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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.

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