It's a shame that so few people only know guitarist Kevin Eubanks as the always-smiling, lick-delivering bandleader and guitar sidekick on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He was sharing the stage with drummer Art Blakey and recording with drummer Billy Hart long before he ever did the daily grind in television studios, but time has an unfortunate way of rewriting history. Eubanks added volumes to Leno's program during his tenure with the comedian-turned host, both in terms of music and personality, but his creativity was shackled in such a restrictive setting; now, his mind is free to roam wherever he pleases. Eubanks left the land of late night television in 2010 and immediately announced his return to jazz with the worth-the-wait Zen Food (Mack Avenue Records, 2010). Now, he's back with a follow-up that's both slick and mellow at the same time.
It's hard to know exactly what to make of an album that contains a funky rewrite of saxophonist John Coltrane's music with a vocal bass line ("Resolution"), a sensitive solo guitar number ("Loved Ones") and a plain-as-day, but pleasing-as-anything blues ("Ghost Dog Blues"), but then again, this is Kevin Eubanks; if his time on television proved anything, it marked him as a versatility man and he's game to show that quality here. His music can be alternately moody ("Sister Veil"), powerful ("420") or peaceable ("The Gloaming"), and he's one of the only artists who can really be funky without being overly forceful ("JB"). His take on guitarist Jeff Beck's "Led Boots" proves to be the only misstep, as it's stripped of its potency and made into a bit of nonsensical jamming with the presence of Alvin Chea's vocal bass work; Chea is phenomenal on "Resolution," but a bit over-the-top here.
Eubanks' instincts about personnel decisions help to further the diversity at play in the music. His working quartet, which was also featured on Zen Food, controls the scenery and intensity, but the guests help to change the sonic identity of each number. Percussionist Joey De Leon Jr. adds a rumbling Latin presence to the title track, Chea has his day on the aforementioned tunes, and Eubanks' horn wielding siblings join the program in a few places; they never disappoint. Robin Eubanks' electronically shadowed trombone work on "JB" is an absolute gas and trumpeter Duane Eubanks immediately takes the baton and runs with it. Their appearances, both together and on separate tracks, help to make the argument that the Eubanks brothers are due for an official family offering.
Eubanks sought "to communicate the breadth of his artistic influences" with this album and he can rest knowing that he accomplished his mission. The Messenger is Kevin Eubanks' wonderfully open personality filtered into music.
The Messenger; Sister Veil; Resolution; JB; 420; Led Boots; M.I.N.D.; Queen Of Hearts; The Gloaming; Loved Ones; Ghost Dog Blues.
Kevin Eubanks: acoustic guitar, electric guitar; Bill Pierce: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone (1-5, 7-9, 11); Rene Camacho: bass (1-7, 11); Robin Eubanks: trombone (4, 8); Duane Eubanks: trumpet (2, 4, 5); Alvin Chea: vocals (3, 6); Joey De Leon, Jr.: congas, percussion (1, 5).
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