June 24, 2024


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Kevin Eubanks is being released into the wild as one of the most recognized jazz headliners in the country: Video

15.11. – Happy Birthday !!! Kevin Eubanks ended his 15-year tenure as musical director of “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” on Friday with a song, alone on acoustic guitar.

It was “Adoration,” an original ballad flecked with classical filigree, and he gave it a warmly dignified calm. He seemed unhurried and introspective, already pulling away from the frenetic clamor of the show. The moment played out like a curtain call, when an actor leaves his character in the wings and you think, “So this is who he really is.” Not that you actually know him any better.

Mr. Eubanks is being released into the wild as one of the most recognized jazz headliners in the country, and musically one of the least recognizable. To the extent that he’s a household name, it’s as a comic foil and fail-safe, the guy with the grim duty of laughing at Mr. Leno’s jokes (or being the brunt of them). Since he took the reins from the saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who never warmed to the role of sidekick during his three-year run, Mr. Eubanks has dismissed any suggestion that the show was an artistic drain.

But is it really possible to think otherwise? He joined the Tonight Show Band under Mr. Marsalis in 1992. His most recent album to receive widespread distribution, “Live at Bradley’s” (Blue Note), was recorded in 1994. He has a steady group, with a lineup nearly identical to the members of the Tonight Show Band, but it tends to appear sporadically at the Baked Potato in Los Angeles. (Last year the group played the Blue Note in New York, but before that it had been ages.)

“I’ve missed his voice on the scene,” said the bassist Dave Holland, who worked closely with Mr. Eubanks from the late 1980s through the mid-’90s, and who currently employs two of his brothers, Robin, a trombonist, and Duane, a trumpeter. “I’m really looking forward to being able to hear him more and to see him more active again.”

Mr. Eubanks, 52, has said that it was a desire to refocus on music, rather than any problem with Mr. Leno or NBC, that motivated his decision to leave the show. “I want to play some music, and not just jazz,” he told The Philadelphia Inquirer recently. “Other genres too. It’s weird but I don’t consider myself just a jazz musician.” (Mr. Eubanks did not respond to interview requests for this article.)

His resistance to pigeonholing is true to form, and to his own history. Growing up in Philadelphia, Mr. Eubanks played extensively in Top 40 and funk bands, even as he built a jazz career. A virtuoso who had synthesized jazz-rock, funk and the blues, he was well suited to the task of a late-night bandleader. “I’m just trying to take advantage of the fact that I’m able to access a lot of different types of music genuinely,” he told me in 1999.

But his Tonight Show Band was always admirable for its versatility, vitality and polish, more than any distinctiveness of style. Partly that’s a reflection of the job. It speaks volumes that Mr. Eubanks’s successor won’t be a solo artist of any stripe but rather Rickey Minor, who until last week was the musical director of “American Idol.”

Kevin Eubanks on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” Friday. Credit Paul Drinkwater/NBCU. By contrast, Mr. Eubanks had come to the show with an artistic identity, which has since been muddled, and not just by his network responsibilities. Over the last decade Mr. Eubanks has released six albums, largely unnoticed, on his own boutique label, InSoul. Their mood is drowsy, skirting New Age sensibilities, though the musicianship never wavers. “Soweto Sun,” from 2006, has some exquisite acoustic guitar playing. But the gentility can be lulling.

So let’s say you started further back, with “Live at Bradley’s,” a study in expressive, idiomatic hard-bop, made with the pianist James Williams and the bassist Robert Hurst. What it tells you about Mr. Eubanks is that he can handle a mainstream jazz-guitar dialect, the one defined by Wes Montgomery, as cogently and compellingly as anyone.

What doesn’t it tell you? For one thing, much of what Mr. Eubanks was up to in the early 1980s, when he was one of the more important new arrivals on his instrument. “Guitarist,” his 1982 debut, originally issued on Elektra/Musician and now on the Wounded Bird label, lays out a strong introduction, showcasing his breadth of taste and his commanding proficiency in both an electric and an acoustic vein.

Mr. Eubanks’s output during the rest of that decade looks in retrospect like a jarring contrast between art and commerce: an oversimplification, but not entirely unwarranted. His early solo career was concurrent with the rise of smooth jazz — 1982 was also the year of the self-titled debut “Kenny G” (Arista) — and he splashed in those shallows for a while.

Then he fell in with Mr. Holland, who had made an impact in fusion (with Miles Davis) and the avant-garde (with the multi-reedist Sam Rivers). “Extensions” (ECM), a progressively groove-minded album of Mr. Holland’s from 1989, documents a working quartet with Mr. Eubanks; the alto-saxophonist Steve Coleman, an uncompromising creative force; and the dynamic drummer Marvin (Smitty) Smith, later to become the rhythmic engine of the Tonight Show Band. This album has aged remarkably well.

To a lesser extent, so have Mr. Eubanks’s subsequent three studio releases on Blue Note, featuring his formally intricate compositions, and the dauntless rhythm team of Mr. Holland and Mr. Smith. And “World Trio” (Intuition), a 1995 album credited to Mr. Holland, Mr. Eubanks and the percussionist Mino Cinelu, holds up and then some: it’s a model of collective rapport with a world-music twist, fully acoustic but crackling with energy. From a guitar standpoint, it shows how deeply Mr. Eubanks had absorbed the lessons of John McLaughlin, in both his Shakti and Mahavishnu Orchestra incarnations.

There’s no clear indication of the direction Mr. Eubanks might take now, musically speaking. Last week on “The Tonight Show” he was vague about everything except his involvement with the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, a nonprofit organization devoted to jazz education. (Last month he became artistic director of the institute’s Jazz in the Classroom program, which works with students in Los Angeles public schools.)

“I know he wants to play more, that’s for sure,” said the saxophonist Bill Pierce, a member of Mr. Eubanks’s touring band, and a colleague for more than 30 years. He was quick to agree with the thought that Mr. Eubanks, for all his visibility, had been flying under the radar for some time, and that audiences were due for a reintroduction. “If they thought he was just what they see on TV,” he said, “they might be surprised.”

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