With Boost from Album Launch, Eubanks Soars at Birdland

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Kevin Eubanks released the album East West Time Line (Mack Avenue) on April 7.

(Photo: Courtesy of the artist)

Kevin Eubanks’ brand of celebrity is a rare commodity in the jazz world. Rooted in the peculiar familiarity bred by a perch on network TV—in Eubanks’ case, a 15-year tenure as the music director on NBC’s The Tonight Show With Jay Leno—such celebrity can either drive an artist to distraction or compel him to focus more intensely on his music-making. Based on the guitarist’s sold-out appearance on April 12 at Birdland in New York, the latter is the case.

Since leaving his TV gig in 2010, Eubanks has steadily focused on reestablishing his reputation as one of the day’s most imposing guitarists. In the first set on the second night of a five-night run, he resumed that quest. Apart from a brief welcome to the audience and a closing remark or two, he uttered not a word during the set—wearing his celebrity lightly and letting the music speak for itself.

That it did, expansively and, at times, explosively. This was not a set for the faint-hearted, nor for those fond of popular standards politely rendered. Rather, it was about the wholesale creation of a musical ecosystem—one dominated by vivid textures and acid tones, in which polarities of ebb and flow, tension and release were articulated frequently and with great particularity. Melodic themes, as such, were proffered mainly as jumping-off points for the spontaneous conjuring of new forms that lived or died based purely on their musical substance.

Part of the excitement came from the potential danger—a pleasant, if unsettling, feeling that, as the sonic material grew denser and more complex amid the extraordinary churn, the entire organism would collapse from within. But on this night, with this band of virtuosos—Eubanks, bassist Dave Holland, trumpeter Nicholas Payton and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts—the center held. Operating with a common sensibility and a singularity of purpose, the group—in only its second live performance—had already found its modus operandi. The rest would be a matter of refinement.

If an anchor was to be identified, it was the group’s senior member, Holland. At 70, he continues to be the most inventive of double-bassists, summoning lines that are at once poetic and propulsive in the extreme. Seeing Holland sparring with Eubanks sparked flashbacks to Eubanks’ pre-TV days, when the two musicians were producing ambitious records like Extensions (ECM), the debut of the bassist’s quartet and the DownBeat critics poll album of the year in 1989.

The introduction during the April 12 set of themes from “New-One,” a Holland original that first appeared on his Jumpin’ In (ECM), from 1983, only reinforced the sense of déjà vu. Revisiting the tune, Holland still proved every bit the supercharged presence—in the throes of creation, he sometimes raised his right leg as if urging on his flying fingers—prompting the mind to flash back even further, to 1970, when the bassist was electrifying audiences on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.

Flash forward to April 12: As Holland’s statements tumbled forth, Eubanks responded in kind, idiosyncratic color commentary pouring from his solid-body electric guitar. From the opening tune, Elvin Jones’ kinetic “Take The Coltrane,” to the set’s closer, Eubanks’ bluesy “The Dirty Monk,” the guitarist, drawing on a seemingly limitless bag of tricks—often deployed in sly opposition to the harmonic and rhythmic run of play—injected into the mix a calculated instability that raised the stakes for players and audience members alike. The effect was heady and slightly disorienting; attention had to be paid.

The performance was, broadly speaking, of a piece with Eubanks’ recent efforts. After leaving his TV gig and signing with Mack Avenue, he released three uncompromising albums—Zen Food, The Messenger and Duets—each unique in the way it embraced the Philadelphia native’s artistic roots. On April 7, he released his fourth album for the label, East West Time Line. That occasioned the run at Birdland, though the April 12 set offered little evidence that the album’s central conceit—two separate bands, one each recruited from and representing the music of the East and West coasts—held much sway over Eubanks’ choice of tunes or their execution for the performance. Throughout the set, Eubanks culled from recorded material accumulated over more than three decades—only some of which appeared on the new album.

That, however, does not mean the set lacked programmatic coherence; to the contrary. Near the end of the set, in fact, as the band stretched out on “Dirty Monk,” off Zen Food, Payton found himself lingering on a phrase that evoked the signature theme from John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” Suddenly, Eubanks, who had been immersed in the kind of contrapuntal interplay for which he had a decided predilection, doubled up on Payton’s line. And Holland followed suit. All of which constituted, in effect, a collective allusion to the subject of the evening’s opening tune—bookending the set with an apt, and wholly inspired, resolution. DB