Hochschule Luzern - Musik, Abteilung Jazz

Jazz Talks XXVIII: Gerry Hemingway Meets Robin Eubanks
“Curious for Mystery”

March 12, 2016

“Being a musician is an amazing thing, there is no way to explain what improvising and being in the moment really is unless you have actually done it... I have this outlet that not everyone has, where I can let out my all my emotions out when I am playing and performing...”

Trombonist, composer & educator, Robin Eubanks (geb. 1955, Philadelphia, USA) visited the Hochschule Luzern Jazz Institute in March of 2016 for a Masterclass. From a musical family, Robin's outstanding contributions includes his many years with the Dave Holland quintet and big band, and his enriching encounters with musical legends Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Eddie Palmieri, Sun Ra, Barbra Streisand, The Rolling Stones and Talking Heads just to name a few.

Podcast here

Jazztalks: Gerry Hemingway Meets Robin Eubanks

Jazztalks: Gerry Hemingway Meets Robin Eubanks

Jazztalks: Gerry Hemingway Meets Robin Eubanks>

Jazztalks: Gerry Hemingway Meets Robin Eubanks

Music Talks
Mit der Gesprächsserie “Music Talks” lädt das Jazzinstitut der Hochschule Luzern ein zu facettenreichen Begegnungen mit profilierten Persönlichkeiten des Gegenwartsjazz. Die Gespräche drehen sich nicht nur um den Werdegang und das künstlerische Schaffen dieser Persönlichkeiten: Anhand von Tonbeispielen sollen auch persönliche musikalische Vorlieben diskutiert werden. Die Frage nach den Zukunftsperspektiven des Jazz soll ebenfalls aufs Tapet gebracht werden.

Die Gespräche werden geführt von Gerry Hemingway, Dozent für Schlagzeug, Ensemble und Kompostion

Gerry Hemingway

Robin was first drawn to the instrument and music in general by elements he found mysterious. He grew up in the Mt. Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia. When he was younger, he was baffled when he watched the trombone being played, trying to imagine how an instrument of this shape and mechanic could produce the sounds that he heard. It sparked his curiosity. Indeed this curiosity for music had very early roots, perhaps even pre-natal, given that his mother was a pianist who was both a music teacher and choir director. As well her brothers were the renowned pianist Ray Bryant, and bassist Tommy Bryant who for a period time worked as two thirds of the Papa Jo Jones trio. Robin is the oldest of three brothers (younger brothers are Kevin and Duane) who also developed notable professions in music. His dad was at first a detective in the Philadelphia police and eventually moved on to position as head of security for an ATT division.

Robin was eight years old when he began trombone, sparked by his initial intrigue of watching the trombone played in a demonstration of instruments provided by his school. He soon joined the school band after some months of lessons. For the remaining six years of his elementary school years he played and practiced the instrument, but when summer came he preferred to play baseball. It was common in his school and community that you played an instrument. It was something most young people did and it was in this spirit that his musical journey began.

Things began to shift around the age of fourteen when he was asked to join a band doing covers of pop songs, in particular hits by the then popular group, Chicago. New for Robin was that this group did gigs where there was a financial reward for making music, so this created additional incentive. Most neighborhoods had bands that played for dances on the weekend and so by age fifteen Robin was working every weekend and enjoying a life in a culture of music clubs where he normally would not be able to go until he was the legal age of twenty-one years old. Often these bands would hang out after work at three in the morning at the Stenton diner, and so Robin enjoyed being part of a community of musicians while in high school, which had its share of excitement and inspirations.

Following high school, Robin remained in Philadelphia and first attended Temple University and soon after transferred to the University of the Arts where his focus moved more towards jazz from his previous work in funk and rock. The University of the Arts (one of whose more famous musical graduates was bassist Stanley Clarke) provided college credit to pursue jazz studies; an education that Robin would have likely done on his own. He started studies with bass trombonist Art Blatt and shortly after with trombonist Roger DeLillo - a real character in Robin's recollection. He would eventually sub for him on TSOP/MFSB recording sessions. TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia) and MFSB (Mother Father Sister Brother) were important parts of Philadelphian and African-American culture from the 1970s, which produced among many notable hits, the theme song for the long lived TV show, Soul Train (“hippest trip in America”) by the Three Degrees.

