Kevin Eubanks doesn't have any beef with Jay Leno

CorrespondentMay 16, 2013 

Kevin Eubanks.

COURTESY OF RAJ NAIK

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    Who: Stanley Jordan and Kevin Eubanks

    When: 8 p.m. Friday

    Where: The Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham

    Tickets: $32-$58

    Details: 919-560-3030; www.carolinatheatre.org/

It’s very likely that Kevin Eubanks is fed up with all the “Tonight Show” questions.

The veteran jazz guitarist and former bandleader for NBC’s late-night staple is guarded during this phone interview, probably because he knows what’s coming. From 1995 to 2010, Eubanks was the man in charge of the band for Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show.” (He took over the spot after original bandleader and Durham resident Branford Marsalis vacated that position.) He remained Leno’s head music man even when Leno took that brief, ill-fated trip to prime time, when he helmed “The Jay Leno Show” in 2009.

On the last Friday night of May 2010, Eubanks bid adieu, leading the band one last time and even having the stage all to himself for a farewell performance. Chances are, with all the hoopla that’s surrounded the show then, as Leno returned to the show after Conan O’Brien’s controversial, also-brief tenure, and now, with Leno finally getting the heave-ho for Jimmy Fallon to take the helm next year, the last thing he wants to talk about is the show or why he left it.

But even before you ask, he’s ready to address it. “It just seems like, today, everybody needs conflict in order to think that’s the reason why things take place,” says Eubanks, 55, on the phone from his Southern California home. “And when there is no conflict, people seem surprised by that. But there just isn’t anything there – just two guys that work great together and, you know, we’re still really great friends.”

Still pals with Leno

Eubanks says he and his former boss keep in constant touch, even sending each other gifts on their birthdays. (“He sends me a lot of Jimi Hendrix stuff on my birthday,” he says.) Eubanks says that it was time to move on. “It was” – he stops to sigh – “just a natural transition. It was no big deal about it. It wasn’t, you know, I gotta get back out and prove myself as a guitarist again or anything like that.”

Despite not looking over a day over 35 (Eubanks is a vegetarian, even receiving the “World’s Sexiest Vegetarian Man” honor from PETA in 2007), Eubanks has been in the jazz game for decades.

After all, the born Philadelphian comes from a musical family. His uncle was the late Ray Bryant, a jazz pianist, and his brothers Robin and Duane are horn players. He has performed alongside such greats as Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Sam Rivers and Dave Holland. (Eubanks continues to perform with Holland, even collaborating on an upcoming album with Dave Holland’s Prism project, scheduled for an August release.)

He released his first album,” Guitarist,” when he was 25, later releasing albums on Blue Note, GRP and his own Insoul Music label.

“I’ve been playing my whole life,” he says. “I’ve been touring before ‘The Tonight Show’ and I played even while I was on ‘The Tonight Show.’ And, now, I’m just continuing what I was doing. I don’t think about wanting to be known as this or anything like that. I wasn’t trying to prove anything, you know. There’s nothing there, man.”

‘A blast’ with Jordan

He would much rather talk about what he’s been doing with fellow jazz strummer, Stanley Jordan. Eubanks and Jordan will be at the Carolina Theatre Friday performing, one of many shows Eubanks is doing as part of a tour that marks the first time both men have collaborated. “We just started up and we’re having a blast and, now, we’re shaking our heads,” he says, before asking, “Why didn’t we do this earlier?”

Considering how often jazz artists get together and jam, that’s actually a good question. “I’ve always been a fan of Stanley’s and I just think we’ve both been busy doing our careers,” he says. “We were both having very nice careers, and we’ve always been kind of shadowing each other. We were always, you know, somewhere around the same label, if not on the same label.”

Since both Jordan and Eubanks have recently released albums on the same label, Mack Avenue, it seemed inevitable for the two to hook up. “We just liked each other and said, ‘Hey, let’s do some gigs and play together, see what we’ve got,’ ” he says. “I think that’s a wonderful thing because it’s always nice to be able to add stuff to your career and not feel like, well, I’ve tried everything. It’s wonderful to find new things in life.”

The two men have been discussing putting music down for a possible album. But Eubanks is certainly not ruling out making a return to the boob tube. “I like TV. I’m good at it, and maybe I’ll do television again.”

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