Veteran “Tonight Show” guitarist, Kevin Eubanks, reinterprets jazz classics


Esteemed guitarist and affable music director, Kevin Eubanks, has a new album for 2017. “East West Time Line,” demonstrates the musician interpreting classics and crafting thought-provoking jazz. Songs such as “Poet,” “Take the Coltrane” and “What’s Going On?” exemplify Eubanks’ attention to musical detail.

About Kevin Eubanks

Most likely, Kevin Eubanks became a household name during the 18 years he spent as band leader for the “Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” Eubanks’ effortless playing and friendly demeanor made him an integral part of the show.

Few people realize that Eubanks has been a professional musician since 1982. His first album was released in 1983. His latest, “East West Time Line,” is Eubanks’ 18th album. He continued recording while serving as bandleader and after 2010, when the show ended. His albums to date have been well-received and are popular on streaming services.

“Poet” by Kevin Eubanks

There is something about the first half of “Poet” that calls to mind 1970s soft rock. The song plays like a hush at sunset. Gentle sounds of keyboard and guitar marble the soundscape.

As I have mentioned, soft songs often allow for introspection by listeners. That is what happens in “Poet.” The instrumentation picks up during the second half.The soft crushing sound created by drum and piano interplay is hypnotic. It pulls listeners in and they lose track of time. Then, with a crisp, yet shimmery drumbeat, the song’s seven-minute and 10 seconds run is over, and it has only felt half as long.

Kevin Eubanks: “Take the Coltrane”

Eubank’s version is less than two minutes longer than the John Coltrane and Duke Ellington original. What is the same in both is the energy. The original is ushered in with a mad clattering of drums, and the frenetic wail of horns. Beneath the busy soundscape is the almost off-kilter rumblings of a bass.

Eubanks’ take features a guitar groove and clacking percussion. Almost one minute in, a saxophone plays a smooth groove. Drums begin to clatter. The newer version also sounds slower. It is smooth jazz-oriented. Toward the end, the guitar and saxophone play together. When they drop out, the bass returns. The bass detail, so understated and brilliant in its way, is slightly more lively here. With a clash of drums and the continued clacking of additional percussion, the song makes its way to its logical conclusion.

“Take the Coltrane” makes meaning from the way it stays true to, and departs from, the original. Both songs capture an urban spirit indicative of their performers’ times.

“What’s Going On?” by Kevin Eubanks

The Marvin Gaye classic is popular as a cover song. In his version, Eubanks creates an embellished opening with long horn lines and light guitar and drums. Less than 40 seconds in, the drums change dynamics. The guitar is at least twice as fast as it was, and it is playing the vocal line. A horn solo adds texture just before two minutes elapses. Toward the end, a horn plays enthusiastically and the drums clatter with energy, as the guitar vamps toward the fade out. A song with so much history does not need a great deal of padding. The extra touches Eubanks adds to make the song his own are just enough.

On this release that mixes soft soundscapes with high energy grooves, Eubanks is sure to surprise some listeners. Here, Eubanks shows that he is both a master performer and interpreter of jazz. His takes on classics make them new for his audience.



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Dodie Miller-Gould is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana who lives in New York City where she studies creative nonfiction at Columbia University. She has BA and MA degrees in English from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and an MFA in Fiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include popular music and culture, 1920s jazz, and blues, confessional poetry, and the rhetoric of fiction. She has presented at numerous conferences in rhetoric and composition, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in Tenth Muse, Apostrophe, The Flying Island, Scavenger's Newsletter and elsewhere. She has won university-based awards for creative work and literary criticism.

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