Kevin Eubanks on Jazz, “The Jay Leno Show” and Playing in New York
By Jim Fusilli
Most people know Kevin Eubanks as the musical director for “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” a position he held since 1995. But prior to that, Eubanks had a reputation for excellence as a jazz guitarist, playing with Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Dave Holland and others. In addition to his work as a sideman, he’s recorded 18 albums as a leader. This week, he’s fronting his five-piece band at the Blue Note in New York City.
The Wall Street Journal: How does it feel to be on stage at a jazz club again?
It feels wonderful. I really love all the music we get to. Once we’re in front of an audience that’s listening and has a knowledge of what they’re listening for, it’s a vibe. If you have a commitment to what you’re doing, people are attracted to it.
What material are you playing?
All original material. This is a band that’s been together for a while. We have a steady gig at the Baked Potato in L.A. and we get a chance to go out now and then. But most of the stuff is new to the audience. They haven’t heard it on radio, but they get into it. That reinforces my thinking that people want to hear a certain commitment to the music in what you’re doing. It’s all ages too – “The Tonight Show” audience or a lot younger, across the board. They’re into some new music.
Any plans for another album?
Well, I’m meeting with some people while I’m here. I guess I’ll find out what record companies do these days. I’m going to focus on getting the records out to where they’re sold these days – stores, online, gas stations, wherever. We have so much music we want to get out. But I am curious about what record companies do. It’ll help to find that out. After we’re done here and do a few more gigs, we’re going to record in L.A.
Did you get to play enough jazz on “The Tonight Show”?
No, but at the same time I never expected to. I play music that supports the focus of the show. I never had a conflict of interest between what the show needed and what I wanted to do.
You’ll be leading the band on “The Jay Leno Show.” Will you find a place for jazz on it?
When we start the new show, I’d like to bring that into focus. I want to find the right places for the creative expression. I don’t want to force it. I feel everybody has an open mind now that it’s a new show. They’re open to some new ideas.
I see Jay-Z, Rihanna and Kanye West are booked for the first night. Any chance we’ll see jazz giants too?
That’s not my department, but what I can do is bring people on as part of my band and feature them, and I do envision doing that. There are ways to bring the music into the TV show – an extra long bumper, maybe. People are a little more open about it. At 10 o’clock you need a few new ideas. That’s one of the areas I want to try to develop. It wouldn’t be a record company thing. It’d be just people I know. It could be anybody I dig.