Kevin Eubanks, former bandleader of "The Tonight Show," plays Jazz Alley on Thursday through Sunday.

Share story

As bandleader of “The Tonight Show” and sidekick to Jay Leno, Kevin Eubanks was one of the most recognizable jazz players on the planet. Today he’s just another working musician: Eubanks recently emerged from his long, television-imposed hiatus to once again tour and record as he did decades ago, before he took one of the most reliable jobs in professional music.

In May, the Philadelphia-born guitarist announced he was leaving the show, ending an 18-year relationship with Leno. This Thursday through Sunday, Eubanks and his new band — former “Tonight Show” drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith, saxophonist William Pierce (chair of the woodwind department at Berklee College of Music, Eubanks’ alma mater) and bassist Rene Camacho — perform at Jazz Alley.

“I’ll have people who immediately say, ‘Oh I get it, 18 years,’ ” Eubanks says by phone, in the same cheerful manner television audiences are familiar with. “Those people are mostly other musicians.

“There was nothing bad about having a wonderful job like that. But eventually you want a different pace in your life and you come back home to what your first love is.”

In addition to performing and writing more music, Eubanks has taken over leadership of the Thelonious Monk Institute’s “Jazz in the Classroom” program. He even taped a pilot for a cooking show — Eubanks is famously a vegetarian — he’s shopping to networks.

Musically speaking, Eubanks, 52, is largely a mystery. His last major release, “Live at Bradley’s,” came out in 1996, four years after he joined the Tonight Show band under Branford Marsalis. He took over for Marsalis two years later. The day job, lucrative as it was, didn’t allow for much touring or recording.

Before the show, Eubanks explored many forms of jazz. “Live at Bradley’s” was a straight-ahead trio recording; he’s played bop, fusion, and a bit of smooth jazz over the years before taking charge of “The Tonight Show” band at 36, a relatively young age when many jazz musicians are asserting their musical identities.

“Through the years, I’ve always kept my own band,” Eubanks says. “Definitely, my first love is playing. It’s not something I just started doing when I left the show.”

Eubanks the musician never went away, but it was Eubanks the television personality that most of his audience got to know

He plays guitar with a certain intensity, perhaps from years of gigging with funk and rock bands in Philadelphia. He came from a musical family; his mother, uncle (jazz pianist Ray Bryant), brothers, and cousins were all accomplished musicians. His musical vocabulary is large, which suited him well to the directorship of “The Tonight Show” band.

The first clue to Eubanks’ new musical direction came during his final performance on “The Tonight Show” — a solo rendition of a ballad he wrote called “Adoration,” which is also the working title of Eubanks’ upcoming album with his new band, planned for October release.

“It’s hard to describe,” Eubanks says of his new output. “I’m gravitating toward music that brings women into the audience as well as men. I’m working more toward a balance.”

He’ll maintain that balance during his performances, which he says moderate aggression with emotion and a sense of romance. And he’s happy if fans come to his gigs because they know him from television. Indeed, this is a whole other side to his art. After years of starting songs only to fade into a commercial, now he can finish them.

Hugo Kugiya: