Robin Eubanks’ envelope pushing, hi-tech jazz

Boston Globe, June 15, 2007

Jazz at the electronic frontier produces music that’s all over the map: The encounter of acoustic instruments with computer technology can yield soupy fusion or aggressive avant-garde noise, but it has also opened new evolutionary paths for straight-ahead jazz and created new platforms for brilliance. For proof, look no further than trombonist Robin Eubanks’s EB3 trio. The unusual combo of trombone, keyboards, and drums, augmented by an array of devices that the musicians engage and tweak as they play, shows Eubanks is not just the reigning mad scientist of the trombone but one of the most innovative jazz leaders today.

On tour behind their new album, “Live Vol. 1,” EB3 plays the Cambridge River Festival tomorrow; the opportunity to watch the group at work is one worth catching, as this music is as much a visual as an aural experience. Conveniently, the record package includes a performance DVD that gives an idea of the craftsman’s patient layering, the instrumental versatility, and the improvisational whimsy that all go into making music that is much more than the sum of its parts.

Consider the opening song, “Me, Myself and I.” It is technically a solo – but one in which Eubanks establishes and loops a pair of trombone lines and improvises over the top, along the way working in a beat that he concocts on a set of electronic percussion pads. The repetitive parts give the piece propulsion and a clear structure, but this is also improvisation, both in how the artist builds each element before locking it in, and in how he manages the total organism before breaking it back down to a solitary acoustic finale.

Once partners Kenwood Dennard, on drums, and Orrin Evans, on keyboards, kick in, things get really interesting. With no dedicated bassist in the group, the two share the responsibility: Each has within reach a keyboard bass that he can play simultaneously with his main instrument. Between these acrobatics and the boxes, pedals, pads, and laptops that fill out the tableau, EB3 makes music worth watching.

In fact, Eubanks says, on the phone from his home in New Jersey, that it took watching the videotape for him to fully experience his own work.

“I didn’t know how visual it was until I saw it,” he says. “I’m out front, and I don’t see [the sidemen] when I’m playing. It added so much depth to the whole experience.”

Another standout on the album is “Blues for Jimi Hendrix.” It’s not only an homage to a childhood idol for Eubanks, who is 51, but also an opportunity to make the trombone, thanks to miking and distortion effects, sound uncannily like the master’s electric guitar.

On this one, Eubanks says, “I’m using the same multiple effects unit guitar users have had for decades. When I plug my horn into it, most of the sounds come out pretty bad. So I try to find something halfway decent, and then I adjust the parameters.”

That is a modest characterization. In fact, the switch from the traditional trombone sound one moment to the distorted guitar-ish sound the next is quite exhilarating. Eubanks says, however, that it involves quite a different technique: “It doesn’t feel like I’m playing a trombone. When you’re playing with effects, you have to leave more space – you gotta let the effect take effect. The effects alter the shape and color of the sound. It almost feels like playing guitar, the way you bend a note.”

In a way, as Eubanks confesses during a spoken segment on the DVD, he has finally achieved a childhood dream. Growing up in the 1960s in a Philadelphia musical family – he is the older brother of guitarist and “Tonight Show” bandleader Kevin Eubanks, and a third brother, Duane, plays trumpet – he sometimes felt his own instrument prevented him from fully partaking in the wild and wooly musical innovations of the era.

But he also found his trombone inspiration in Fred Wesley of James Brown’s band, and emerged on the scene at a time when horn sections flourished in bands that muddled the lines between funk, jazz, and rock, like Tower of Power and Blood, Sweat & Tears. Influenced by both Wesley-style funk and the straight-ahead legacy of J.J. Johnson, the great trombonist bandleader, Eubanks found a career playing alongside everyone from Art Blakey and Elvin Jones to the Rolling Stones and the Talking Heads. His current, longstanding sideman gig is with the Dave Holland Quintet.

EB3 is where he pushes the envelope. The breakthrough, he says, came with microphone technology good enough to “get the acoustic trombone sound into the electric system.” For a long time he used to carry around a wah-wah pedal; now, he says, “I have stomp boxes like guitar players have, but I’m using computer software that helps me to access a lot of the sounds and timbres that I’m trying to go for. Now, basically, the sky’s the limit.”

Boston-based drummer Dennard says Eubanks has imbued EB3 with that progressive spirit. “Robin is truly forward-thinking,” Dennard says by e-mail. “I’ve been hired by Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter … but there have been only two with the open-mindedness to hire me to do my `pansonic coordination technique’ [playing more than one instrument simultaneously]: Jaco [Pastorius] and now Robin.”

At this stage in the tour, the veteran pianist Michele Rosewoman is sitting in for Evans on keyboards. “It’s a trip playing with Michele,” Dennard says. “She jumped right into the lion’s den of some challenging music with no fear and a lot of love.”

Eubanks believes the resistance to this form of hybrid music is diminishing in orthodox jazz circles; he says he’s often approached by young horn players who want to learn from his methods. Still, he says, “I’m expecting to get all kinds of negative stuff from jazz purists.” And he notes that EB3 tends to draw a younger crowd.

In fact, “Live Vol. 1” has earned a warm critical reception, appropriate for a record that in some ways is nothing short of a breakthrough. Still, Eubanks laughingly resorts to a plugger’s disclaimer: “I don’t know what I’m doing,” he says. “I’m just turning the buttons until I find something I like.” Don’t believe that for a second.