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03/17/13

Kevin Eubanks
The Messenger
Mack Avenue Records

Some elements of The Messenger just shouldn’t work: the too-cute grumble/ scat on “Led Boots” and the too-delicate guitar on “The Gloaming” all but beg to tank. They don’t. Instead, the sheer force of guitarist and former Tonight Show band director Kevin Eubanks’ will makes them sound fantastic.

Indeed, Eubanks’ will goes a long way on The Messenger. It’s a diverse realm of smooth and straight-ahead jazz, blues-rock and funk. Yet it feels somehow like a unified whole. Partly that’s the high-gloss production that permeates the disc, but mostly it’s the taste and skill of the leader. Yes, Alvin Chea’s vocal on “Led Boots” approaches caricature, but Eubanks underlines it with aggressive (acoustic) rhythm guitar and distorted (electric) rips that make Chea instead seem spot-on. Eubanks himself avoids melodrama on “The Gloaming” by placing his tender acoustic in duet with tenor saxophonist Bill Pierce, whose lines equal Eubanks’ in beauty but have just enough bite to prevent them from collapsing in a pool of tears.

Eubanks is also shrewd in choosing musicians; his brothers, trombonist Robin and trumpeter Duane, aren’t here just for sentiment. The former grounds the straight-ahead ballad “Queen of Hearts,” his rhythmic charge bringing meat and kinesis to the thin, sluggish melody. Duane similarly buoys “Sister Veil,” then out-funks the rhythm section on “JB” and the Sly Stone-inspired “420.” But that rhythm section has its own triumphs. The smooth title track’s 4/4 beat is simple and repetitive, but Eubanks employs bassist Rene Camacho, drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith and percussionist Joey De Leon Jr. so deftly that it’s hard to care. That sort of surefooted leadership is the secret to The Messenger’s success.

Originally published in March 2013
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