Robin, Kevin & Duane Eubanks: Wake-Up Call

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Robin, Kevin and Duane Eubanks
By Christopher Dubay
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Robin, Kevin and Duane Eubanks
By Christopher Dubay

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Traffic permitting, it’s only about a 15-minute drive from the NBC studios in beautiful downtown Burbank to the new Knitting Factory Hollywood, over on Hollywood Boulevard. Culturally, though, they’re a proverbial world apart.

One Friday in May, these two venues serve as handy, contrasting reference points in a saga of one of jazz’s notable families, the Eubanks clan from Philadelphia. Guitarist Kevin, of course, holds down one of the choicest day gigs in music, leading the Tonight Show band. Trombonist brother Robin was in town to play at the Knit West, along with the youngest brother, Duane (a twin with nonprofessional-trombonist/
bassist Shane), a trumpeter who has been in Robin’s band, Mental Images, for a few years now. You can hear all three brothers on Robin’s impressive new CD, Get 2 It (REM), on which Kevin puts in a couple of cameos and Duane is part of the front line.

The Eubanks brothers hunker down in Kevin’s small, densely packed office at NBC for an early afternoon interview. It’s one of the few times all three will be together this year. “Once or twice a year, for family things,” Robin says. “Kevin gets back home to Philly more than I do. He’s making me look bad.”

The place is hopping, with a few hours to go before that day’s taping. Someone wants to know if Kevin and band can pull together a hit by the evening’s musical guest, Prince. Eubanks shakes his head in disbelief, not even stopping to entertain the idea. Enter Marvin “Smitty” Smith, resident Tonight Show drummer and former ally with Robin in the M-BASE scene of the ’80s, and also in Dave Holland’s band. It’s a brief reunion in Burbank, with hugs all around.

Later that afternoon and evening, Kevin serves up tight, raucous tunes, including “Walk This Way,” during commercial breaks (Prince’s new band actually heeds the jazz muse more than the Tonight Show band). Robin and Mental Images, including longtime drummer cohort Gene Jackson and keyboardist George Colligan, hold forth with steam and innovation at the club. He unleashes postbop intensity on straight acoustic trombone, on a tune like his J.J. Johnson tribute, “Cross Currents,” showing why Eubanks is one of the finest jazz trombonists alive. Then, turning a stylistic corner without blinking, he delves into fascinatingly FX-colored, kaleidoscopic fury on his Hendrix tribute, “Blues for Jimi.” Live, as on record, Eubanks makes it all work artfully, like tiles in an intricate, logical yet intuitive, and slightly surreal mosaic.

Robin’s vast résumé includes work with jazz masters like Art Blakey, his hero, the late J.J. Johnson, Elvin Jones, Sun Ra and McCoy Tyner—not to mention his pivotal role in the Brooklyn-based M-BASE scene with Steve Coleman and Greg Osby in the ’80s. But the résumé also includes work with Stevie Wonder, the Rolling Stones, the Talking Heads and, yes, even Barbra Streisand. Yet another aspect of his musical life is an active role in education as an assistant professor at Oberlin Conservatory.

Eubanks’ highest-profile gig, however, is Dave Holland’s Quintet. Get 2 It begins with Eubanks’ twistingly rhythmic “Metamorphos,” which was heard on Holland’s 1998 album, Points of View (ECM). Eubanks has been collaborating with Holland for many years, and the current Quintet is among the most artful groups on the scene.

A similar kind of genre-mashing adventurism can be heard in Eubanks’ Mental Images, which creates a seamless idiomatic stitchery of jazz, funk, hypnotic odd-meter math, bebop, African concepts of rhythmic displacement and more.

Get 2 It is, in a real way, a matter of Robin getting back to it, returning to his uniquely eclectic vision of his earlier albums. Most recently, Eubanks’ discography took a straightahead turn with the TCB release 4:JJ/Slide/Curtis & Al, a respectful nod to his trombonist heroes, and Wake Up Call (Sirocco). Get 2 It picks up on the engagingly eclectic lead of his earlier albums for the German JMT label, from 1988’s Different Perspectives to the fine 1994 CD Mental Images.

“I’ve played with so many different kinds of bands and so many different styles of music,” Robin says. “I use lots of diverse music on Mental Images and on Karma, and the first one, Different Perspectives. The two albums between, Wake Up Call and the one dedicated to J.J., with Slide, Curtis Fuller and Al Grey, were more like straightahead recordings. I figured it was time to document that. Now, I’ve gone back to what I really want to do.”

Part of what he really wanted to do was take command of his career: Get 2 It is Robin’s first self-made project, on his own time, on his own dime, on his own label, distributed through the Web and on his own site, www.robineubanks.com.

