Jazz CD Reviews

Kevin Eubanks – The Messenger – Mack Avenue

Kevin Eubanks: back to jazz and away from the TV lights.

Published on March 25, 2013

Kevin Eubanks – The Messenger – Mack Avenue MAC 1065, 56:16 ***1/2:

(Kevin Eubanks – acoustic & electric guitar, producer; Bill Pierce – tenor & soprano saxophone (tracks 1-5, 7-9, 11); Rene Camacho – bass (tracks 1-5, 7-9, 11); Marvin “Smitty” Smith – drums (tracks 1-7, 11); Robin Eubanks – trombone (tracks 4, 8); Duane Eubanks – trumpet (tracks 2, 4, 5); Alvin Chea – vocals (tracks 3, 6); Joey De León, Jr. – congas & percussion (tracks 1, 5))

Guitarist Kevin Eubanks might once have been the most seen jazz musician in the world without necessarily being well known. He was The Tonight Show bandleader from 1995 to 2010, where millions of viewers saw and/or heard him each weekday evening (although often only for a few seconds at a time, heading into or out of commercial breaks). Yet his name probably is not recognized by most non-jazz listeners. Even during his TV tenure, Eubanks did not stray far from his jazz heritage. And now that he is out of the limelight, or at least away from the video cameras, he’s lost no time in writing and recording. Eubanks’ roots and influences cover many types of music, which is perceived throughout his latest effort, the 11-track The Messenger, his second for the Mack Avenue label (following 2010’s Zen Food) and also his second release since leaving his late-night gig. This is a wide-ranging record, and stretches from a funk tribute to the Godfather of Soul to an unusual Coltrane interpretation, and from the blues to Jeff Beck.

On most tunes, Eubanks uses the same core quartet from Zen Food: saxophonist Bill Pierce; bassist Rene Camacho (credits include Poncho Sanchez, Ry Cooder, and others); and drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith (he’s played with Dianne Reeves, Dave Holland and many more). Eubanks also adds his siblings on select cuts: trumpeter Duane Eubanks (Eric Person and Elliott Sharp are among the artists he has performed with) and trombonist Robin Eubanks (whose résumé includes Person and Teri Lyne Carrington).

Those who have observed Eubanks on the small screen or in his photos is aware of his affability: he’s always got a ready smile. That sense of friendliness permeates The Messenger: there are no harsh edges, and even the surprises embrace likability. That doesn’t mean, though, that he keeps everything on a gentle plain. Anyone who pays attention to Eubanks’ fret runs and heavy riffing on the opening title track, particularly in the middle section and ending, will notice Eubanks can burn on the fretboard when he wants. Eubanks also shows some tidy potency on Beck’s “Led Boots,” where he overdubs acoustic and electric guitar, although the version is marred by the wordless scatting of Alvin Chea (of vocal ensemble Take 6). Chea is also utilized in an equivalent way on a unique spin through John Coltrane’s “Resolution.” While purists may cry foul, the tune displays Eubanks flair for dramatic touches. Saxophonist Pierce could have replicated Coltrane, but instead follows a smoother course, while Eubanks provides the tenser moments and trickier chord progressions.

A true Eubanks family album would be great, and listeners get an idea of how that could sound with three pieces. The soulful “JB” (an homage to James Brown) features trombonist Robin Eubanks and trumpeter Duane Eubanks. Robin’s electronically-veneered trombone brings a distinctive contour and Duane has a notable solo. Muted and unmuted trumpet makes a prominent appearance on the sweetly dark-hued “Sister Veil,” alongside Pierce’s smoky sax and Kevin’s understated wah-wah guitar. A sensuous video demonstrates the group’s intricacy, while the making-of video explains the contextual story behind the video’s main character, an attractive dancer. Duane is also present on the funk-rock “420,” which is closer to Beck’s jazz-rock than the “Led Boots” translation. Here, Duane mirrors Miles Davis’ 1980s tone, while the band lays out a pulsing 6/8 groove, accentuated by Joey De León’s congas & percussion. Robin’s final contribution comes during the softly stirring “Queen of Hearts” (not the country-pop hit made famous by Juice Newton). While Kevin lingers in the background on acoustic guitar, Pierce and Robin take the spotlight. The Messenger concludes with a pleasing blues number, “Ghost Dog Blues,” which reveals Eubanks’ interest in an oeuvre he hasn’t spent much time with. He’s guested with Buddy Guy on stage, and hopefully a formalized duet release might someday be realized. While The Messenger bares more depth than previous Eubanks projects, and is better than the commercial material he did on the GRP label, overall Eubanks has not abandoned a mainstream, straight-ahead style, which suits his music and performance.

TrackList: The Messenger; Sister Veil; Resolution; JB; 420; Led Boots; M.I.N.D.; Queen of Hearts; The Gloaming; Loved Ones; Ghost Dog Blues.

—Doug Simpson

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