Thursday night, just after two friends joined me at a table near the stage at Birdland, one of them asked me “are you reviewing?” It was an earnest inquiry even if it hit a sore spot. Concert reviews are no longer part of newspaper journalism I told him, doing my best to mask the muted bitterness that comes from spending decades honing a skill that suddenly has no market value.
Before we delved too deeply into that subject, the music started. The sounds were by the Kevin Eubanks Group, a quartet featuring the former Tonight Show Music Director on a tiny guitar (it looked like a toy but sounded like a monster) joined by three fellow all stars, bassist Dave Holland, drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts and trumpeter Nicholas Payton. The gig was in support of their new recording, “East West Time Line” (Mack Avenue), but what attracted me was that the last time I’d heard Eubanks and Holland, at the Village Vanguard last winter, they were magical. Birdland is bigger and more formal, more midtown. I was curious to see if their magic was portable.
The set began with the band gracefully weaving textures into riffs and playing off of them. After arriving at a figure that sounded Monkish, they began to dig into grooves with solos and duos and trios emerging organically from the fabric of the music. At times the rapport was so high and intuitive that it seemed like a jam by musicians who had been playing together for years even though there were music stands, sheets and Holland told me afterward that he was new to playing with Tain and Payton. A slight narrative formed. Payton’s solos seemed rooted in hard bop while Eubanks;s approach was rooted in country blues and West African styles. Bit by bit as the set progressed the two seemed to be moving toward some sort of common ground. The solos sizzled as if each musician was eager to top what had previously been played without breaking from the intense mood and deep grooves of the music. When Holland took one of the last solos of the 90 minute set, the club was rapt. Not even the sound of ice clinking in a glass was heard.
Upon the completion, Eubanks needed a minute before addressing the crowd. It was as if he was returning from a very deep place. The audience was making a similar journey.
My friend looked at me with wonder and asked “is this what you get to hear all the time?” I assured him that these guys are special, and I realized that the muted bitterness felt long gone.