Kevin Eubanks’ “East West Time Line”

Kevin Eubanks. Photo by Scout Opatut

Kevin Eubanks’ new album, East West Time Line, tells the story of a man who has lived and thrived on both sides — both coasts, yes, but also both sides of the creative coin. For 15 years, the guitarist was beamed into households across the country as the leader of The Tonight Show Band with host Jay Leno. Now, freed from the television set, Kevin is more in touch with himself than ever. The album boasts an impressive roster of musicians, three of whom (Dave Holland, Nicholas Payton and Jeff “Tain” Watts) have accompanied Kevin to Birdland for the week.

We sat down with Kevin to talk shop and before we knew it we were deep in a conversation about classic films, a topic close to both of our hearts.

Kevin Eubanks: My movie crush definitely is Garbo.

Birdland: Wow, that’s an intense pick.

KE: Yeah, even though all the parts she played were pretty much despicable… I’ve read biographies on her, I’ve got films from Sweden that she was in before talkies.

BL: You’re serious about this crush.

KE: (continues to tell an impressively detailed account of how Greta Garbo was discovered — working at an H&M department store in Sweden — and how she came to Hollywood and eventually moved to NYC where she lived by the water because it reminded her of Stockholm)

BL: I could talk about this all day, but let’s also talk about your East West Time Line! It’s such an interesting concept for an album. Is it a ‘concept album’?

KE: I didn’t consider it one at first. I didn’t realize it was a concept record until after the record was made, when I was trying to sequence it, trying to figure out which songs would go first, second, third. And I realized that all the songs that were original music that I wrote were all done by the ‘East Coast Band’ and all the songs that I did arrangements for were the ‘West Coast Band’, but I had not intended to do that. So little by little when I was trying to sequence it, all the stuff from the east coast band was easy to sequence and all the stuff from the west coast band was easy to sequence but it wasn’t until I joined them together that I had a problem — it just didn’t fit. So then I thought about making two sides. And I felt kind of weird about it at first. But then I started realizing that it was a natural thing so I decided to go with the flow of it. It kind of happened organically.

BL: That’s so interesting. Because from the outside, it looks like it’s sort of a reflection on your two different worlds.

KE: And I think it is, I just didn’t do it intentionally that way. But a lot of things that can happen in our lives really have purpose but we just didn’t plan it that way. Like, how did I wind up in this city or how did I wind up in that profession? And then you look back and you say, ‘Oh, well my mom was a music teacher and my dad was in law enforcement, so that gave me discipline and then my mom gave us creative discipline’, and I was always in music. So, how did I wind up on The Tonight Show? Well, you have to have the discipline to do it 5 days a week, in a corporate situation, which came from my dad, and the music thing came from my mom, so I was a good candidate for it. But I never saw it that way until later on. So a lot of things that happen in our lives, we think we have to plan it all, but a lot of times you find yourself where you’re supposed to be. So then you could look at it as a concept or something that you planned, but a lot of the time it’s just a natural proclivity to find yourself in that situation. It’s all based on who you are, where you grew up, your personality and stuff like that.

BL: I totally dig that way of analyzing. That makes a lot of sense. And yet, at the same time, you did make a very intentional decision to change your lifestyle in 2010 when you left The Tonight Show. Can you talk a little bit about how you changed as an artist when you made that change from, as you said, a corporate environment, almost a day job —

KE: — yes, it was a day job! The mentality was a day job. You’re stuck in traffic! You have like, 3 bosses! And that was the most difficult thing to get used to, doing a Hollywood show like that. And at some point I started realizing that there was a part of me that felt stronger — and feels even stronger today — and that is the part of me that knows that I’m a planetary citizen, I’m an organic person. You know, we’re mammals that came out of the ocean. I’m that first. I live on a planet, not just in a city. And I want to be in tune with that. I want to feel that the earth is turning. I don’t want to see my life as being simply a society person who lives my life based on a set of laws, you know, how do you get from point A to point B, how do you make a dollar, ten dollars, a thousand, whatever. No. The first thing you need to notice is that there’s a big ball of fire in the middle of the solar system and we’re spinning on a rock with water and it’s just spinning around — I mean, that’s amazing shit! You cut yourself and it heals itself! You grow from this little thing into that! And we forget that all this stuff is really happening. And we make this big deal out of all these other things, like getting a promotion, or what have you. And maybe it’s inevitable because we have to be social beings, you know?

BL: Says Aristotle, ‘Man is a social animal’.

KE: Yeah, exactly. So I guess we have rules that govern us, but first and foremost I’m a person who came out of the ocean, and I live on a planet, I don’t live on a city. And so that thought kept building and building.

BL: Do you feel more free as an artist now?

KE: No, I feel more free as a person. The artistry is just a result of the fact that I’m a musician. But yes, if I feel more free then the music is going to feel more free. But first things first, instead of trying to choose this and choose that, like society tells me to, I want to be that thing that doesn’t become anything, that already is. I just want to be. I’m not looking to become anything. And once that thought started resonating more and more, consequently things changed after that.

BL: I’d love to talk about the two bands you put together for the record, the east coast and the west coast. How would you say each band is reflective of their respective coast?

KE: Well, traveling a lot, you see that people who live in the same climate have certain things that are similar. You know, we’re all on the same planet, but there are ways that we describe ourselves based on our societies and our surroundings. A lot of it comes from the climate. I think if your career starts in New York, which mine did, you have a certain way of dealing with things. The people that you saw all the time, like Elvin Jones playing all the time — which I did — and Roy Haynes, Sam Rivers, and people I was exposed to because I was in New York and who I wouldn’t be exposed to if I was in LA, it’s just all different. So there was always that type of impression from musicians in the clubs — you’d hear that certain New York type of music in there, whether people call it intensity or whatever it is. But if you’re in LA, it’s a whole different story. Plus the climate is totally different. So in the music — and I don’t quite know how to describe it — it was kind of slowed down a little bit — a little softer in a certain way. But no less intentional — it’s not like people didn’t feel as much, they just felt it in a different way.

BL: Breezier?

KE: Hmm.. Breezier… meaning?

BL: Well, just the attitude of the west coast. In comparison to the east coast, which can get more frigid, more stark — I’m trying to think of a better word —

KE: See, it’s not so easy to describe! (laughs) But you can hear it. Certain things I started feeling on the west coast that I hadn’t felt before on the east coast. And it starts to get into your music. I was exposed to a lot of friends in LA who are Mexican, playing with musicians there I started feeling more Latin rhythms, and that gets into the music. So again, it’s geographical more than anything else.

BL: So your set that you’re playing here at Birdland this week, is it primarily the east coast music?

KE: Well that’s a good question. (laughs) If I had to say yes or no I would probably say yes. But I don’t mean to put one down, or put one over the other. But I would say yes, the energy here this week is more New York.

BL: I was telling Jeff [“Tain” Watts] that when you guys were playing it was so intense that things were rattling and falling off the shelves in our office.

KE: (laughs) You know, if that happened in LA that means there’s an earthquake!

BL: Exactly, but if it happens in New York it just means it’s a damn good show.

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