“Because it’s a project that I did myself and financed myself, I was able to take the time I wanted, to do it correctly. All the other recordings I’ve done were done in two days of recording, in a rush job so they can get to the next project. This was definitely a labor of love, and I was happy I had the resources to put that kind of time into it. This is definitely my best project thus far.”

After grappling with frustrations over unfair business relationships with various record labels over the years, Robin decided to go it alone with Get 2 It, and found a strong voice of support in Kevin, who has planned to start a label for some time.

REM Records, Robin says, “is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Record companies have owned all of musicians’ music for decades, and doing whatever they want with your creations. It’s time for musicians to really take control of their own destiny and their music, and everything. The real problem is the distribution. The Internet and all kinds of other creative possibilities have come about that people’s minds are starting to think of. It makes it much more accessible and possible. A lot of musicians are really seizing the moment.”

Kevin adds, “That the statement ‘you want to own your music’ exists means there’s something dreadfully wrong. That’s like saying ‘I want to be free one day.’ That’s presupposing that you’re a slave to begin with, or that somebody owns your music to begin with. Why does that even have to be considered as something revolutionary, that you would want to own your own music? You own your house. You own your car. You own everything else. There’s no other business I can think of where any of that makes any sense.”

Robin: “Another part of this is that the management or entities in the background put it out and give you this money, to front a product that they own, but it’s called yours. So somebody might be happy because they can say ‘I’ve got my record out.’ The record company is sitting in the back, taking all the money, saying ‘Hey, go out and support your record.’ But it’s their record the whole time.

“So people are seeing it in terms of ego gratification, that it’s their record, so they’re not even thinking about the broader aspects, about where the ownership really lies and everything else.”

Kevin: “Like Robin said, the only thing to crack is the distribution. I think it can be cracked. I mean, we made it here from Africa, and we can’t just say ‘Ooh, if it wasn’t for that distribution thing, we really could have been something as a people’,” he laughs.

“We don’t have anything to lose. If you don’t have anything to lose, then you have a lot more energy going out. It’s just like Napster. I got as much from Napster as I got from GRP—nothing. So what do I care if it’s on Napster? My records are out of print, but you can get them on Napster. What does Napster mean to jazz musicians? It just means that more people get to hear your stuff. We never got a royalty anyway, so what difference does it make?

“My gripe is not with record companies or the stores or radio or any of that. They’re just minding their business, and doing a good job at it as far as I’m concerned. My gripe is with the musicians. I don’t have anything to say to the record companies except ‘no.’ But to musicians, we get together and it’s like we’re arguing about this and that, and everybody’s got a better thing. ‘I play better so I should get paid more.’ We have this very myopic view of how things are supposed to be going and we just hold ourselves back.”

Of late, Robin has focused intensive creative energy on his group, which he has assembled “to get together and play with friends of mine that were interested in playing my music, people I could get along with well and especially people who I knew could handle the different demands, in terms of feels, like straightahead jazz and funk and Latin and odd meters. Once you get the concept, I don’t think it’s that hard. It’s what you do with it, not whether you can make it through the melody. That’s one thing. You have to create things after that.”

Electronics deployed with trombone, or any horn for that matter, remains a specialty case in jazz. Eddie Harris, who experimented with electric saxophone, comes to mind, though he was often criticized for it. Robin Eubanks effuses about Harris: “He was definitely one of the pioneers of all this stuff. He used to create instruments. He would put a saxophone mouthpiece on a trumpet and blow on that. He was an amazing cat. I got to do a few gigs with him. He always had books with him. He had a joke book, an astrology book, saxophone technique books; he invented instruments.”

George Lewis, the trombone virtuoso for whom electronic and computer experimentation has been a dominant concern for over 25 years, also takes his place in the pantheon of plugged-in horn players. And Eubanks is another electro-acoustic adventurer, who has become increasingly fluent in his own private musical language. His experiments have paid off and the use of electronics—whether pitch shifting, timbre filtering, elaborate delay loops, and other odd manipulations of the source signal—are indeed seamless and impressive, both on the new album and in his live presentation.

“I just enjoy getting different colors and timbres out of the trombone. It’s something I’ve been working on for a long time, which has really been crystallizing within the last few years. I’ve been waiting for a project where I would really be able to document it the way I wanted to, and this one turned out to be the one.

“I’m feeling better about the transition and knowing what to do next. That’s the hard part sometimes, keeping track, mentally and physically, of the technology—which button to push when. Some of the guys in the band have played with me for several years and they mentioned to me yesterday that they’re hearing much smoother continuity, between transitions and segues, and the concept is stronger. I wasn’t even aware of it, but I trust their opinion.”

