You can hear it in "Easy Did It" on Dave Holland's Critical Mass, when he trades fours with tenor saxophonist Chris Potter. And you can hear it in "Jimi" and in the title tune of his 2000 release, Get 2 It, when he cranks Hendrix-style sounds out of an electrified trombone. Robin Eubanks is brilliant, even if he's not blowing the jazz horn you might expect. "I think anyone will hear how easy he makes playing the trombone sound -- so very fluid and smooth, so easy to play high or low," says Dan Keberle, director of Whitworth's jazz program.
"If you ask anyone with a passing interest in jazz about great players, they will probably name a saxophonist, a trumpeter, or a pianist -- but not a trombone player," says Richard Strauch, who, as music professor at Whitworth and principal trombone for the Spokane Symphony, ought to know. "I think [Eubanks] is likely to become a Michael Jordan of the jazz trombone -- J.J. certainly was."
Strauch is referring to J.J. Johnson (1924-2001), the man who proved that slide trombones could keep up with bebop's rapid pace and whom Eubanks calls "the greatest jazz trombonist in history." Eubanks will duly pay tribute on Saturday night by performing a couple of J.J. tunes, "Say When" and "El Camino Real." The first half of Saturday's concert at Whitworth will feature the Whitworth Jazz Ensemble playing three Keberle arrangements along with a couple of Count Basie and Buddy Rich numbers. After intermission, Eubanks will join the Whitworthians to perform a couple of his own compositions, "Lover Man" and "MDM," which Keberle calls "typical Eubanks, with changing meters and tempo modulations -- very original and fresh-sounding." Eubanks will switch to electronic trombone for a number called "Blues for Jimi Hendrix," and then the program will conclude with Keberle's arrangement of Eubanks' "Taicho" -- "alternates every measure from 4/4 to 5/4," says Keberle, "kind of an Afro-Latin groove" -- but not before Eubanks and Whitworth senior and lead trombonist Greg Hoff trade fours in a number called "Fahn and Andy."
So what's it like to improvise in tandem with one of your idols? "You start where the other guy leaves off, then turn it around and take it somewhere else," says Hoff. "We communicate by listening to elements of each other's playing -- such as rhythm, phrases, melodic shapes, and harmonic ideas -- and developing those ideas in the next solo statement."
Hoff also mentions Eubanks' "mastery of asymmetrical and changing meters -- he plays very funky, very rhythmic. Part of that is J.J.'s influence -- Robin talks about listening to J.J. and practicing long tones to be able to play in the center of each pitch, just like J.J. did -- and part of it is that Robin, Slide Hampton and Steve Turre are of the relatively small number of jazz trombonists who use large-bore trombones, which give them warmer, darker and broader sounds. It's like the difference between a Buick and a sports car."
For his part, Eubanks himself says that while it's "easier to get around on a smaller horn, it also creates a smaller sound. I play large-bore because I'm used to the sound in the lower register, like a bass trombone." And what kind of sound is that? "Darker, sadder and bigger," he says.
Eubanks, in other words, is so agile that he has technique to spare, while also creating such a full sound that his trombone's voice achieves his artistic intent. Strauch, the Symphony's trombonist, remarks on how Eubanks has mastered this combination of both technique and artistry: "If I'm sitting there and all I can think of is, 'Wow, what great articulation,' or "Man, that guy can play high,' something really important is probably missing from their playing."
With his own students -- Eubanks teaches at Ohio's Oberlin College and will lead a workshop at Whitworth on Friday -- he faces the same conflict between technique and feeling. If that's a problem, he says, "I tell 'em to listen to players who they really like, not just trombonists, and catch the spirit of the music, not just the technical facility -- to listen for nuance. It's not just about how fast and how high they can play."
Robin Eubanks with the Whitworth Jazz Ensemble at Cowles Auditorium on Saturday, Nov. 11, at 8 pm. Tickets: $10. Eubanks delivers a free jazz workshop on Friday, Nov. 10, at 5:15 pm in Whitworth's Music Bldg. Call 777-3280.