Kevin Eubanks On Music, 'The Tonight Show,' And Making Connections With Public Radio
Guitarist Kevin Eubanks burst onto the jazz scene in the 1980s with a series of R&B-influenced albums for the record label GRP, known for its fusion of jazz, pop and rock. In 1992 came a turning point, both professionally and musically, as he signed to the more traditional Blue Note record label, and also was hired on as a member of Branford Marsalis’ house band on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Marsalis left the show in 1995, and Eubanks was promoted to bandleader, a role he’d remain in for fifteen years. Now, without the grind of a nine-to-five gig, Eubanks has flourished, with acoustic music, a duets album with Stanley Jordan, and public radio appearances on “Piano Jazz” and “Jazzset” where the guitarist was able to stretch and show his formidable chops. His latest release is "East West Time Line."
Eubanks will be playing four sets at San Antonio’s Jazz, TX this week, Tuesday night and Wednesday night, and the gig promises to be a hot date. In this wide-ranging interview, Eubanks talks about his early influences, how the Tonight Show influenced his performance, and he shares a story about how public radio brought him and singer Janis Ian together to collaborate.
The interview transcript below has been hastily* edited for length and clarity. [*please forgive my grammatical errors]
Nathan Cone: Well the first thing I wanted to ask is, you grew up in a musical family in Philadelphia, right? Studying trumpet, and violin. And as I understand, it was a James Brown show that got you to switch to guitar. What was it at that show that you were seeing that made you want to play the guitar?
Kevin Eubanks: I've asked myself that same question always. I remember it was the Uptown Theater on Broad Street in Philadelphia. James Brown played and he was like the biggest, you know. Everybody wanted to be James Brown and everything. And when I came out of that show I remember standing by the curb waiting for my dad to come pick us up. You know [just standing] with my brother, and I said, "I want to play guitar." And I have no idea what would make... you'd think I'd want to sing and dance or something. But from that show I always wanted to play guitar, and my friends thought I was kidding, but I just couldn't think of anything else except "I want to play guitar, I want to play guitar," and it was after a James Brown concert. I have no idea why that made me want to play guitar. And a D7 chord because every song... [laughs] I want to play that D7 chord! But, you know, that is not an easy thing to do, to play that with that groove.
To lay it out for 15 minutes!
I didn't realize it then, but it was kind of not exactly the same thing, but you're playing that same rhythm, and it's really part of the groove it's part of it. It starts to become a chant, and it's really lock-step together. But then when you go to Count Basie's band and, you know, [the guitarist] didn't even have an amp. But that became that same type of feel that just kept coming, and just kept coming, you know? So over the years it's made me grow, and grow in respect for how the rhythm guitar has a place. I mean, guitar is an amazing instrument. You know I don't think guitar is labeled now as a percussion instrument, but it probably [was], to start with. I wouldn't be surprised.
Yeah, and the way several jazz players play it, you're putting out these chords to the layman's ears in a regular manner, in a percussive manner, as part of not only a rhythm, but also emphasizing what the other players are doing. Bouying up the soloist at the same time when you're putting in those chords there, you're doing it in a percussive manner.
And that's that's a really important aspect that the guitar has to it. Like Freddie Green doing it, or the rhythm guitar player for James Brown. It is a connecting thing. It's a rhythmic thing, it's percussive. It's all that. So after a while I just said, well maybe that's what struck me, maybe the consistency of that, but it's just you know, it's as close as I can give to a reason why [I took it up], you know? I think it's amazing how guitar is in so many different genres of music and cultures everywhere. Maybe not in a Western form of it. But you go to different parts of the world there's some instrument that you know...
...a stringed instrument.
Yeah that looks like guitar. It's a ukulele, it's a mandolin, it's this, it's that, it's banjo or whatever it was before it became into the form that it is now. But the percussive properties of it [are] very important.
Well when you were in the Tonight Show band there was a different format that you were playing there a different style. How did how did that affect your... for lack of a better word, your normal playing, or your jazz playing? Being in that band and having to do do what you did there.