The Eubanks brothers’ tastes traverse a wide range, although each has his own particular musical persona.

“We just grew up hearing music, hearing gospel music and hearing R&B,” Robin says. “We were basically trying to keep developing. Kevin and I started learning how to play jazz maybe when I brought home something to play. I forget exactly what happened. We didn’t know how to play over changes at all.

“That’s what got me into jazz, basically, was trying to learn how to improvise. We were just into R&B and funk. Then the band we were in was trying to put some solos in and I couldn’t play solos. So I started to learn to play and then heard Mahavishnu Orchestra and these fusion things in different time signatures. I couldn’t even tap my foot to it.

“To me a musician is someone who studies music. It’s not somebody who plays guitar or trombone. To me, there are guitarists and trombonists. A musician is someone who studies music. So if you’re into learning, you just continually develop. And you’ve got to be open in order to continually develop.

“I was just trying to figure out what these meters were, wondering, ‘What are they doing?’ That was interesting to me, so I tried to learn that. It’s the same thing when I heard African music, Brazilian music, Indian music—which I love—and in classical music, Bartók and Stravinsky, which I also love. Various things that I like interest me and I try to learn them and find a way to take aspects of that and include it in what I’m trying to do. That way, you add additional components to your arsenal and just expand everything.”

Experimentation with new sounds and gadgets, Robin says, “was something that I grew up trying to do, because the music I was listening to wasn’t jazz when I was a little kid. I was listening to funk, fusion, R&B, Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and a lot of the music I was listening to didn’t have any trombones in it. But this was the only instrument I could play, so what was I going to do,” he says, laughing.

“I would do something with the trombone sound to make it fit inside the other kind of context. I was trying to play acoustic trombone when cats were doing this Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin type stuff, the sound was incompatible for me. I felt like I was always on the outside looking in. I experimented with electronics for a long time. It’s just now that the technology has developed to the point where I’m actually able to do it.”

Robin was born in 1955, two years before Kevin and 13 before Duane. As he was leaving Philadelphia for New York in the early ’80s, Duane was a young, impressionable, and rebellious teenager, and Robin tried to impart musical wisdom on the younger sib.

“I grew up listening to hip-hop,” Duane explains. “I’m that age. I didn’t listen to jazz at all. Robin would come home every once in awhile and he drilled myself and my twin brother, saying, ‘You all have to know who Miles Davis is, and who Clifford Brown is.’ I’m not going to tell you some of the things he used to do. He used to quiz us and if we got things wrong, he’d do things to us. At the time, I was ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, blah, blah blah.’ I’d hear him, but I wasn’t hearing him.

“And then when I started playing, I decided to really check it out. Once I tried to learn solos, that’s when I got interested. I would hear Robin practicing, but until you do it yourself, it’s just outside things. They come in, but you don’t hear them. It was that kind of thing.

I wasn’t into the Led Zeppelin and stuff like that. I didn’t even hear it until later on in life. When I heard the Mahavishnu stuff, I thought, ‘Damn, that’s the shit Robin and Kevin are playing.’ I could make a definite correlation there. So then I understood where they were coming from.”

Duane, who has now made two albums under his own name for the TCB label, hopes to integrate his own range of influences as he gains more experience. His open ears have a more pragmatic application than Robin’s.

“Especially in this day and age, if you want to survive, musicians have to be open-minded,” Duane says. “You have to be able to play a straightahead acoustic jazz gig, an electric gig, an R&B or pop gig, or even just a blues gig, or Broadway shows. You have to be able to do that if you want to survive as a musician. There are musicians, friends of mine, who say ‘I don’t dig that, you selling out. I’ll just play straightahead music.’ They have to understand that that’s the individual who will get left out. They’ll be sitting at home while I go do a Broadway show and smile. It doesn’t matter to me.”

Robin Eubanks, at 45, is an admirable paradox. He’s a model of instrumental skill and discipline, inspired by the example of J.J. and others. But he’s also among the youngest-spirited players on the block. Like an idealistic upstart, he refuses to abide by the rules as laid down by tradition, institutions or the industry.

“I’m just trying to take all the different experiences and elements and fuse them together in a way that is uniquely me. I don’t think that’s anything extraordinary. I feel that everybody has that potential to do that. I attribute this to my practice of Buddhism all these years as a major component in that process. I open myself to possibilities and to the environment, the universe, everything. I really feel that there’s no limit to what can be done. It’s just a matter of you getting to it.”

Originally published in July/August 2001

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