Sunday, December 19, 2010

Review of Guitarist Kevin Eubanks' comeback album " Zen Food"

Zen Food
Kevin Eubanks "Zen Food"  
Mack Avenue Records  MAC 1054
Recorded: Spirit Studio, California  2010

It is always a little edgy for an established artist to leave a prominent commercial gig and venture back to his jazz roots. In this case, guitarist Kevin Eubanks had previously worked with Art Blakey, Slide Hampton, Dave Holland and Sam Rivers, so his credentials were never in question. But Kevin’s real notoriety comes from being the visible, nightly foil and bandleader on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, He took over these duties from the saxophonist Branford Marsalis back in 1992 and has been holding the lead seat ever since.  

With “Zen Food”, his first release since leaving the Tonight show gig, Eubanks has left little 
doubt that he is back and in fine form. The album was honed with his fellow band mates at the famed  
 in Los Angeles before taking the show on the road. 
From the opening number,  
“The Dancing Sea”, you can feel the energy that flies off Eubanks fleet fingers, as he and the airy soprano saxophone of Berklee professor Bill Pierce mesh with uncanny precision through its opening passages. His fretwork is fast,  
furious and has a distinctively fusion favor, but his compositions favor a melodic core with a strong
rhythmic groove. 

 On "Spider Monkey Café”, Eubanks’ builds upon a modern, oscillating theme that he intertwines with a secondary vamp played by Pierce on soprano and Gerry Etkins on keyboard. He then solos with a traditional hollow body electric sound, creating an effective juxtaposition of sounds that has shades of Montgomery-type octave playing in it.

Perhaps the funkiest song on the album, and one that I find wonderfully engaging, is “The Dirty Monk”. Eubanks’ guitar sound is appropriately nasty sounding. Etkins pays some lowdown blues on his ivories and Pierce’s tenor is gutsy and soulful. Smith on drums and Rene Camacho on bass hold down the bottom and keep the rhythm in overdrive.

 “Adoration” is a fanciful duet that has Eubanks finger picking on acoustic guitar with Etkins playing a candy coated Rhodes keyboard that I frankly could have done without.

The driving “Los Angeles” is a aural depiction of the frenetic pace of Eubanks' hometown. On the first part of the song, Eubanks' plays rhythm guitar over a probing tenor line from Bill Pierce and Marvin “Smitty” Smith’s fusillade of drums. When Eubanks does solo he is at his most fluid, playing some of his the most free and creative lines on the album.

The most poignant song  is “I  Remember Loving You”,
a tender ballad that is a predominantly a duet between Eubanks’ skillfully sustained guitar notes played over Etkins piano accompaniment. Etkins solo piano is at his most elegant and thoughtful on this number.

The free swinging “6/8” is a time signature piece that
finds the band really playing in a joyful groove that keeps you snapping your fingers. Eubanks seems most facile on a tune that has a heavily defined groove.

From here on out the album seems to lose its vitality and originality for the remaining cuts.

 The droning “G.C" and the uninspired “Offering” are  incomplete to me and offer little to remember, with the exception of a McCoy Tyner-like homage by Etkins at the end of the later. “Das It” is a fleet fingered exercise between Eubanks and Smith that closes the album.

Despite some disappointments mostly as the album trails off, this offering is entertaining, generally steeped in a catchy groove and well executed. Eubanks’ is a talented guitarist and with offerings like “Spider Monkey Café” and “ The Dirty Monk” he is well on his way back to re-establishing himself as an important voice in the jazz guitar lexicon.

Musicians: Kevin Eubanks (electric and acoustic guitars); Marvin “Smitty” Smith (drums); Bill Pierce ( tenor and soprano saxophones); Gerry Etkins (acoustic piano, Rhodes and organ) ; Rene Camacho (bass).

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