Concert Review: Kevin Eubanks Quartet at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley in Seattle

Guitarist Kevin Eubanks is primarily known for his 15 year tenure as the leader of The Tonight Show Band. When I watched Jay Leno on late night TV show, it was always interesting to see the back and forth repartee between Jay and Kevin. Given Kevin’s stature and likable personality we figured it was a safe bet seeing him live at the venerable Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley here in Seattle.

I admit we were not familiar with any of Kevin’s music before hand. To remedy this omission I fired up Spotify and listened to his latest album Zen Food. This 2010 release by Kevin was standard modern jazz faire and quite listenable. In the past 10 years we’ve been to many Jazz Alley concerts and seen a wide range of acts from Chris Botti to Pat Metheny. Only on a few occasions have we been truly disappointed with the shows.

The Kevin Eubanks quartet opened the show with a 20 minute piece. In reality, it was a tortuous jam session where the same riffs and themes were repeated over and over. This was a horrible way to start a show as it fatigued the audience. Guys if you really want to jam then do it where you rehearse — not in public. And if you are going to jam then it had better be good. This was not good.

Part of the problem is that often jazz musicians get bored with their material. They also feel the need to be clever. They will take established hit songs and disfigure them to the point of being unrecognizable. Pat Metheny is one of the biggest offenders in this regard. In the mid 2000’s we attended one of his shows and we barely recognized any of the material. I suspect this is part of problem with Eubanks. Jazz musicians have a propensity to be selfish and not care about what the fans want.

Long-winded tunes with undisciplined arrangements were the theme of Eubank’s show; I use the term “show” loosely. There was no show to be seen as all 4 musicians seemed to be introverted, withdrawn and rarely engaged the audience. Given his time on The Tonight Show, Kevin Eubanks should know better and understand that people come to a concert to be entertained and uplifted. Music should make you feel something. Sadly this performance seemed like it was “phoned in”.

All of the common criticisms made about jazz musicians were on display this evening: reckless self-indulgence and virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake. Solo after solo seemed more about proving that “look at me, I can play” rather then supporting the song. The compositions took a backseat and proved to be nothing more than an excuse for technical grandstanding.

Every note should count. This is why I have always been a fan of minimalists like Miles Davis and the notion of letting the music breathe. What you don’t play is just as important as what you play. Playing at light speed and cluttering up your music with sonic pollution for no other reason that to display your virtuosity is wrong and the sure sign of artistic immaturity.

Today modern jazz has become a caricature of itself with it’s obligatory formulaic patterns and pedantic musical motifs. Jazz musicians like Eubanks seem to saturate and weigh down their music with tired cliches. Perhaps a reason for this is that many jazz artists have a common pedigree and graduate from the Berklee College of Music which is a sausage factory that perpetuates and produces similar sounding musicians.

Jazz music has little cultural relevance today as it has refused to evolve and adapt. Modern jazz is no longer modern. It’s painted itself into a corner by being an insular and predictable art form with no room for change or growth. No wonder modern jazz radio stations have closed all across America.

Ultimately music should be about connecting with people by penetrating the human heart. Eubanks inaccessible musical performance failed on both counts. We came to the Kevin Eubanks Quartet concert with the best of intentions. We wanted to hear a great evening of inspired jazz music but ended up being bored with a demonstration of pretentious technical gymnastics.