IT’S ONE OF THOSE “ONLY IN L.A.” PHENOMENA: It’s pushing midnight, and Kevin Eubanks—the guy who earlier in the day did his zillionth taping of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and is probably, at this very moment, being watched by millions of people across the country—is perched right in front of you at the cozy jazz club known as the Baked Potato. He’s sitting on a tiny stage that is no taller than a pint glass, and he’s playing guitar. Tonight, the vibe is so friendly and intimate it might as well be Eubanks’ living room. Here, the Tonight Show musical director is no longer the most visible guitar player in America. He’s just a guitar player.
When the music kicks into high gear—which it does almost immediately—the band’s energy is intense, the improvisations are epic, and there are no commercial breaks. It’s a chance to find out what really drives and inspires the bandleader and onscreen muse of the most famous talk show host in the country. Tonight, Eubanks doesn’t have to answer to any producers or committees who might have an opinion on which direction his music takes. Whether it’s bluegrass, Coltrane, or Sly and the Family Stone that’s giving him inspiration at a given moment, he can open up and let the sparks fly.
A few days later, Eubanks is at a low key Italian restaurant near NBC’s Burbank studios, pondering something he is about to receive for the first time in 17 years: a vacation. Jay Leno’s show—which has been running continuously all 17 years with never more than a two-week break—is being re-imagined for its new time slot and new incarnation, as Conan O’Brien will soon (and certainly by the time you read this) have taken over hosting The Tonight Show. Eubanks will use part of this respite to consider the creative avenues his band will take on the new show (simply called The Jay Leno Show). The guitarist also has time to ponder the state of music in general, the state of jazz in particular, and the pros, cons, and responsibilities of fame.
The first song your band played at the Potato the other night was hypnotizing, because it was really just a single riff—an elaborate rock riff, almost, but very loose and swinging—that you guys played over and over, built upon, and took way out.
That tune’s called “The Dancing Sea.” When we play, we really let ourselves breathe. We jump in and see where the energy of the given night takes us. And the more we can ride that energy, and the more we can ride that wave, the more things happen that never happened before. There aren’t many places like the Baked Potato in existence right now—places where both the band and the audience are hearing the music for the first time. It’s nice to have a spot where musicians are really free to create something new.
We have a lot of songs, but sometimes we’ll just play the beginning of a song, and if somebody hears something else, we follow that and see where it takes us. We want it to go somewhere brand new. It’s almost like the song structure is only there in case we need it. What we’re really trying to do is improvise a new structure. We only play the whole song as a last resort. [Laughs.]
At the Baked Potato, you were using different gear than the Mesa/Boogie rig you use on TV.
Yeah, for my solo shows, I use a custom preamp called the DMS-1 that I designed with Bruce Seifried of Eclair Engineering. I was at a jam, and someone was using one of Eclair’s Evil Twin tube direct boxes. I liked it so much, I called the number on the back, got in touch with Bruce, and convinced him to build me a custom preamp. He works by himself in his shop, like Abe Rivera, who builds my guitars, so he said it would only be worth his while if he built a run of five of them, so now I have four extras! The preamp has a very detailed compression section—a series of compressors, actually, individually focusing on lows, mids, and highs. I run it into a Stewart 100-watt power amp. The compression lets me have tons of sustain without the tone being distorted. It’s a sound I envisioned specifically for my solo band.
What does “DMS” stand for?
“Dat’s My Sh*t.” [Laughs.]
Having a steady national TV gig for so many years and counting has to be great, but have you ever felt you could have done more with your own music over all this time if you’d been writing, recording, and touring full time?
I’d have to answer yes, even though we play out a lot throughout the year, and we do fly-aways on weekends. I do miss touring around and being on festivals with other bands, getting instant feedback from people, and seeing other groups play, but the Potato is kind of like our home base where we keep everything burning. Plus, I have a studio in my house and record a lot. I gutted my basement, found a Neve console in England, and had it brought over and put it in.
I’m always practicing and growing as an artist, but sometimes there are so many unrealistic pressures brought to bear on artists. Some people seem to think that if you are economically successful then, by definition, you’re not an artist. It’s as if being an artist means you have to have the spirit of Van Gogh and be locked up in a room, inaccessible to anybody, not selling one painting during your entire lifetime, not being heard by one audience ever. And then, after your neighbor’s dog finds your decrepit body, they break into your studio and discover these 50 brilliant albums you recorded.
Is that the only definition of an artist? Can you be an artist and be on a TV variety show? I get letters all the time from young people saying, “I’ve seen you on TV. Now I want to go to college. I want to pursue music.” It makes you feel good when you give people hope and inspiration, and show them that they really can become something as a musician.
Sometimes, actually, it’s musicians who are the most closed-minded of all. Some jazz players seem to have this idea that “if you can understand what I’m doing, then I’m not doing enough.” Jazz has become sit-down music. It used to be stand-up-and-dance music, but we took the vocals out of it, took the romance out of it, and in many ways took the spirit out of it. If you don’t give listeners an entry point, then you wind up where jazz is now—all alone. Musically speaking, some jazz players don’t invite people in their front door and then they complain that there’s nobody at their party! But the average person on the street is different—they love all kinds of music. That’s why I’ve always loved it when artists like B.B. King or Willie Nelson come on the show—they’re so inclusive in their thinking about music.
B.B.’s certainly been on Jay Leno a few times.
Yes. When I told him that the Tonight Show as we know it is closing, it almost seemed to hurt him a little, because I think he feels like me being there is a continuation of the long line of people who brought him opportunity in his career. I’m a huge fan of B.B. King—how could you not be, if you’re a guitar player?—and I feel like I couldn’t possibly be where I am if this man hadn’t existed, or if Wes Montgomery or George Benson hadn’t existed. It’s a great feeling when you get a look from B.B. King that says, “I’m proud of you.”
You’ve seen a lot of young bands come on the show and try to deliver an amazing performance in three minutes. Do you have any advice for guitarists playing on national TV for the first time?
Relax. Don’t compromise the feel of the song by over-performing. The most important thing is that you establish your groove and get across the emotion of the song. And if there’s a guitar solo, instead of saying “I’m going to play a great solo tonight,” say, “I’m going to play a great song tonight.”
You were catapulted from the jazz clubs to national TV in a heartbeat, practically. What was it like two years into the show when Branford Marsalis stepped down as musical director, and you were handed that role?
No one commented on it in makeup that first day, but I was so nervous I was breaking out in sweat—even after all the gigs and touring I had done! I soon got more comfortable with it, but even now, doing awards shows or reading a teleprompter for a few seconds just terrifies me. But I have decided to branch out and do more industry stuff, because I want to use whatever visibility I have to help in the movement to get instruments back in public schools. Pulling music and arts out of the schools is a big problem, because when you do that, you take the creativity and humanity out of things. This is a good cause for me, because I think few if any other people in Hollywood would take it on. So if helps put guitars in children’s hands, I’ll learn to read a teleprompter! [Laughs.]