In a way it didn't do anything, because we were playing a lot of things that I played when I was 15, 16 years old. We didn't play a lot of jazz. We had great musicians in the band, but my job, the way I looked at it was, I'm here to support the show. This wasn't a stage to develop this group into a jazz-late-night show. That's not what I thought would be the best thing for the show. The music that I picked for the show was stuff that I'd done when I was a teenager. So that part didn't affect [my playing] in any kind of way, that was just part of what I thought the show needed. On the other hand, when we started playing with a lot of the other groups that came on, we played with Dolly Parton, or Clint Black, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Solomon Burke, and people like that when they came. So we would rehearse with them, I would rehearse with them, and I'd get to hang out with them after a while you know? Clint Black and I start hanging out or, you know Willie Nelson, you know I'd hang out with Willie on his bus whenever he showed up, or I'd go to his gigs now, which maybe I wouldn't have done before.
Did you "hang out" with Willie?
[Laughs loudly] Well, I don't think Willie trusts you on the bus unless you're... [laughs even harder]. You're making me cough just talking about it!! But then you start to know these people and you become, you know, friends or acquaintances. Some of them I know to this day... I got close with B.B. King. And after a while that starts to change your attitude about things. 'Cause now they're friends and you get what they're doing more and more. I mean, I've always loved blues music and things like that, but when you actually start to hang out with people that you didn't know before, and it's not just music anymore it's your friend now, and you hang out, and you meet their friends, after a while you start to somehow understand [their music] a little bit more. You start to go "oh I feel this one," and your collection starts growing of music that you listen to, and then it feels different to you because now you have a personal connection with the music. It's not just a musical connection, but you know, B.B. is going to show and says, "Kevin, you're on the same festival, ride with me in the back." So B.B. and I will be at the back of his tour bus and we just sit back and we'd listen to stuff and he'd say "oh you should hear this," or "you should hear that," or something like that. All of a sudden that changes everything, and it's not something that you'd change in a musical sense but it changes you a little bit and then that changes you in a musical sense. So in that way it really opened up a lot of things. I got more into bluegrass music. Dolly Parton's "The Grass is Blue..."
That's a great album!
That is a great record. And I started listening to more of of Dolly Parton. And then I noticed a couple of songs on there that sounded more like mountain music than it did bluegrass or country music. So I started trying to find things where she sang that, and that has become my favorite Dolly Parton music, is when she's singing that way. I just feel more heart in it. I was like, "wow this really touches me a lot." So in that way it changed a whole lot from being on the show because I started being not just opened intellectually about different types of music, but I started to really feel it more, because I started to actually meet people and started going to their concerts which... you know, I'd go to some blues shows, but going to a bluegrass festival, I didn't do that before! But [then]... I thought the technique and some of these players reminded me of jazz musicians and I always thought it would be a great record to have jazz musicians and bluegrass musicians really play. You know come up with music together not play songs that they play in that genre, or we play in jazz genre, but something that they came together with to play together. Because the technique is great.
Like Bela Fleck-type.
Bela Fleck... Yeah, you know Jerry Douglas, people like that. The way the bass sounds has a different kind of rhythmic thing to it, punches it in a different way and you start to notice that a lot of it came out of that way. So in a musical sense being on that show opened me up a lot but it wasn't necessarily the music that we were playing, it's the association that I had with the other musicians.
Well before we turned on the microphone we were talking a little bit about the physicality of performance. Did being on that show being the band leader of the Tonight Show, did that, you think change or improve your performance? And I mean the the actual stage presence and everything that comes along with that as well.
