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It’s a Philly Thing: Guitarist Kevin Eubanks goes from pretty to gritty on his duo project with pianist Orrin Evans.
I remember doing the first story that appeared in national print on guitar marvel Kevin Eubanks. This was back in 1983. His debut album on Bruce Lundvall’s newly activated Elektra-Musician label, Guitarist, had just come out. That title always struck me as a kind of affirmation for the 25-year-old Philadelphia native and recent graduate of the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he had led a hotshot Mahavishnu Orchestra-inspired fusion band. Since that initial release, Eubanks has appeared on more than 100 albums, including 17 as a leader, the latest being EEE: Eubanks Evans Experience (Imani), his quite simpatico duo with pianist and fellow Philadelphian Orrin Evans.
A freewheeling affair that draws heavily on their common language and shared background from North Philly, it includes a delicate remake of “The Novice Bounce,” which had appeared in a more chops-y, jumped-up fashion on Eubanks’ debut album nearly 40 years ago. “We just slowed it down,” says the guitarist, who served as musical director on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno from 1995 to 2010. “Orrin just started playing it at a slower tempo, and I was just about to open my big mouth and say, ‘Let’s take the tempo up.’ But then I started really listening to it and started playing the melody, it just felt good there. Orrin played it really beautiful and more relaxed. I hadn’t felt it like that and wouldn’t have thought to slow it down like that. You know, on my first record I was just blazing on it. But this felt really nice.”
The two kindred spirits take a similarly melodic approach on Evans’ beautiful ballad “Dawn Marie,” which opens with some virtuosic solo guitar from Eubanks before resolving to a patient conversation. They also turn in a mellow rendition of Omar Hakim’s bouncy groove number “Dreams of Loving You” from trumpeter Tom Browne’s 1980 album, Love Approach. “Again, we slowed it down into a ballad and it just felt good to play it like that,” says Eubanks. “When we were working on this stuff, I said to Orrin, ‘Man, we’re bringing back pretty, we’re bringing back sweet to jazz.’ I mean, we need pretty things, we need beautiful things, we need flowers. It doesn’t always have to be just grit and grime. You know, can we touch other things in people? We can always do the aggressive thing and let that out, but let’s not be pushing it in people’s face. Let’s focus on the beauty of things.”
On the rawer side of the coin, there is the blues-soaked, gospel-tinged “I Don’t Know” and the open-ended “And They Ran Out of Bisquits!,” which has Evans improvising freely over Eubanks’ low-end drone. Two tracks recorded live at Chris’ Jazz Cafe in Philadelphia — “Variations on the Battle” and “Variations on Adoration” — lean more to the fusion side of things, involving intricate, chamber-like unisons and fretboard fusillades from Eubanks. “I was so affected by that whole era of music for guitars in the ’70s,” he says. “I grew up playing a lot of rock music and funk music — Sly and the Family Stone, Wishbone Ash, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Zappa. I would go to the Spectrum all the time in Philadelphia to see everybody. It was just so full of music, an amazing time.”
And while Eubanks still flaunts some of his searing fusion chops in the energized setting of Dave Holland’s trio with powerhouse drummer Obed Calvaire (documented on 2021’s Another Land on Edition Records), he is operating on a much more intimate level with EEE. “This duo project has turned into a lot of different, interesting things,” he says. “It’s a Philly thing, so it’s kind of easy for us to communicate. Sometimes you can take that for granted but when you do hook up with someone like that, the music kind of finds you. Tony Williams said to me one time, ‘When you find a musician that you make the most music with the least amount of energy, you don’t even realize how much energy you’re putting out.’ It feels like that when Orrin and I play together. You know, we can follow each other and a lot of intangible things can happen that way. So our attitude for this project was, ‘Man, let’s just play! Let’s just let it hang out. We can bring the pretty back but keep the grit in there, keep the vibe in there of what we came through in Philly. I need some prettiness in the world but at the same time, I still like some grit.”
He adds, “I just love the duet vibe. There’s a simplicity that kind of follows the duet thing. It’s easier to move, easier to navigate, but it doesn’t mean that there’s less music. It’s not the quantity of the band, it’s the quality of the music.”
Prolific guitarist-composer Mary Halvorson has built up an impressive discography since 2005. Her recordings are based on the entirely unique six-string vocabulary she developed leading bands of various configurations, with the cooperative Thumbscrew (featuring bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara), as well as with collaborators like violinist Jessica Pavone; cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum; tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock; pianist Myra Melford; pedal steel guitar ace Susan Alcorn; and fellow guitar renegades like Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, Elliott Sharp and her former teacher Joe Morris.
The one-time Anthony Braxton protégé has released two new companion pieces (her debut on the Nonesuch label) in Amaryllisand Belladonna, named for the exotic South African flower. Amaryllis finds the guitarist-composer showcasing her cleanly picked precision chops in a sextet setting with vibraphonist Patricia Brennan, trombonist Jacob Garchik, trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, bassist Nick Dunston and drummer Tomas Fujiwara on left-of-center pieces like the rhythmically intricate “Night Shift” and the ambient free-for-all “Anesthesia.” The propulsive title track and the evocative ballad “892 Teeth” are both augmented by the Mivos String Quartet. Alternately funereal, processional and hauntingly beautiful, the suite-like Amaryllis represents some of the most accomplished writing of Halvorson’s meteoric career. The more chamber-like Belladonna features her signature six-string voice on her Guild archtop guitar in the company of the daring New York-based Mivos Quartet. Both albums are slated for release on May 13, and Halvorson is scheduled to perform music from them at Brooklyn’s National Sawdust on May 18.
Big Fish, Big Pond
Veteran guitarist Will Bernard, a Berkeley native and longtime Brooklyn resident, has been known over the past 20 years for his funk-laden rhythm chops in Meters-inspired settings such as Robert Walter’s 20th Congress and the Stanton Moore Trio, John Medeski’s Mad Skillet (with members of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band) and the wonderfully eccentric ’90s Bay Area band T.J. Kirk (with fellow guitarists Charlie Hunter and John Schott and drummer Scott Amendola). Bernard’s own 2020 outing as a leader, Freelance Subversives, was an exceedingly funky/edgy affair. But on the guitarist’s latest, Pond Life (scheduled for a May 27 release on Dreck to Disk Records), he takes it all the way out in the company of fellow California native Ches Smith on drums, Chris Lightcap on bass, avant-garde icon Tim Berne on alto sax and frequent collaborator Medeski on keyboards. Lots of spiky guitar single-note playing (“Poor Man’s Speedball”), dense clusters (“Still Drinkin’”), fuzz-laden skronking (“That Day”), renegade slide work (“Type A,” “Surds”) and James Blood Ulmer-isms (“Four Is More, “Moving Target”) provided by the leader in this Downtown jazz-meets-Captain Beefheart extravaganza. - Bill Milkowski
Featured photo by Anna Webber.