Kevin Eubanks: After The Tonight Show

A major voice in jazz and fusion guitar reclaims his role

Photo of Kevin Eubanks

Kevin Eubanks (photo by Anna Webber)

Located just outside Times Square in Manhattan, Birdland draws its fair share of curious tourists on any given night. That allure was amplified in mid-April, when the club hosted guitarist and singer Kevin Eubanks for four nights—the rare name familiar even to the least jazz-educated of Big Apple sightseers.

Those coming in just to catch a glimpse of the man who was Jay Leno’s jocular sidekick on The Tonight Show for 18 years may have been taken aback by the Eubanks who took the stage that week. Accompanied by three of the most distinctive voices in modern jazz—trumpeter Nicholas Payton, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts—Eubanks proceeded to dive deeply into a relentless current of sound, with bold melodic statements suddenly bursting forth from hard-edged funk- and fusion-flavored excursions. There was no banter, no inviting standards or concessions to his celebrity—nothing, in short, to please a crowd, except for a ceaseless hour of exhilarating music.

In the seven years since he left his TV gig, Eubanks has worked hard to reestablish the reputation for incisive playing and risk-taking diversity that he’d established before going Hollywood. Now 59, Eubanks doesn’t feel his relationship to jazz ever changed, though his late-night obligations kept him away from hardcore jazz ears while he was steadfastly in the public eye.

“People tend to think that because I was on The Tonight Show I wasn’t serious about music,” Eubanks said at Birdland’s bar a few hours before his gig that night. “That’s completely wrong, but people see what they see. If you’re on television with a guitar around your neck and you’re laughing at jokes, it’s hard for people to believe that you can be serious about music. It’s insane to think that all of a sudden, because I have this job, I’m going to forget about my entire life, my entire dedication to music.”

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Eubanks’ career can be neatly divided into geographical chapters. He spent his formative years in Philadelphia, raised in a musical family that included his mother, Vera, a professional church keyboardist and music teacher who was pianist Kenny Barron’s first instructor; his uncle, jazz pianist Ray Bryant; and his brothers Robin, a renowned jazz trombonist, and Duane, a respected trumpeter. He studied at Berklee before arriving in New York City in the early 1980s, on the crest of the Young Lions wave. In 1992 he switched coasts, moving to Los Angeles to take the guitar chair in Branford Marsalis’ Tonight Show band. Three years later Eubanks took over leadership from Marsalis, beginning a remarkable tenure that would continue until 2010, when he left to care for his ailing father, shortly after Leno began his controversial second run as host.

These days Eubanks thinks of himself as bicoastal, maintaining his L.A. home while spending more and more time back East, in the thick of the jazz scene. He continues to work in the entertainment industry, scoring films and making TV appearances while recording for the Mack Avenue label and proclaiming his hometown affiliation with his ever-present Eagles cap.

Finding that balance is the key to Eubanks’ latest release, East West Time Line. The album is evenly split between two quintets: an East Coast group featuring his Birdland bandmates along with keyboardist Orrin Evans, and a Left Coast ensemble with saxophonist Bill Pierce, bassist Rene Camacho, percussionist Mino Cinelu and Tonight Show drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith. The bands’ associations are less about the members’ origins—Holland hails from England, while Pierce has enjoyed a long tenure as chair of the woodwind department at Berklee in Boston—than about the feel of their collective identities.

Eubanks didn’t have anything quite so conceptual in mind when he convened his collaborators. Apart from Cinelu, the West Coast lineup has been the guitarist’s regular touring and recording band for years. The East Coast group unites longtime and first-time collaborators: Eubanks’ relationship with Watts dates back to their Berklee days and their early work with the Marsalis brothers, and he’s been performing and recording with Holland in a variety of settings for going on 30 years, including their World Trio (with Cinelu) and the recent Prism quartet with keyboardist Craig Taborn and drummer Eric Harland. Evans shares Eubanks’ Philly roots, while Payton had never crossed paths with the guitarist until an exchange on Twitter prompted them to finally work together.

The distinct identities of the two groups only emerged in hindsight, as Eubanks was attempting to assemble the album. “I couldn’t find a good sequence,” he recalls. “One thing just didn’t follow another. So I gave up and decided to try sequencing each different band, and it came easy. I realized that we naturally had two different things, and that’s when it turned into this concept.”

The opening East Coast half of the record, consisting entirely of Eubanks originals, boasts more boisterous, sharp-angled highs and airier lows, with gritty funk inflections and a vibrant palette. Solely featuring covers by the likes of Duke Ellington, Chick Corea, Ray Bryant and Marvin Gaye, the western half is buoyed by Latin accents and more sprightly, relaxed playing, finding soulful communion where the easterners thrive on electrifying tension. “It really is a timeline,” Eubanks says of the album. “From this point to that point I primarily played with certain musicians and lived a certain way. I can feel in the music that there’s a different kind of groove, a different spatial sense.”

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Ironically, despite the almost 9-to-5 regularity of his Tonight Show days, it’s only since leaving the show that L.A. has started to feel like home to Eubanks. “You don’t get to enjoy why everybody loves L.A. when you’re in a TV studio every day,” he says. “Now I can travel, go up the coastline and feel the charm of L.A. without being right in the midst of the entertainment industry. I actually get to see the city, and I’ve started to enjoy it more and more.”

When Eubanks reemerged in 2010 with Zen Food, his Mack Avenue debut, the prevailing narrative was a comeback story, a return to jazz following his talk-show exile. That’s not an entirely accurate portrait, as Eubanks is eager to point out. While he hadn’t recorded for a major label since Blue Note released Live at Bradley’s in 1994, he had released six little-heard albums on his own InSoul imprint during the early to mid-2000s. Largely mellow, serene outings, they’re highlighted by the impeccable solo acoustic virtuosity of Angel and the blissful soul of Soweto Sun.

