By Danny R. Johnson
WASHINGTON – Kevin Eubanks, the poly-rhythmic chord-melody fusion guitarist, was in full-form performing selections from his Mack Avenue Records label Zen Food CD during his four-nights, March 22-25, 2012 gigs at Washington, DC’s Blues Alley Club. Eubanks, along with his saxophonist, Bill Pierce, and bass man, Rene Camacho, played mostly modal style music that was firmly grounded in the jazz tradition, but had a strong creative sense and innovative streak which permeated his playing, his compositions and his arrangements.
As guitarist on NBC’s The Tonight Show, from 1992-2010, Kevin Eubanks had one of the highest profiles of any guitarist of his generation, who performed to an audience of millions five nights a week. Although the demanding position had effectively pushed his jazz career into second place, Eubanks was already a seasoned veteran musician with close to 14 albums behind him prior to him taking over the music director role in 1995, when Branford Marsalis departed the position to pursue other career endeavors.
Kevin, who is 54, but has the looks of a robust 35-year-old, has had stints with jazz luminaries like Art Blakey, Roy Haynes and McCoy Tyner.
Eubanks would be the first to tell you that he is resistant to typecasting and refuses to be labeled strictly as a “jazz guitarist.” Eubanks stated, “Once you carry that mantle as a jazz musician, it becomes an exclusive club and I want to be inclusive. I want to include more music. More experiences. Though it seems no matter how much I want to expand as a musician and a person, labels keep me, you, and us, isolated.”
Judging from his sold-out performances at Blues Alley, Kevin came to the stage each night just to play some good ole- fashion funky fusion music – and the audience was delighted!
Eubanks kicked off his Friday night set with a tune from his Zen Food CD, called The Dancing Sea, which Eubanks plays high-intensity rhythmic solos that would make Thelonious Monk nod in approval, but his tour de force is his chord-melody style, not in the usual jazz tradition but with a contrapuntal groove. The incomparable jazz saxophonist and genius, Ornette Coleman, said this about performing jazz: “Jazz is the only music in which the same note can be played night after night but differently each time. It’s the hidden things, the subconscious that lies in the body and lets you know; You feel this, you play this.” Pierce and Eubanks’ approach to The Dancing Sea fits right in with Coleman’s assessment of jazz improvising – Pierce’s approach to pitch was a decisive component in how he played this tune. Pierce and Kevin completely rejected preset harmony. Pierce’s sax work offered an open-ended inspiration for musical creativity – both horizontally, in the linear development of his solos, and in the harmonies that followed.
Another selection from the Zen Food CD, The Dirty Monk, was performed and it had Eubanks executing a stark texture. The listener hears a striking theme played by Eubanks, over a jolting rhythm that does not accent regular beats; the subsequent sax and guitar solos have no governing structure. The sharp pitch of Pierce’s sax and the absence of a familiar frame of reference challenge the audience – there are no choruses, no harmonic resolutions, and no steady meters. This is classic modal, however, that does not mean that rhythm and harmony are absent, only that they were improvised along with melody. Mind-blowing! Absolutely mind-blowing!
Like his mentor, Wes Montgomery, Kevin Eubanks chooses to play without a pick. His use of his thumb on melodic passages such as the Spider Monkey Café, Los Angeles, and I Remember Loving You tracks (Zen Food CD), gives him his trademark sound – a beautiful, clear, round tone – and he makes effective use of classical finger-style in his compositions.
The Zen Food CD would not be complete without the contributions of keyboardist Gerry Etkins, drummer Marvin ‘Smitty’ Smith, and Rene Camacho, an acoustic and electric bassist whose unique way of playing bass artfully blends chops and musicianship is inspiring, and his sound is killer! Camacho possesses a robust swing and excellent intonation reflected in his genial personality. He expanded the bass walk on the Miles Davis’ All Blues (Blues Alley performance) selection by using subtle advanced harmonies and syncopating his rhythmic support of Eubanks and Pierce with inventive, melodic figures.
Danny R. Johnson is San Diego County News’ Jazz and Pop Music Critic.