I still get nervous before I go on! I don't know. That's a good question. I never even I never was asked that question before. I think it's easier for me to relate to people. You know? I don't know if that comes across when I'm doing a gig or not. I'm always having the jitters. But I used to say you know it's more excitement than anything, I still have this edge of excitement before I play. But as far as the stage presence, my stage presence is terrible! [laughs] It's always been because I just, you know the music just is... I'm ready to play! But before you know it you know, I am... to answer the question I think maybe I am better at it you know? Maybe incrementally so. [laughs] But I feel it's easier to talk to people in the audience if that's in a club situation. Sometimes it's just that way, you know? You're playing a show and it's raining and people come in and you don't think of anything, but it just comes your head because you're comfortable, especially if it's a club you've played a lot before, and say "Smitty [the drummer] will be taking all your jackets," and this and that. [laughs] But that probably wouldn't have happened before. You know being in that kind of variety show and comics on, and writers and all that you know.
And having to riff verbally with people.
Yeah, it just kind of happens naturally. So maybe I am a little bit better. It did happen one festival, I got on a roll and I was talking and talking, and then somebody shouted out, "Play some music!" [laughs] I said "OK, I get it." You're here to play music.
Well, you know I'm curious about gigs, and I've always wondered this with jazz musicians too, because when you're creating your setlist that you're going to put out for the gig you're gonna play, do you feel the need to always create your setlist based on whatever your most recent album is, or do you like to draw from your entire career, or throw in standards or what do you like to do in terms of presenting a show to to an audience?
Usually I just do it by ear. What feels good, what feels right to do next. And sometimes it's totally... I gave up writing setlists years ago because I never follow them. Never! You know you might have your closer or something like that, but I never followed the set list. It just didn't matter. The funny thing is when I play
"I still get nervous before I go on."
with a different group and it's not my group, I always say "where's a setlist?" so I know what's coming up! But then once I learn their book of music, I don't care what's coming up next. So I just kind of play it by ear. If Smitty, the drummer, and the group... if he's having a hot night, you can't get in his way, anyhow. But it really depends on what's happened and one time we played in a room that was so echoey. I mean you just couldn't play anything even slightly loud or it would just feed back, and it would just be a miserable time, you just couldn't hear anything. So I said Smitty could you play brushes all night. Just play brushes all night. And we're not going to play with the sound, turned the monitors off, turned all this stuff off. It was beautiful. You know, everybody could hear everything, it drew the audience in more. And that was just to deal with the fact that the acoustics in the room were just terrible. But it taught us something at the same time. Smitty loved playing with the brushes. The way we played the song, the intros to the songs were different. The way the ballads played, everything worked differently just because of that. So a lot of times, just doing it by ear instead of having your regimented thing set up, you just have to go with what's in the moment of what's happening. It makes a big difference sometimes.
I'm curious about another thing in contemporary jazz music here. In classical music, we often wonder what is going to be the contemporary work that's going to stand the test of time, right? Do you ever think about that in jazz, about, you know, what are the tunes that have been written over the past 50 years, if any, that will make it into the standard repertoire in the future. You ever think of that in terms of your own music at all?
Yeah, not a lot though. But there are some songs that people use, and some colleges, the head of the department will use your [music]. But I doubt that that is very meaningful in the way that you asked because there's no lyrics to it. And what makes some of the songs standards is the time period in which it all happened. And there's lyrics involved in it and it was just a show tune, it was this song, there was something, and it got into all different genres of music and because it touched so many different areas, it made it easier for it to become a standard. I don't think there's anything that you just identify completely, well I want this to be a standard or something like that. But the fact that jazz by and large--but certainly not across the board, of course--that the instrumental instrumental songs... I mean if you ask a person, just the average person, what do you hear when you listen when you hear a song? Because we're musicians and we think this is what we hear and we think everybody else hears it. Me and Doc [Watkins, owner of Jazz, TX] were talking about it earlier. What do they hear? And I just randomly walk through a park and say "What are you listening to," and "what do you hear?" And they go, "Oh this is a song." I do not know who wrote it or what the song is, but [I ask] what do you hear, do you hear the piano, do you hear the bass? And they go "the lyrics and the beat." And that's it! So how do you going to have a standard song if there's no lyric? People don't know how to listen to songs that don't have lyrics to it. How did they associate it with growing up, do they associate with this, a sunny day, or rainy day, or I'm in love, I'm out of love. You know those things everybody can relate to. I think that helps make things become a standard. But there's standard movies, they're standard types of things, you want to see the good guy win, you want to see the romance work out after having a problem, and it resolves. It's a standard thing that we all deal with, so I don't really feel that the songs that I write--nor do I think about them when I'm writing it--probably won't wind up as standards. They might be in an instrumental way, which is probably a lot smaller circle that might be in some colleges for a while and stuff like that.
