On his upcoming Mack Avenue record, guitarist and composer Kevin Eubanks indulges in his Philly-bred R&B roots with his love of the spiritua

On his upcoming Mack Avenue record, guitarist and composer Kevin Eubanks indulges in his Philly-bred R&B roots with his love of the spiritually enhanced abstract.

Photo courtesy of Kevin Eubanks and DL Media, used with permission

For the longest time, Kevin Eubanks has wanted to stand on his own as an artist — apart from the fame he acquired as a musical frontman to TV host Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show.”

The Philly-born guitarist also likes to chase his muse, from one rabbit hole to another if need be — as anyone lucky enough to catch his live shows will testify. After spending most of his career as a jazz-blues journeyman with stars such as Art Blakey of the Jazz Messengers and Roy Haynes, Eubanks has today struck the right balance between R&B with abstract jazz on his new album, East West Time Line (Mack Avenue Records).

The 10-track album Eubanks recorded in sessions with trusted colleagues on both Coasts will come out April 7. Representing West Coast cool the album includes fellow Berklee College of Music grad, drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith; bassist Rene Camacho; percussionist Mino Cinelu; and saxophonist Bill Pierce. From the East Coast we hear drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts; bassist Dave Holland, whom Eubanks works with on the Prism quartet: Philly-based pianist Orrin Evans; and New York trumpeter Nicholas Payton, a first-time initiate.

“Of course, we all came up through New York,” Eubanks said in a DL Media press release. “But we also got the benefits of seeing the East Coast down and dirty and Hollywood down and dirty too. We combined both vibes on this recording — the kind of Latin vibe of Los Angeles and the straight-up swinging vibe of New York.”

Eubanks’ touch on every track is beyond exquisite, it’s palpable. It’s as if he’s birthed these instrumentals from the core of his very being. Knowing the understated, six-string master, he probably did to a large extent. That intimate touch remained a constant — remarkable for a recording featuring so many musicians. Trust and chemistry forged from many previous runs together proved key.

“I think because I’m so familiar with all the musicians and we played together over the years in different settings, on different tours, that it helped the music quite a bit. There’s something that goes with friendship, knowing everybody’s journey to a large extent, that really enhances the communication between the players on a session,” Eubanks continued. “It’s that thing where everybody’s pulling for each other to do well and trying to make each other sound better, and you keep your sorry-ass ego out of it. We all have egos, we’re human beings and everything, but through the love of the music and wanting the best, good things happen. It’s really such a wonderful kind of democracy that you don’t see in other things. I think jazz music is the most perfect example of democracy in action.”

As is Eubanks’ nature, the guitarist kept his own ego out of the recording. He opted to blend in and stand out when absolutely necessary, in service of the music.

Shades of the late Wes Montgomery and this year’s hottest jazz ticket, Grammy winner John Scofield, play out in Eubanks’ own fluid fingerstyle as he imparts the duality of his naturally charismatic R&B personality with the spiritual non-conformist who needs to go far out into the abstract universe in order to breathe fresh and new constructs.

The most recognizable track on the album is one of the best representations of this duality, at least in terms of blending Eubanks’ two musical styles together. Marvin Gaye’s Motown hit, “What’s Goin’ On,” traipses on a floaty then funky blues bump and romp of a beat (Camacho’s bass, Smith’s drumming) before weaving in layers of elongated R&B lines through that hot bustling almost gypsy jazz of a tempo underneath. Soprano saxophonist Pierce then takes the elongated R&B line from Gaye’s original hit, quickens the pace, and makes up an entire sub-song — all while lightening the mood. 

Another successful track, “Something About Nothing,” is everything for those who used to get off on early ‘70s, psychedelic jazz-rock fusion done well.The East Coast musicians do their version well. They stay close to the home-grown comforts of that easy-riding ‘70s jazz-rock, with stunning moments of clarity in the under-wiring and the solos.Evans pipes in his light, mood-enhancing Rhodes and Holland lays down his earthy, powerful, booming bass beats, with Payton breathing in an airy wave of possibilities, loosening the trumpet’s linear ties like a saxophonist getting ready for bed. Swapping “Carnival’s” acoustic for electric guitar, Eubanks jumps right on in, as if forgetting introductions. The R&B against the Zen is a perfect embodiment of Eubanks’ spirit.

“I think the title really describes the song,” Eubanks affirmed. “We’re dealing with nothing but we’re dealing with something. There’s the bass line, and the chords are circular so you’re free to go wherever you want.”

“Carnival” also sounds like it’s starting in the middle, off a dramatic counter-measure on the dark side of Evans’ piano before circling the exits. Evans provides the beautiful hook that the others rally around.The tune is at its most effective when Eubanks — on nylon-string acoustic guitar — chases his own muse, Evans lifting the tune higher, alternating  between dark and light, Holland emphasizing the darker tones on his earthy, irresistible bass, and Watts egging them on.

“It’s such a pleasure to play with Tain,” Eubanks enthused. “He just keeps the thing rolling along and keeps the energy at a level where everybody can float on it, but at the same time, it’s not intrusive on what you want to do.” If drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts rolls the distant thunder, then legendary English double-bassist Dave Holland lands the lightning strikes, doubling down on Eubanks’ innate, soulful roots.

By far, the easiest tune to embrace has to be Duke Ellington’s “Take The Coltrane,” highlighting the West Coast rhythm section with that mambo beat from percussionist Mino Cinelu with further backing from drummer Smith, Eubanks going ham above the clave-punched groove.

Artist quotes from a DL Media press release.