don't stay in music, you'll build the fundamental skills needed to succeed in any field. The success is in you, the success starts with you and your actions. Unfortunately, there's just not room enough in any field for anyone who wants to pursue that as their careers, but people can learn to develop these important skills as a musician and then later apply it to a business situation or whatever and succeed.

If I get more into the teaching thing that's what I want to encourage, that student's focus on building these skills so that they can become successful no matter where they go in life or what they end up doing as their chosen career path.

Selected Discography

Kevin Eubanks, Zen Food (Mack Avenue, 2010)

Kevin Eubanks, Soweto Sun (InSoul Music, 2006)

Kevin Eubanks, Shring (InSoul Music, 2002)

Kevin Eubanks, Spirit Talk 2 (Blue Note, 1994)

Kevin Eubanks, Spirit Talk (Blue Note, 1993)

Kevin Eubanks, Turning Point (Blue Note, 1992)

Kevin Eubanks, Promise of Tomorrow (GRP, 1990)

Kevin Eubanks, The Searcher (GRP, 1989)

Kevin Eubanks, Shadow Prophets (GRP, 1988)

Kevin Eubanks, Heat of Heat (GRP, 1987)

Kevin Eubanks, Face to Face (GRP, 1986)

Kevin Eubanks, Opening Night (GRP, 1985)

Kevin Eubanks, Sundance (GRP, 1984)

Kevin Eubanks, Guitarist (Wounded Bird Records, 1982)

Photo Credit

All Photos: Raj Naik

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