I mean, "My One and Only Love" as a song is a beautiful standard for a reason. But things have changed now. The way people hear music now... and the way it's related. I think about that when you hear music, you hear rap music, you hear different kinds of music, you know, what would be the standard song? And how many different eras, not to pick on rap music, or it could be different kinds of music. But how does that relate in different time periods. I mean you talk about decades and decades and decades you know, Gershwin or something like that. But you heard it on Broadway, you heard it in songs, you heard ten different artists singing the same song. It's something that you can sing to all ages and people grow up into it. So it becomes standardized in a pervasive kind of way and your culture that you're coming up. So it's kind of a different thing but there's probably people in the different types of genres of music that in that circle you can have a lot of different standards but it probably won't be, you know, I don't know...
Do you think it's also harder though for a song nowadays? Maybe let's take a popular song to become a standard in some sense? Because people associate it with the original artist that recorded it too, sometimes? Because it's like, I don't know, a Bee Gees song for example. You know like "Stayin' Alive," right? Well you can't think of anybody else doing that song except the Bee Gees, right? And the way it sounds with the Bee Gees, and the tempo that they take and et cetera. Or it could be the Beatles, or it could be Public Enemy, you know? I mean Public Enemy is a great example because the mix, and the the way the sound is created, and their music is such that it is so unique to them that it's hard to repeat that.
I agree with that. I did hear, I was in Russia playing. And this was in [at the club] where I was playing and the music [on the speakers] that you know while everybody's coming in,. And it was "Stayin' Alive," and it was a funk version and it was so badass, it was so good. It was a badass version of it! I mean it was so good! And it's like, who is the band? You know the song was "Stayin' Alive" and it was a great arrangement of it! So sometimes it almost shows you just how great the song is, that it can cross over in different genres and the essence of it is still there. I mean it was it was really good but it may not happen as often as I'd like to hear because there's some great songs, and I like to do arrangements on different songs like that. But part of it is, I really want to hear, you know, this person sing it. And that is the one that I measure all of them by. I want to hear Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On." I don't want to hear somebody else sing that song. That is a great thing when just one person does it, because a lot of the songs, you know 20 different artists are doing the song. But I definitely agree with you, there's just some people that... I just want to hear Aretha Franklin sing "Respect," that's it. I don't want to hear anybody else! [laughs]
Well, the last thing I want to ask before I let you go is just kind of a geeky tech question. I want to know what kind of guitars you play. There's something unique about them, I see photographs of them, they seem like they have kind of like wide necks on them. Am I wrong? Do they have kind of like a wider neck?
Yeah, they have wider necks, and that's because I play with my fingers. So classical guitarists would pick up my guitar and say, "wow this feels good." I like the tone of it more, because you have more meat on the neck, so you get a warmer sound if you're looking for that, If you need that. So a lot of it changes the tone of the guitar, the width of the neck, and how deep it is, which I learned from acoustic bass players. A big part of the sound is coming off from the neck that feeds into the body. We are gettin' geeky, aren't we? [laughs].
I like that! [laughs].
