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Jazz → Zen Food  

Zen Food

Artist: Kevin Eubanks
Kevin Eubanks - Zen Food CD
Label: Mack Avenue
Regular Price: $15.95
On Sale For: $7.98 
Year: 2010
Format: CD

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For nearly two decades, the world at large knew precisely where to find the acclaimed guitarist Kevin Eubanks. For five nights a week, Eubanks was cranking up the band and issuing steamy solos as music director on NBC’s “Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” In spring of 2010, after 18 years on the job, Eubanks decided to move on, although retirement was the last thing on his mind. That much is clearly stated in potent musical terms on Zen Food, his first recording for the Mack Avenue label.

Zen Food is a statement of purpose for a guitarist who, in the 15 years before landing his coveted gig in Burbank, built a reputation as one of the more adventurous and anti-ism guitarists. In fact, Eubanks has been tending his personal musical muse for years, working on material and honing his band in Los Angeles “after work” at the famed Baked Potato.

In his band, Eubanks has a powerful rhythm section ally in drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith, who, like Eubanks, was a commanding presence on the music scene before heading west to the “Tonight Show” bandstand. Completing the ranks of this bold unit, which deftly combines “fusion” in the best sense with other stylistic turns, are saxophonist Bill Pierce, who holds the Woodwind Chair at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, keyboardist Gerry Etkins and bassist Rene Camacho. Zen Food evokes a sense of diversity and also collective continuity, qualities long in the making, and now ready to “hit the road” in a global way.

This “new” chapter in Eubanks’ life is, as he says, “not so foreign, because that’s all I used to do. It’s just at a different level. Musically, I’m at a different level, as well as personally. Everything is in a progressive state, with more experience in a lot of areas. It should be an interesting adventure.”

As for his long stint as musical foil for Jay Leno, Eubanks asserts, “I enjoyed the job. I enjoyed learning all these new things and meeting new people, and just seeing another side of what I didn’t know. Where I cut my teeth, I was never privy to what happens in Hollywood, by and large. I heard about it and knew a few people here and there. So, to get a bird’s eye view of all that was fascinating, and it still is.”

As he is quick to clarify, with a laugh, “I can’t very well say, oh, I’ll just go back to what I did. I’m a product of both things now, and happily so. I embrace everything I've learned and continue to learn about the mysterious ways of Hollywood.”

Eubanks was born in Philadelphia into a highly musical family, between his respected pianist and pedagogue mother, Vera, who holds a Masters Degree; notable Jazz and Blues pianist uncle Ray Bryant; and Kevin’s accomplished brothers Robin—considered one of the greatest living trombonists—and the fine trumpeter Duane. Kevin was first drawn into music listening to the energetic sounds of fusion and progressive rock, then went on to study at Berklee. He has played with icons including McCoy Tyner, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Dave Holland and Ron Carter. In his own distinctive early career, Eubanks released many recordings for Elektra, GRP and Blue Note before his current signing with Mack Avenue in 2010.

Kevin is resistant to typecasting. Having always listened to a variety of music—from Country to Pop, Soul and Blues to Zeppelin—it made him ideal for the nightly musical tapestry that the “Tonight Show” demands. He comments, “once you carry that mantle [as a Jazz musician], it becomes an exclusive club and I want to be inclusive. I want to include more music, more experiences. Though it seems no matter how much I want to expand as a musician and a person, labels keep me, you, us, isolated.

“Man, I’ve just been on TV for 18 years, playing with everybody from Willie [Nelson] to B.B. [King] to Leann Rimes, Jay Leno, Bill Cosby and Arsenio Hall. I appreciate all kinds of music. Yes, even the kind that accompanies comedians. It’s just some more music. Too bad there’s not a database where you can change your label (laughs) to simply read, MUSICIAN.”

Speaking of his new chapter, Eubanks reasons that, “as physical and emotional human beings, we go through different phases in our life. I just think it was time for a change, for all the right reasons. It was a natural process, and I respected that. I thought, ‘ok, then do it.’ At the time that I took the job, I'd been on the road for 15 years, and I was tired of saying goodbye to everyone that I met. I thought it would be nice to be in one place for a while. I never dreamed it would turn into 18 years. It’s kind of the same process.”

