Kevin Eubanks Quartet looks for ‘The Messenger’ in trippy interplays
It’s interesting that Kevin Eubanks kicked off his May 17th Jazz Alley show with “Spider Monkey Café” (from the successful 2010 album, Zen Food), a song he said he wrote after spending a “very late night in front of a nature program on TV.”
The entire first set of mostly originals from Zen Food and two from his new, upcoming album, The Messenger, felt like a trip through nature, specifically an Amazon jungle. Eubanks and his Quartet — saxophonist Bill Pierce, bassist Rene Camacho, and percussionist Joey De Leon — carefully and thoughtfully traveled through exotic soundscapes, marking unknown territory with a different hybrid of jazz. Think many late nights at the finest New York City jazz clubs, some big band, and a little Memphis blues, but out in the wild. Without a safety net.
Underscoring all of that was Eubanks’ ever-searching, trademarked wanderlust, exploring complete changes in tempo, rhythm, and even styles mid-stride, taking his band mates and the audience along for the ride, or good-naturedly joining in — all while showing the process in progress.
In Seattle for a four-night show (May 2012), in part to promote his Messenger album, the Kevin Eubanks Quartet did not disappoint. As is his tendency, the engaging jazz guitarist immediately chatted up an audience member instead of launching into the first song. “What are you having?” he joked, “That looks good. Oh don’t tempt me. I have a show to do. Maybe after…” Then “Spider Monkey Café” unfolded with the guitar and soprano saxophone sounding remarkably like a complete woodwinds orchestra with heavenly distortion thrown in for the full fantasy, transporting everyone to some far-off, exotic land (while picking up some Metheny and Clapton along the way).
Is it getting hot in here?
From there, Eubanks went into Miles Davis’ “All Blues,” a classic jazz piece everybody plays at one time or another. It’s recognizable but tempered with fine glass in the naked guitar solo, particularly mesmerizing as Eubanks manically grasped for the frets then slammed resolutely through the strings, over and over and over again, lit with an unquenchable fire. The result is not only hypnotic but transformative as we all sat back, relaxed, and let the man guide us inward and outward. His guitar streams have a tendency of putting people into a calming, meditative state, almost hallucinogenic in that pocket between lucid and dreamy.
Very few jazz musicians have the stones to let silence take over until it’s almost on the verge of being awkward, before shattering that standstill with purposeful personality shifts, for an overall effect of fusing several evolving soundtracks into one, all-inclusive instrumental piece. Eubanks masters this kind of stream-of-conscious style, reflecting his constant need to reach out and catch magic in a bottle, seemingly composing interplay on the fly.
In the middle of the set, Eubanks introduced the first of two songs (“The Gloaming”) from his album (“The Messenger”) on Mack Avenue Records. He then sheepishly admitted that the promo people were trying to make his first video some huge deal with a deep concept, like maybe he’s some holy messenger. He laughed that off, saying he didn’t have himself in mind, it wasn’t that deep, and actually, he had no idea who the messenger was, he just wrote a song and put a title to it.
But maybe he inadvertently locked in on the Messenger’s identity in the performance of his title track.
“The Messenger” as a song turned out to be the star’s showcase. It’s filled with inventive Latin beats in the bongos, the sticks, and wait — did Joey De Leon just slap the cymbals with his hand? After humming pleasantly along for most of the set holding his own, Eubanks stepped forth into the limelight to throw down and play tag with the drummer. What play! De Leon defied the law of physics, form, and function with his lightning-fast fingers-all-a-blur staccato, pouncing on sections of silence with precision and an inner demonic drive. Eubanks managed to sneak in there just as admirably, spewing funk, rock, and off-beats all his own, combining to create this ordered, explosive storm before going home.
If the sneak preview of The Messenger is any indication, Eubanks has a mainstream Top 40 hit on his hands. It’s an earthquake of sound, fury, and flourish. Look for the new album this summer or in the fall at the latest.
Maybe The Messenger is Kevin Eubanks’ inspirational musical muse, his guitar. Sure sounded like it.
(This review first appeared in Examiner on May 21, 2012, only to disappear when Examiner shuttered last year. If you see it duped elsewhere as “by Contributor,” it’s been plagiarized without my consent or knowledge. At least credit me when you steal my work.)