But you know, the guitars that I play now are just custom made guitars that are made to fit me, what I need out of a guitar. And that's across the board, that has to sound great, number one. It has to feel good. I have to be able to travel with it, or you might wind up losing it because you got to put it on baggage or something like that. And that's something that's real that you have to deal with. But everybody has a different kind of feel. The real interesting thing is I lost a guitar a while back because I was traveling. And I had to get to two concerts that were coming right up and I didn't have a chance to get another one from home, it was on the other side of the country, and nobody could tell the difference! And that made me think. Nobody could tell the difference! Barely the people in the band onstage with me. You know I was playing with Dave Holland, and you know. Nobody could tell the difference. By the time the monitor person gets to it, the house gets to it, the whole thing I mean, what are people hearing? But you're up there and you know, we're so, "I got to have this, I got to have that." But my attitude about that has changed about that. Just give me the guitar and I'll play it.
"I'll make it work."
I'll make it work. Because at the end of the day do you make somebody feel something? It might sound great to you because it's your guitar, you could have designed the guitar yourself, and it's just perfect for you. It has nothing to do actually with what the other person is hearing and is it something that makes people feel good about it? I could sit in at a blues club. I don't take my guitar, I don't do anything, just a guy hands me his guitar, it could be real slinky strings on it (I like thicker strings), but we're playing music now, we're not measuring this and measuring that. Just give them something and a guitar. And if you want low, you know, it you want that, play on the low strings, that'll make you play something different. At the end of the day you listen to what Nat Cole was singing into one mike, and a whole band is playing, and bluegrass groups, they have one mike, you know? And the fiddle player comes up and plays, and he steps back and the vocalist comes on the same mike, and it sounds great! And it's just one mike! And now you need like two hours to do a sound check! [laughs] But if you're not feeling anything, it really doesn't matter.
Kevin Eubanks thank you so much for your time. You've been very generous.
No, man! Thank you for having me. I can't say enough for public radio. You feel like that it's something you want to turn on where you feel you're getting a square shot. You're getting something real and people are doing it for the right reasons, and it just feels comfortable. That's how I met Janis Ian, who I grew up listening to and loved her playing since I was a kid. And this was while I was listening to Sly and the Family Stone and James Brown and everybody else, and but always liked Janis Ian, for some reason. I was listening to Neil Young, I listened to a lot of music as a kid. And so I was doing a public radio interview and I can't remember the city. And they said well what's in your--at the time it was iPods--so what's in your iPod. What do you listen to? And I said I always listen to "Kind of Blue," by Miles Davis. It always puts me in the right space. It's almost like listening to the ocean or something. And I always have a Janis Ian playlist that I always update. And they said "really?" I said, "Yeah." So the interview's over and somebody comes out and says "Janis Ian just called for you." And I never met her before! She says, "she wanted me to give you this note," and the note says, "I don't believe you." And she left her email! And I wrote her and she says, "here's my number, call me back." And we've been friends ever since.
And that's public radio! And as I said, she says, "I don't believe you." I said, "go ahead, say the title of one of your songs." And I would start singing the lyric from it. She says, "You're kidding! We got to get together," and we did. And we started writing together, and all that, and we're friends to this day. Somehow, that was a reflection of public radio to me, that it brought us together. Completely disparate type of things that people would think... that, "oh he's playing this, and Janis is playing this [other type of music]," something like that. And not true. It just came together at the right time and that's amazing. But that's how we met. You know so that's my favorite public radio story but it was real. And it was cool.
And that's why people should support public radio!
Definitely. Support public radio! You're not just supporting public radio you're supporting yourself by doing that. You know you can't do it by yourself. It's like when I go to a store that's selling good vegan food. You know, I want this store to stay open, you know? So I give a generous tip when I go in a store, you know? Because I want them to be around. I'm not just helping the store, I'm helping me. I need nutrition around me, so how do I do that? If that's the way I can do it, if there's a co-op, fine, I'll do that. If I can tip enough that it makes a difference... so by supporting public radio you're supporting more than just a radio station report. You're supporting how you feel about things. You're supporting how you feel about the world, how you feel about different things, and you want to have a place where you feel at home. And it's part of the collective that you're part of, that you're involved in. You're not just supporting your house, you live in it, you know? So it's great. And again thank you for doing what you do, and for all on public radio doing that. It's a beautiful thing. We can't let it go.