The InSoul albums may lack the hard-bop fire of Eubanks’ earlier recordings or the keen maturity of his more recent work, but they were far from throwaway vanity projects. “Those records were my lifeline at the time,” the guitarist says. “They represent a deep part of me, because they kept me focused on progressing and playing with people. There was nothing casual about it. I just got less sleep, because the music demands a certain amount of focus. I’d be up till 3 or 4 in the morning trying to work this music out, and then I’d have to get up to go into The Tonight Show.”

It would be equally wrong in Eubanks’ eyes to consider his time with Leno a mere day job, a paycheck gig devoid of artistic merit. The music he makes now, he says, can’t help but be enriched by his nearly two decades on the air. “I think it made me more open-minded and open to integrating different types of things into my music. I’ve always liked a lot of different kinds of music, but it’s a more tangible thing now that I’ve played with some of the greatest country and blues and rock musicians. It made me a more accepting person. … I think it changed me, and in turn of course the music reflects that.”

Primary among his takeaways from the show is his friendship with Leno; they still talk regularly, and the guitarist occasionally opens for the comedian on the road. Like any long-lasting job, it’s the relationships that stand out in his mind after years away—his friends in the band and in the crew who were once a daily presence in his life. Then there was the job itself, which regularly presented new challenges and opportunities, including the chance to play alongside everyone from B.B. King to Willie Nelson.

Beyond purely musical concerns, the show remains an indelible part of Eubanks’ life through the stunning variety of incomparable experiences he enjoyed in his role on one of TV’s most iconic programs. “I got to sit down with George Bush for 30 minutes in makeup, just he and I talking,” he recalls. “I got to hang out with Barack Obama. We played for the troops in Afghanistan and before they went into Bosnia. We played for the O.J. Simpson jury in the middle of that trial. Arsenio Hall’s become one of my best friends. I got in the wrestling ring with Hulk Hogan and Diamond Dallas Page. Who gets to do all that?”

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While Eubanks insists that he never left the music behind during his Tonight Show period, the scene was a different matter. The intense schedule of his nightly, year-round TV duties meant that he was off the road and largely unaware of new developments for the better part of 20 years, necessitating a bit of catch-up after the release of Zen Food and his return to being a touring jazz musician. “A lot happened while I was in L.A. Once I started coming back to New York and recording and playing with everybody, I was the new guy on the scene again,” he says. “I didn’t know who anybody was anymore. I knew people in Hollywood. I knew Willie Nelson’s bus driver, Gates. I knew Whoopi. I knew Al Gore. I didn’t know the new cats. But I was dying to meet everybody and get back to playing.”

While he’s thrilled by hookups with new compatriots like Payton, some of Eubanks’ most rewarding experiences in recent years have been his renewed acquaintances with longtime collaborators, Dave Holland chief among them. It wasn’t long after Eubanks’ final episode that the legendary bassist called with the idea of forming a Hendrix-inspired electric showcase for the guitarist—what became the thrilling, tightrope-walking Prism with Taborn and Harland. They’ve since begun playing together in duo and trio formats in addition to the Time Line quartet.

“Kevin remained intact from the [Tonight Show] experience,” Holland says with a chuckle. “I put it that way because there’s not many musicians who take that trip out into the world of celebrity and are able to make the return trip and remain the same person. But there’s something about Kevin’s personality; he’s very relaxed, very unimpressed by that whole world, and when he decided it was over he flipped back very easily. It was like we just picked up from where we’d left off.”

Eubanks credits his chemistry with Holland in part to their mutual experience working with the influential multi-instrumentalist and composer Sam Rivers. “If you worked with Sam Rivers for any period of time, there was something that you learned from him that you couldn’t get from anyone else,” Eubanks says. “He had his own school. Other than that I think we both have a natural affinity for a certain intensity in the music. If I haven’t played with Dave for a while I start to go through withdrawal. When something comes up it always seems to be a very distinct and different sound.”

Holland’s description of his experiences with Rivers relate directly to the approach Eubanks’ quartet took at Birdland. “Sam was stream-of-consciousness playing, where you just get up on the bandstand and go,” he explains. “You just start, see the music unfold and follow it. There’s no master plan at all; it’s all about listening to each other, getting a sense of the moment and where we should go next, and coming to an instant agreement, none of it happening on an intellectual level. When I work together with Kevin we really feel Sam’s presence in that way.”

No matter the longevity of their relationship, Eubanks has struck similar sparks with each of his East West Time Line bandmates. At Birdland, his playful tug-of-war with Watts was represented not only by their parrying rhythmic interplay but also by Tain’s wearing a Pittsburgh Pirates hat—a teasing reply to Eubanks’ Eagles cap. A few weeks later Eubanks was back in his hometown, playing a serene but searching duo set with Orrin Evans at Chris’ Jazz Cafe. His profoundly felt connection with Bill Pierce is crystallized by the new album’s closing cut, a gorgeous, spacious duo rendition of “My One and Only Love.”

Eubanks is finding particular inspiration in the duo setting these days. The trend started when he released Duets with fellow guitarist Stanley Jordan in 2015, and he hopes to soon co-write an album’s worth of material with singer-songwriter Janis Ian. “I’m going through a minimalist period in my life,” he explains. “I think that happens to everybody as you age and start to see things a little differently, as subtleties become the emotional details of your life. That should be respected and expressed as well. As you get older you don’t have the attention to hold everything anymore, so you center on the things that are more important to you. There’s a lot of music in those areas.”