I'm listening to drummer Billy Hart's 1985 album "Oshumare." Hart is really a sideman's sideman, always tasteful but never sleepy. He always makes the bandleader look good. So it doesn't surprise me that when he does lead a session, it's as much about the sidemen as it is about him. "Oshumare" has quite the all-star lineup - Dave Holland on bass, Steve Coleman on sax, Bill Frisell spotting on guitar, Kenny Kirkland on keyboards - but it also has not one but now two directors emeriti of Jay Leno's Tonight Show Band, saxophonist Branford Marsalis and guitarist Kevin Eubanks, who left the show last month.
Because of his decade-plus tenure with Leno, Eubanks hasn't had much time to record himself. After listening to his playing and composing on "Oshumare," it's tough to hear the lack of output as anything but an unfortunate loss. Eubanks certainly has bebop chops to burn, which he shows on the burner "May Dance." But what's striking is how he marries these chops with a keen sensitivity to the sound of his guitar. He's not afraid to use effects here, and on a couple of tracks I almost thought it could have been Frisell breathing into the guitar with a gain pedal.
So many jazz guitarists today fall into two camps, which I will call the shredders and the soundscapers. Shredders descend from players like Pat Metheny and John Scofield and place an emphasis on single-line soloing. Sounds can differ from player to player, but each one won't do too much to his or her guitar sound during the course of a gig. The soundscapers come much more from Bill Frisell and Sonny Sharrock. Soundscapers aren't as much about threading the changes perfectly, but rather choosing the perfect sound and fewer notes to create the right character for the music. Latter-day shredders include guys like Kurt Rosenwinkel, Lage Lund, and Nir Felder while Hilmar Jensen and Ben Monder are expert soundscapers (but who too have quite a bit of facility on their instruments).
To hear a player like Eubanks that can both shred and soundscape when the music calls for it is refreshing, and an important asset on a gig or in the studio. Especially on "Oshumare," the music is stylistically diverse because of the many different compositional voices featured. Dave Holland contributes a couple of Neo-Bop tunes, while Steve Coleman brings along a very M-Base freefunk piece. And Eubanks fits into all of them, taking the bold solo when he needs to and then adding cool little accompanying sounds that make you go, "Wait a sec. Was that actually a guitar?" Eubanks' ability to make stylistic diversity sound unified is encapsulated in his on piece on the album, "IDGAF suite." It is episodic and full of nonlinear surprises. The opening floats with no strict pulse and ominous atmospherics before settling into a restlessly funky groove underneath Steve Coleman's alto solo. There's another detour into swing before settling back into another floating section, this time with lush modal harmonies. It somehow all feels organic, as each section has a dramatic yet spontaneous arc.
If Eubanks' mind hasn't melted from years of Leno monologues and cheesy pop covers, we may see the reemergence of an important and distinct voice on jazz guitar.