Tonight Show band all-stars, slammin’ at NYC’s Blue Note

Guitarist Kevin Eubanks and drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith in a rare East Coast five-night stand — you don’t have to know a thing about “jazz” to get into their quintet’s masterful, exciting, funky, complex, improvised, folky, powerful, inspired sounds. A night at a Manhattan club can be costly, yes, but sets of this calibre make it all worthwhile. And Eubanks has the current slant — he announced at the start that the venue’s “no flash photography, no recording” policy was suspended, urging the audience to record the music on whatever devices we had, send it to him if the recording is good, and share it with friends — “Just don’t charge for it!”

I don’t know when the last time Eubanks and Smith played New York, but this quintet with strong saxophonist Bill Pierce (chair of the Woodwind dept. at Berklee School of Music, Boston), thrilling keyboardist Gerry “Dr. J” Etkins and perfectly unobtrustive bassist Rene Camacho tours rarely, because working for Jay Leno every night keeps the principals in LA. Our loss. With Eubanks typically starting his songs such as “Jungle Blood” and “Dirty Monk” at a very low volume on his hollow-bodied, amplified-not-electrified but extremely responsive guitar, plucking enticing, intricate ideas that became suspenseful patterns and developed into full blown, multi-leveled collectively imagined jams leading to nearly chaotic crescendos that resolved in tight lines and graceful fade-aways, the musicians were obviously having fun being creative and their feeling was infectious.

This is music of the moment, up-to-date as anything on pop radio but as detailed as any composed classical chamber music, too. If you just sat down with no background in listening to any particular genre or inclination to favor any style over any other, you’d still be struck by how well the five men played their instruments, how ideas kept flowing, how they didn’t lose track of where they were even if you might, how they continued to find higher and deeper climaxes for their play, how they demonstrated and discovered previously undreamed-of relations between notes and tones, rhythms and emotive hues. There were no vocals, but if you trusted the musicians to entertain simply with what they did with sound, you could not be disappointed.
If you’d ever loved a delta blues or hard-rocking or heavy metal guitarist’s outpourings, you’d be blown away by Eubanks, who acknowledges his Albert King, Hendrix, Mahavishnu and Terry Kath influences as well as his debts to Wes Montgomery, George Benson and Ralph Towner. He’s absorbed a lot of precedents and quotes from them occasionally, but that’s not the impressive thing about his playing. Rather it’s how he lays out lead lines that sprout further ideas which themselves become elaborate and multiply at raging tempos (mostly: he also maintains suspense during rubato episodes). He can comp for Etkins then break single note melodies out of his rich chords, dropping the phrases before or behind, just a lag  beneath or surging over the organ/keyboard’s well-calibrated timbres. Eubanks doesn’t repeat himself, except that he likes to bend his notes to an aching point and he always seems to have something else to play. He makes it look easy but it doesn’t sound easy and it isn’t.
Smitty, graced with extraordinary independence of his limbs, keeps up solid grooves but also all the polyrhythms jazzers associate with Elvin Jones, the driving accents of Max Roach, the color washes of Tony Williams. I don’t know much about Etkins, though he’s also worked with Leno, or Camacho. Pierce has been a topnotch pro for almost 40 years — he has an unenviable position having to mostly soar over the ensemble’s action. If you know jazz you might hear him explore an extreme variation of “Summertime” or realize he works in a post-Coltrane mode. If you don’t, you’d just hear that he could drop intense growls into the middle of intricate roars and keep up with everything else going on without seeming to break a sweat.
I attended the Blue Note, which is Manhattan’s most touristy jazz club, with two friends, and thanks to journalistic privilege we escaped paying two music charges. However, our bill was $91 before tip, and we didn’t eat or get drunk (six beers and one cocktail were consumed). I’d say that price is a little steep to manage regularly, especially for young people, students and the like who would be the target audience for Eubank’s music if I were charged with marketing it. Sunday night in mid-August, the joint was about 90 percent full for the first sitting and a line extended down the block waiting to get into the 11 pm show. There were some 20 and 30-somethings there, but by my estimation mostly 40s and up. The band was thoroughly warmed up and that patient crowd was in for a good time. At home in Los Angeles, Eubanks, Smitty and company usually are scheduled once a week at places like the Baked Potato. They don’t get a chance to stretch so much on tv, more’s the pity. Why wouldn’t this music appeal to large, general audiences?
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