Robin Eubanks is at or near the top of the list of the world’s best jazz trombonists.
Jazz aficionados revere him. Trombonists idolize him. Yet the trombone is not exactly the ticket to world fame. Most people are probably more familiar with the people he has played with:
• The Rolling Stones, on a session for a song titled “Sex Drive.”
• The Talking Heads, on an album titled “Naked.”
• Bob Dylan, on the “Empire Burlesque” sessions.
• Barbra Streisand, on one of her national tours.
• Kevin Eubanks, former bandleader on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”
The latter collaboration has been going on for a long time, since Kevin is Robin’s brother. They grew up in a musical family – their uncle is pianist Ray Bryant and their mother is a pianist, organist, choir director and music teacher.
“I remember I wanted to be a baseball player when I was growing up, but my mom told me I was going to be a musician,” said Eubanks, by phone from his home outside of New York.
Yet he has only himself to blame for choosing the notoriously difficult trombone. He said it happened in fourth grade, when he watched a group of musicians playing Christmas carols.
“All of these other instruments – guitar, piano, drums and stringed instruments – you can look and see how they are being played,” Eubanks said. “They’re fingered or struck. Whereas the trombone, all you can see is an arm moving back and forth. I was very curious as a kid – I guess I still am – and I was curious to see how you make music moving your arm back and forth.”
So at the end of the fourth grade, when the teachers asked the students to pick an instrument for the school band, he picked the trombone.
“When you’re a little kid, it doesn’t seem that difficult,” Eubanks said. “Until I had a few years under my belt, I had no idea what I was getting into.”
He discovered that “it’s definitely one of the harder instruments.”
“There are a lot of ex-trombone players playing other instruments, that’s for sure,” said Eubanks. “I meet ’em all the time.”
Yet Eubanks thrived on the trombone, and today he plays in four different bands, including two of his own, EB3 and Mental Images, teaches at Oberlin College and travels the world doing concerts like the one he’ll be doing at the Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox.
On Saturday, Eubanks will be playing with Eastern Washington University’s Concert Jazz Ensemble, as well as with smaller configurations featuring trumpeter Tito Carrillo, vocalist Kate Reid and drummer Jeff Davis.
Audiences will discover that Eubanks has expanded the possibilities of the trombone, on tunes such as “REM State” and “Blues for Jimi,” in which he plays electronic trombone through an effects processor. The result is a wild and expressive wah-wah sound.
He said it allows him to get “different sounds and timbres and colors in a trombone you can’t get acoustically.” If the acoustic trombone is like “a great black-and-white movie,” the electric trombone is in glorious color.
The concert is the headlining event of EWU Jazz Dialogue Festival 2013, which brings together more than 1,000 music students from around the region.