Big band jazz for modern ears.
Robin Eubanks – More Than Meets the Ear [TrackList follows] – ArtistShare AS0141, 71:38 [11/20/15] ****1/2:
(Robin Eubanks – acoustic and electric trombone, percussion pads, producer, co-mixer; Antonio Hart – alto saxophone; Alex Cummings – alto and soprano saxophone; Marcus Strickland, Bobby LaVell – tenor saxophone; Lauren Sevian – baritone and bass clarinet; Lew Soloff, Alex Sipiagin, Duane Eubanks, Aaron Janik – trumpet; Jason Jackson, James Burton – trombone; Jennifer Wharton – trombone, tuba; Douglas Purviance – bass trombone; Glenn Zaleski – piano; Mike King – organ; Boris Kozlov – acoustic and electric bass; David Silliman – percussion; Nate Smith – drums)
What would you do with a year off from work? Trombonist Robin Eubanks was given a one-year sabbatical from Ohio’s Oberlin College (where he is a professor) and used that time to do something he’d never accomplished before: write, arrange and plan out a jazz big band project. The result is the 72-minute collection, More Than Meets the Ear, which features nine Eubanks originals performed by Eubanks (acoustic and electric trombone and percussion pads), five saxes (led by Antonio Hart), four trumpets (led by the late Lew Soloff), four additional trombonists (led by Jason Jackson) and a five-person rhythm section (piano, organ, bass, percussion, drums).
Longtime Eubanks fans might recognize some of the material. Most of these pieces have been performed in various contexts, for groups such as the Dave Holland Quintet and the SFJAZZ Collective. The nine lengthy selections (only one clocks in under six minutes, most are between eight or nine minutes) provide much room for the 19-piece ensemble. Eubanks explains, “The big band allowed me to really flesh things out. When I originally wrote most of the stuff on here, I was actually thinking of a larger group than I was writing for.” Some personnel were on Eubanks previous effort, kLassik RocK Vol.1 (Artistshare, 2014), including Hart, electric bassist Boris Kozlov and drummer Nate Smith. For this more expansive group, Eubanks inducted Soloff and tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland (an alum of Orrin Evans’ Captain Black Big Band; Strickland has also collaborated with David Weiss and Jimmy Owens). Eubanks also added one recent Oberlin graduate to each of the big band’s sections.
Eubanks starts with the stimulating title track, initially done by the SFJAZZ Collective. During the 8:37 tune, Eubanks utilizes his electric trombone (he applies a wah-wah effect and effects pedals), which has a different tone than jazz traditionalists may expect. The hefty horn section creates a framework of snappish cadences, which abets an arrangement which swells and heaves. Zaleski and Strickland are also featured as soloists. “A Searching Spirit” is a lightly funky number which was heard on Dave Holland’s 2000 record, Prime Directive. This new arrangement is shorter, but is infused with power via the bounding horns. The main motif has a memorable theme; Eubanks keeps things conventional with acoustic trombone; and Hart and Smith contribute notable improvisations. The rewarding “Full Circle” is another one firstly done by Holland’s quintet (see Critical Mass, 2006). The arrangement begins gradually but eventually escalates as the 16-beat rhythm picks up steam, and within a few minutes the 8:24 tune curves into a fast, swinging structure. When Strickland solos, he becomes fiery and enthusiastic; when Eubanks switches to electric trombone, his trombone converts to something akin to scorching electric guitar (again, a quality which will probably turn off customary trombone listeners).
The concise cut, “Bill and Vera,” has a sweetly soulful sound partially due to Mike King’s organ; the arrangement also has a wonderful underlying tinge furnished by bass clarinetist Lauren Sevian. This 5:41 piece combines 1970s-era soul-jazz, a whisper of Gil Evans’ big band style, and contemporary RnB. The title is a tribute to Eubanks’ parents (Vera Eubanks was a classical and gospel pianist who guided her sons’ early music education). Eubanks supplies a warm and tender acoustic trombone solo on this heartfelt homage. The Eubank family’s most well-known musical scion is guitarist Kevin Eubanks, but trumpeter Duane Eubanks (the youngest of the three siblings) is also making his mark in the jazz community (he’s recorded with Hart as well as Oliver Lake; and leads his own group). Duane is heard to great notice on the upbeat, funky “Mental Images,” which can also be found on the Dave Holland Big Band’s 2005 album, Overtime; it was also the title track on Robin Eubanks’ 1995 solo venture. This latest rendition has a solid, jumpy dance stance fronted by a kicking rhythm section; the coupled horns; and solos from Duane and Hart.
Eubanks’ most audacious composition (and perhaps his most famous) is “Blues for Jimi Hendrix,” where Eubanks’ trombone is filtered through a distorting series of long, wavering, high-pitched vocal-like sounds, (not exactly Hendrix, but certainly Hendrixian), while King echoes the groove-flecked keyboard sound Orrin Evans gave to this on Eubanks’ 2007 CD, Live, Vol. 1. Stage adaptations of this heady number have gone into epic spans, but here Eubanks trims the arrangement down to below six minutes. Eubanks closes with his modern jazz composition, “Cross Currents,” which dates to Eubanks’ 2001 album, with his group Mental Images, Get 2 It. This 9:34 arrangement is more far-reaching than the Mental Images version, and the lightly Afro-Cuban treatment has noteworthy solos from Eubanks, Soloff (his soaring trumpet is a marvel to hear), Sevian and Smith.
TrackList: More Than Meets the Ear; A Seeking Spirit; Full Circle; Bill and Vera; Mental Images; Metronome; Yes We Can – Victory Dance; Blues for Jimi Hendrix; Cross Currents.