Guitarist Kevin Eubanks is to release The Messenger next week, his second album for US label Mack Avenue following on from Zen Food from two years ago.

Coming out in the UK some five months ahead of its US release, the Philadelphian, who in the early-1980s was a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and until two years ago was well known in the States for his long tenure in The Tonight Show leading Jay Leno’s house band, has written most of the tunes of the album with tracks including ‘JB’, a tribute to James Brown, Jeff Beck’s ‘Led Boots’, and Trane’s ‘Resolution’, from A Love Supreme like you’ve never heard it before, with a striking vocal bass line sung by Take 6’s Alvin Chea.

Eubanks’ band sees the guitarist joined by reedsman Billy Pierce, bassist Rene Camacho, long time drum pal Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Joey De Leon, Jr. on percussion with Eubanks’ younger brother Duane on trumpet on three tracks, and older brother Robin on trombone on a brace of numbers.

Explaining the title track Eubanks has said: “There is an urgency about it; it has the energy of a message that really should get across. The Messenger, I feel, is in everyone. We’re at the point that whatever it is that you feel strongly about, that can help a person or persons that you love, or a situation that affects your life…you should let that message out”.

The album opens uptempo with the percussion driven title track softly opening out to Billy Pierce’s sax line and a vibrant bass figure, with Eubanks opening up the throttle to give the band a pacey run out.

Born into a musical family on 15 November 1957 Eubanks’ mother Vera was a composer and held a doctorate in music, and Kevin had two musical uncles, the great pianist Ray and Tommy Bryant, so it was natural in a way that Eubanks would go into music. It was hardly a surprise that he firstly moved to Boston to study at Berklee with a bunch of influences in his head including the likes of John McLaughlin and George Benson, although his life was to be changed forever by touring with the great Blakey and work with other leaders including Sam Rivers.

Eubanks’ career took a fusion turn in the 1980s with a bunch of records for GRP including Face to Face and Promise of Tomorrow that perhaps did not totally show the full roundness of his musical personality. In the 1990s though he changed tack and was in a memorable trio with ex-Miles Davis bassist Dave Holland and percussionist Mino Cinelu for a while that really showed what he could do, as a stylish soulful guitarist capable of appealing to straightahead, fusion and jazz-rock fans alike. Eubanks was as recently as the summer just past playing with Holland once again for some tour dates by the much fancied band they’re calling Prism, also featuring pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Eric Harland.

The tenderness of George Benson comes across on a track like ‘Sister Veil’ on The Messenger, while tackling ‘Resolution’ could be seen as a risk few would undertake lightly comes off winningly with that light funk and dancefloor-friendly feel certainly blowing a few cobwebs off some overly studious approaches to the track you might have come across.

‘JB’ takes up the mantle of that other great Phillie jazz player Christian McBride whose affection for the music of James Brown is widely understood, and this quietly engrossing song is all about the build and in this it’s clear Rene Camacho’s role is an important presence on the album, but so too is Robin Eubanks who also shines here as the trombone gathers some seriously sinuous pace. ‘420’ has great drive with a late-Milesian feel, although Kevin Eubanks’ lightly strung sound here is more reminiscent of the approach of a player such as the UK’s Tony Remy than say Mike Stern, one of Miles’ most favoured guitarists during his latter years on the planet.

‘Led Boots’ is simply infectious and may well prove to be the album’s main talking point taking its cue from Max Middleton’s penned homage to Led Zep on Beck’s 1976 album Wired. But don’t expect a power version of the classic, it’s not what Eubanks is all about. Softly insistent ‘M.I.N.D’, ‘Queen of Hearts’, ‘The Gloaming’, a beautiful charmer worked around acoustic guitar and saxophone, as is the supermelodic slow ‘Loved Ones’, all have plenty of character, but ‘Ghost Dog Blues’ with its  compelling momentum alters the scope of the album just as it seems to be becoming a little too ballad-heavy.

A very classy album indeed that marks a welcome return of a player whose quality is beyond a shadow of a doubt. The Messenger cleverly steers a path away from some sort of slick confection that would turn a lot of people off. Instead we’ll all want to talk about Kevin.

Stephen Graham

Released on 23 October

Kevin Eubanks pictured above. Photo: Raj Naik

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