Long before he played the good-humored comic foil to Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show," jazz guitarist Kevin Eubanks was cutting numbers with legendary jazz drummer Art Blakey, composer-saxophonist Sam Rivers and double bassist Dave Holland in Philadelphia.
So if NBC's former late-night bandleader seems unconcerned about trading a high-profile gig as Leno's sidekick for a career on the road again, it's only because, he admits, he "never really left the road."
"I was on the road for 15 years before the 'Tonight Show.' I never thought I'd wind up on TV," says Eubanks, who departed the "Tonight Show" in 2010, speaking from his parents' home in Philadelphia. "I realized when I was working with Jay, I was his complement on the guitar, just like how I used to be complementing guys like Sam Rivers, thinking, 'How do I make this bigger? How do it make it easier for Jay to sell his jokes?' So I can't say how much it was a wonderful, positive experience."
The 55-year-old Eubanks, who these days complements a touring band composed of bassist Rene Camacho, percussionist Joey De Leon Jr., drummer Marvin Smith and reedist Billy Pierce, will perform Wednesday and Thursday at Jazziz Nightlife in Boca Raton, on a tour to promote his new album, "The Messenger." Filled with jazz-funk originals, Eubanks' jam-heavy release also carries a stripped-down rewrite of John Coltrane's "Resolution" and a cover of Jeff Beck's "Led Boots," which replaces Beck's screaming electric leads for funked-out scatting by gospel singer Alvin Chea.
"The way I see it, you can cover them traditionally, but I don't really see the point in it. With Coltrane, I thought, let's add a quasi-jazzy, hip-hop groove to it," Eubanks says. "It just felt fun and natural. I'd like to think Coltrane would've been like, 'Let me get some of that, too.' "
Of his relationship with Leno, Eubanks says the two remain close friends. Every birthday, he says, Leno mails random Jimi Hendrix memorabilia to his house, including paintings and rare record pressings.
"Hendrix is one of my favorite guitarists," Eubanks explains. "I just get great stuff in mint condition, and people come to my studio and go, 'Where the hell did you find this?' And I say, 'I didn't know this existed until it showed up at my front door.' "
Kevin Eubanks will perform 7 and 9 p.m. June 26-27 at Jazziz Nightlife, 201 Plaza Real, in Boca Raton. Tickets cost $55-$85. Call 561-300-0730 or go to JazzizNightlife.com.