For nearly two decades, guitarist Kevin Eubanks' career has been a curious paradox. As band director of TV's "The Tonight Show" and chief foil for host Jay Leno, he had one of the highest profiles of any musician. But at the same time, his personal projects essentially fell off the radar.
"When you're on a show like that it's understandable that you're off the scene, you're not visible and all that," he said by phone.
Eubanks is working hard at getting back on the scene after amicably closing out his 18-year "Tonight Show" tenure last May. He issued his first post-Leno album in November, the well-received "Zen Food," and is currently on a tour that stops at the Dakota on Monday and Tuesday. His quartet includes "Tonight" band drummer Marvin "Smitty" Smith as well as saxophonist Bill Pierce and bassist Rene Camacho.
Eubanks, 53, admits some aspects of the transition have been tough. "It's hard to leave a situation where you have a lot of friends that you've known for so long," he said. "You kind of miss people, and you miss your routines."
Despite the late-night TV turmoil and Leno-Conan melodrama, he said his departure was primarily a matter of just being time to move on.
"It's just a natural progression in somebody's life, and it just happens to be my life. People that I worked with every day, they understood it. They were like, yeah, people go through changes. At one point it was easy to keep my weight down, and now it's not so easy. Your metabolism changes as you get old. It's just a natural thing and you just give in to it. It doesn't mean you didn't like what was happening before. I liked being that weight, or I liked having hair."
Eubanks punctuated this last bit with the affable chuckles with which he charmed TV audiences and parried Leno's jokes. It was a role that reportedly chafed at Leno's first bandleader, Branford Marsalis, who left after three years, passing the baton to his guitarist, who embraced the opportunity.
Besides rolling with Leno's jests, the Philadelphia-born, Berklee-educated Eubanks' broad musical background in rock, R&B, funk and jazz perfectly fit the "Tonight Show" bill.
"Yeah, I generally, in quotations, 'like' music. So it's easier for me to be effective on that kind of show." Still, he said, "The music that I played on the show wasn't a particular direction of mine. That was basically the soundtrack to a particular type of show. The 'Tonight Show' job was what it was, and I was good at it. I'm also good at this."
"This," in many ways, picks up the threads of Eubanks' pre-Leno career as a versatile, highly regarded jazz guitarist who flew with the likes of Art Blakey, McCoy Tyner, Dave Holland and Roy Haynes. Despite that impressive résumé, he prefers not to be typecast as strictly a jazz musician.
"It just seems to be more of a limitation than anything else, because there are fixed ideas about jazz. It makes it more difficult for you to express some of the other types of music that you like."
"Zen Food," in fact, runs the gamut from bop to ballads to blues in a fusion-aware jazz context. It sometimes races along a jaunty vibe fueled by the fluid drive of Eubanks' electric guitar, at others delves into lyrical, deeply introspective material stroked by his finesse on acoustic.
The latter really stands out on "Adoration," also the final piece Eubanks played on "Tonight" and now requested virtually everywhere he goes.
"That's becoming my signature song, yes, it is," he said. "I learned that song a long time ago from a Christian classical guitarist, and I can't find a CD and I can't remember this guy's name. Over the years I forgot it [but] it kept wanting to come out. I remembered bits and pieces of it and then put a different arrangement together because I couldn't remember the rest. So then one day Jay and I went to Wilmington, Ohio, to play a free concert because there was 85 percent unemployment there. Nothing we played worked. Nobody liked us -- like 8,000 people. It was terrifying. Then we played that song, and people loved it -- just this one song. That concert made me realize that that's the song you need to keep playing and keep playing and keep playing."
Which the unfettered Eubanks plans to do. He's already thinking about a new album with a few possible surprises, including vocals, as well as finally getting around to playing with his brothers, trombonist Robin and trumpeter Duane. Plus he and Holland have discussed putting a new band together.
Whatever he does, Eubanks hopes to infuse it with what he calls "Hollywood mystique," something the Philly guy has finally absorbed after all this time.
"It took long enough, didn't it?" he said, laughing. "Yeah, finally I get it. Finally I understand my way a bit more than I ever have, man. There is something out there to be learned by musicians, for sure. L.A. is a different kind of animal."