One experience the bandstand provided was feedback of how Robin's playing measured up to his colleagues, and it was clear he had work to do to play solos he felt that were on par with the musicianship around him. Generally though there was support from teachers and fellow musicians that he had something and that he was destined to make an impact as a musician. Meanwhile, the music that was inspiring and shaping Robin as his musical path unfolded included Sly and the Family Stone, whom he went to see with his mother in NYC in 1969 (check out his cover of Sly's “Thank You” on his recording Klassik Rock Vol. 1). Here was a band that was integrated in more ways then one including being one of the rare bands that forged a musical relationship between Soul and Rock music. In 1972 the music of John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra made a huge impact (note this part of the podcast at 27:30) and in particular the piece The Dance of Maya from their first recording for Columbia Records Inner Mounting Flame. This piece had characteristics in its construction that would remain influential in Robin's musical interests, both as a player and later as a composer. He saw in this music the potential for surprising the listener's expectation of what appears to be the structure in a musical form, until a second layer of the foundation is introduced altering the previous perception of the content. Also the sonic world of this electric orchestration opened the door to his own experimentation with devices that a guitarist might offering a way of remaking the role of his instrument in the rock environment he was exploring during this earlier period.

Over the following years, sometimes along with his brother Kevin, he would wade into the waters of jazz, and attempt to unravel its mysteries. Robin established a connection with trombonist Al Grey though his son Michael (who was also a trombonist) and who knew Robin's brother Kevin. When he was off the road from Count Basie, Mr. Grey would offer some guidance, but mostly Robin and his brother would create play-along recordings on cassette to practice improvising over basic harmonic movements such as 2-5-1 progressions. His initial encounter with the trombone playing of JJ Johnson on a record of his called “Turnpike” so overwhelmed him that he put the record in a closet for months after his initial listening as it was simply to difficult to fathom that the instrument he was playing could be played with this level of speed, articulation and agility. Of course over time this fear would be overcome and he would eventually become a friend of JJ Johnson. It would be JJ Johnson who eventually recommended Robin to the faculty of Oberlin College.

Some years later when his proficiency improved he started frequenting sessions and jazz clubs in Philadelphia more often. At one point he got to hear trombonist Slide Hampton. Al Grey whom he knew well by then introduced him to Slide at the concert and Slide asked Robin to sit in, which earned him an invitation to join Slide's project “World of Trombones” based in NYC. Slide Hampton ended up taking Robin under his wing, mentoring him for a period of time and in his company Robin would be introduced to the musical scene in NYC. This led to Robin eventually getting a National Endowment for the Arts grant to study formally with Slide Hampton. By 1980 Robin and his brother Kevin got an apartment in NY and started more fully immersing into a variety of musical experiences.

In this period he toured in the US with Hampton's World of Trombones, as well as with Jimmy McGriff's organ trio, and he experienced his first European tour with Sam Rivers which is documented on Repetoire Records 1982 release Sam River's Rivbea Orchestra* _- Jazzbühne Berlin '82. Robin then brought up the experience of his first recording session in 1978 which was with Sun Ra who was based in Philadelphia in Germantown, quite close to where he lived. He is on the record “The Other Side of the Sun” which was released on the Sweet Earth label in 1979. And as it was with Sun Ra, the experience of meeting him, and his entire situation was colorful to say the least (check the podcast around 49:30 for the full story).

It was also in this period (around 1980) where Robin auditioned for the Art Blakey Big Band, which included a somewhat old school NY audition procedure with many horn players lined up at the Club, Mikell's in NY. Fortunately for Robin it yielded the opportunity of joining Art Blakey's Big band extension to his regular line up. Interestingly this audition chose two teams of brothers (Kevin & Robin, and the then, very young and not yet established, Wynton Marsalis with his brother Branford). There is some documentation of this with a slightly different line up on the 1980 release Live at Montreux and North Sea (hear a nice exchange with tenor saxophonist Bill Pierce from that recording here on the blues “Minor Thesis”). And speaking of notable drummers Robin was fortunate to work with; in the late 90's Robin would have a period of time with the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine. He can be heard on his last recording (from 1999) featured on “Straight No Chaser” from the recording “The Truth” Heard Live at the Blue Note here.

Rolling ahead in time we spoke briefly about Robin's well-documented sixteen-year tenure with the Dave Holland's quintet, where he contributed both as a player and composer. More recent projects included a return to band leading and a recording of his music for big band with pieces partly culled from his years working with the San Francisco Jazz Collective (available on the 2015 Artist's Share release “Mass Line Big Band”).

“Being a musician is an amazing thing, there is no way to explain what improvising and being in the moment really is unless you have actually done it... I have this outlet that not everyone has, where I can let out my all my emotions out when I am playing and performing...”

Gerry Hemingway (June 2018)

Related links:
Robin Eubank's Website:
Wiki (English)
Wiki (Deutsch)

Podcast here

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