Multiple DownBeat critics poll winner and electric trombone pioneer Robin Eubanks has covered vast terrain in the course of a 30-plus-year career, but until this year he’d never made a big band album. That changes with the release of More than Meets the Ear
(ArtistShare), a groundbreaking collection of Eubanks’ muscular, interwoven compositions. And it introduces his new, all-star ensemble, the Robin Eubanks Mass Line Big Band.
For those who are less familiar with Eubanks’ body of work, this album offers a perfect primer, serving almost as a best-of collection: Most of these pieces have been played in various contexts over the years, and were originally written for groups like the Dave Holland
Quintet and SF Jazz Collective, where Eubanks has been a longtime member. But More than Meets the Ear
also ups the ante: Benefiting from a 19-piece band and a yearlong sabbatical from his professorship at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Eubanks built the most harmonically and rhythmically layered work of his career.
“The big band allowed me to really flesh things out, with more counter lines and lusher harmonies,” Eubanks says. “When I originally wrote most of the stuff on here, I was actually thinking of a larger group than I was writing for. Even the stuff I first did with the Dave Holland Quintet, I was hearing more horns.”
Eubanks’ roots as a charter member of the M-BASE collective and an early experimenter with electric technologies are borne out in a fresh format on More than Meets the Ear. In the opening title track, he dances through an agile melody, his trombone smeared with wah-wah and effects pedals. Behind him, the vast horn section builds a scaffold of staccato rhythms, simultaneously surging and pulling against itself. On the slow-burning “Full Circle,” a steady, quarter-note melody breathes momentum into an off-kilter, sixteen-beat pattern.More than Meets the Ear
follows last year’s Klassik Rock Vol. 1
, a paean to the incendiary rock, funk and fusion of the 1960s and ’70s that Eubanks grew up on. Many of the world- class sidemen from Klassik Rock
(his first album on ArtistShare) have returned to play in the Mass Line Big Band, including alto saxophonist Antonio Hart, acoustic and electric bassist Boris Kozlov
and drummer Nate Smith
. And there’s some extra star power: Marcus Strickland fills the first tenor chair, and the late Lew Soloff
takes lead trumpet duties. (Eubanks included a special dedication to the jazz-rock trumpet trailblazer in the album notes: More than Meets the Ear
ended up being one of his final recording sessions.)
The entire group executes Eubanks’ arrangements with ardor, as precise as it is freewheeling. It’s a testament to the power of a united front, and the importance of a strong leader’s vision. This all relates to the band’s name, which ties back to Eubanks’ time learning about Marxism as an undergrad at Temple University.
“Mass line” is a concept that originated in Mao Zedong’s China; it suggests that a country’s rulers must keep citizens fully aware of their vision for the future—and likewise, the citizenry should play a central role in deciding upon and executing that vision. (The first big band chart Eubanks composed as a music student at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts was titled “Mass Line,” though that piece doesn’t appear on the new album.)
“In theory I think it’s really a great concept,” Eubanks says. “I went to China for the first time in November, with the Mingus Big Band. Things had changed so much in China, they didn’t have a lot of good things to say about Mao. But some of the concepts I think are still applicable: about getting a political line from the masses, rather than the few corporate folks who throw money at the system.” Eubanks feels a kinship between this ideology and the Nichiren Buddhism he’s practiced for 32 years. “In Buddhism, it isn’t anybody ruling over anybody—everybody has the potential for Buddhahood,” he says.
“And I think the big band was a good forum for exploring that musically—letting people really express themselves in the music, as opposed to limiting them to what’s written on the paper in dots and lines and spaces. I wanted to let them really breathe life into the music and give it their full expression.”
Arranging these nine tunes for big band and recording them with eighteen other musicians was a major undertaking—one that Eubanks only accomplished with the help of a yearlong “research status” sabbatical from Oberlin. “There’s a competition across the whole school, with scientists and other professors, for this status,” Eubanks says. “I wasn’t mapping the human genome or anything. So I was like, ‘Are they gonna care that I’m going to want to do a big band record?’”
Turns out, the administration was as excited about the project as Eubanks was. It surely helped that Eubanks had committed himself to using one Oberlin alum (most of whom graduated in the past few years) in each section of the big band. And indeed, this new album with the Mass Line Big Band attests to Eubanks’ accomplishments as a teacher and mentor, as well as his own talents as an arranger, composer and trombone innovator.
It makes sense that Eubanks knows a thing or two about mentorship: Born into a musical family in Philadelphia
, he and his brothers Kevin and Duane learned from their mother Vera, a classical and gospel pianist, and their uncle, the famed jazz pianist Ray Bryant
. Kevin Eubanks
went on to become the bandleader on the Tonight Show for 15 years, and Duane Eubanks
is a respected trumpeter who’s played with acts as varied as Elvin Jones, Oliver Lake
and Alicia Keys. (Duane plays on More than Meets the Ear
, contributing an affable and funky solo on “Mental Images.”)
As a young trombonist, Robin Eubanks got his start playing in a number of large ensembles around Philadelphia
: the Sun Ra Arkestra
; the Change of the Century Orchestra, featuring Byard Lancaster
and Grachan Moncur III
and Philly Joe Jones
; John Minnis’ Big Bone Band; and others. He went on to put in time with McCoy Tyner
’s big band, Elvin Jones
, Slide Hampton
, and Art Blakey
& the Jazz Messengers. Since 1980s he has been one of the trombone’s top standard-bearers.
He’s been a member of the Dave Holland Quintet for 15 years while holding down membership in the prestigious SF Jazz Collective for the past seven. Meanwhile he’s maintained innovative ensembles like EB3 (he and two band mates play loops and computerized percussion in real time, along with their primary instruments) and Mental Images, a mid-size fusion ensemble. With More than Meets the Ear and the Mass Line Big Band, he brings his vision into even more ambitious terrain—and the result is among the most exciting albums Eubanks has yet produced.