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SOUNDS AROUND TOWN

Eclectic Duo Thrives on Musical Diversity : A "Tonight Show" band percussionist and guitarist to debut in Ojai. Both performers believe in free style for their melodies.

July 15, 1993|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On a sweltering July afternoon, Vicki Randle and Kevin Eubanks sat outside the semi-legendary NBC commissary, doing lunch and watching the beautiful people stroll by.

They showed up early on the site of their five-day-a-week "day job"--Randle as the percussionist and Eubanks as the guitarist in the "Tonight Show" band--to talk about their forthcoming debut as a duo, at Wheeler Hot Springs this Sunday.

Two years ago, neither of them would have thunk it.

Eubanks was busy carving out a career as a jazz guitarist and bandleader. Randle, when not playing at clubs in her home base of San Francisco, played percussion and/or sang with the likes of Kenny Loggins, George Benson, Bobby McFerrin, Aretha Franklin, Michael Bolton, Wayne Shorter, and Boz Skaggs.

Then came the call to work with Branford Marsalis' new "Tonight Show" band. Since May of 1992, they've been reporting to beautiful downtown Burbank, where the show is taped at 5:30 p.m..

"Tonight Show" band members, most of whom left successful careers in the East Coast jazz scene, have eased into the L.A. music scene by night. Now, it's Randle's turn.

On this afternoon, Randle was dressed for work. Her ethnic ensemble includes a tiny shekere--an instrument with a gourd surrounded by beads--around her neck, dangling close to her heart.

Later, Randle assumed her position behind her wraparound array of percussion on the "Tonight Show" bandstand. From there, she pounded out conga rhythms or provided sonic color on a smorgasbord of percussion instruments from Africa, Latin America and beyond.

During the show's taping, Randle watched intently as the bite-sized musical segments, featuring an array of jazz, R&B and pop material, were tightly cued at the drop of Marsalis' hand.

Where else can the average American TV viewer be exposed to a percussionist's art, on a nightly basis?

But playing percussion is only part of the agenda for Randle, who first began plying her trade 20 years ago as a fledgling singer-songwriter in L.A. showcase clubs.

"Every time I played," she recalled, "it seemed like somebody would come up and say 'well, if you just did this kind of music this way . . . ' "

She shook her head, as if dredging up an unpleasant memory. "I was a budding songwriter and didn't want to do any of the things they told me to. So I moved."

She relocated up north, and before long her abilities as a vocalist and percussionist made her a sought after side person in various bands.

"Everybody wants to be successful and make a living," she said. "But, up there, when you go play at a club, the point is not to hope that a record executive shows up. It is actually to explore ideas . . . You can bring all this stuff together."

Her flexibility and love of improvisation made her a logical candidate for Bobby McFerrin's acclaimed acappella group Voicestra, which she was involved with briefly before realizing that she "couldn't live on that kind of money." But the experience, she said, was of great value.

"I was already doing that kind of work, but he did rub off on me. He's very disciplined, with an amazing control and range."

By her account, Randle's original songs present a structure that is always subject to change.

"I write in a form, but then I tend to take the melody and throw it out the window. I try to keep them reigned in for at least a verse, and then all hell breaks loose."

Eubanks, munching on a tuna sandwich, laughed and interjected, "I want to be there for that."

When the pair hits Ojai, don't expect a predictable evening of jazz chestnuts. Both musicians are proud members of the eclectic generation, weaned on musical diversity.

"I'm very undisciplined when it comes to styles," Randle commented. "That's one of the reasons I was real interested in playing with Kevin. We were talking when we first got in the band. A lot of us grew up listening to so many different kinds of music--not only jazz, which is obvious--but rock 'n' roll. We were serious (Led) Zeppelin heads, and we listened to folk music, too."

As for Eubanks, his tastes have grown only more broad with age, and his geographical migration last year. "Being here, I've gotten a lot more into country music," Eubanks said. "It's really bad, man. I've been hanging out with Willie Nelson. I'm going to start a country blues band."

Not one to separate her "day" and "night" jobs, Randle sees a strong connection between her own music and life on the "Tonight Show" bandstand.

"A lot of what we've been doing has just happened," she said. "We've all had some input into how this band ends up sounding on TV. It shows that you can be organic about it. You don't have to have real strict boundaries about music.

"I like that idea. Maybe it's laziness," she said with a grin. "Maybe I don't want to pick a style. I don't feel like I have to. If I can have fun doing all these different styles, why should I limit myself?"

* WHERE AND WHEN

Vicki Randle, with Kevin Eubanks, at Wheeler Hot Springs, 16825 Maricopa Highway in Ojai, Sunday, at 7 p.m. Tickets: $20 for concert only, $45 for dinner and concert. For more information, call 646-8131.

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