Enter Zen Food, which had already been recorded in Eubanks’ studio by the time he announced his departure from NBC. The title is more than a piece of wordplay for Eubanks. “I think it’s a wonderful thing to acknowledge music as being food for your soul. The whole idea of it being Zen is that it’s a state of ‘being,’ not an ambition to become something else. It’s realizing everyone’s fingerprint is unique and expressing that uniqueness with sound, with ideas, with music.”

One for the soul and one for the body and they feed and nourish the One. “I’m really into nutrition. I like the idea of eating 'right' and feeling good because of the food I eat and feeling good because of the music I hear. It’s all the same thing. It’s just another source of nutrition.”

The Zen Food menu of songs was captured in a state of evolution for Kevin and the band. They worked the material on the road and especially at regular Wednesday night gigs at the Baked Potato in North Hollywood, CA. In years past, the legendary club had been a creative outlet for the likes of Larry Carlton, Steve Lukather, Lee Ritenour, members of the Crusaders and other L.A. musicians. What we hear on Zen Food, Eubanks says, is “a natural development of the music. This band got the opportunity to express it so many different ways until it found its way to this recording. I feel it happened at the perfect time.”

Even so, the balance of style and mood over the course of the sequence plays smartly, opening with the stage-setting tune “The Dancing Sea,” a blend of an easy fluid groove and angular movement. Eubanks explains that he senses “a nice tension and release in it, but you feel like it’s moving forward. It’s aggressive, though at the same time, you’ve got to watch yourself because if you get too aggressive it might get away from you. Slow down. We’re going around a curve. I know we’re having a good time, but we don’t want to wind up on TMZ,” he laughs.

Aspects of high energy and medium tempo grace the recording, as in “Spider Monkey Café,” the feverish finale “Das It” (an intense tête-à-tête with just Eubanks and Smith) and the mercurial suite-like form of “The Dirty Monk.” Lyrical pieces such as “Adoration” and “Offering” remind us of Eubanks more acoustic period, pre-“Tonight Show.” A “cool down” tune, which eased into being in the studio, keyboardist Etkins’ “G.G.”—as in “Gerry’s Groove”—is a deceptively simple theme, essentially five notes with shifting chords simmering beneath.

The plot thickens sonically and thematically on the song he calls “Los Angeles,” an alternately, sometimes simultaneously cool and steamy tune. “There's a place in the song where the melody is in one place and the rhythm is completely somewhere else, but they're somehow working together to get to the one place they both want to be. Man, that so reminds me of Los Angeles.”

Another musical virtue on Zen Food is Eubanks’ deeper way with a ballad, as heard on “I Remember Loving You.” On that track, as elsewhere, Eubanks embodies the time-honored notion that a musician’s ability to really feel and deliver a ballad tends to come with age and experience. “I’m not trying to say or prove anything,” he says of the phenomenon. “It just seems to be what’s naturally happening. When I’m playing slower I can listen to what I’m doing. I have discovered that it requires a sense of acceptance, security and humility to listen. I mean listening to anything, to all things music or not. Listening is powerful and carries the potential of the world.”

In this period of his musical career as a recording and touring artist, Eubanks has a desire to stay open to new possibilities again. “I want to play in a great band, which I think I have. I want to play with other musicians, too. But at the same time,” he insists, “I still have this love for what I’ve learned in Hollywood that I would love to pursue. Here’s something I’ve learned in Hollywood, ‘you never know. You just never know.’ The phone rings and, ‘Wow, really?’ A new adventure....”

Stay tuned.

ARTISTS
Kevin Eubanks (guitar); Bill Pierce (soprano sax, tenor sax); Gerry Etkins (Organ, Piano); Marvin Smitty Smith (drums, percussion): Rene Camacho (Bass)
TRACKS
1. The Dancing Sea
2. Spider Monkey Cafe
3. The Dirty Monk
4. Adoration
5. Los Angeles
6. I Remember Loving You
7. 6/8
8. G.G.
9. Offering
10. Das It


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