Thursday, November 3, 2011

Catching Up with Kyle Eastwood, Master Jazz Bassist and Composer

Recently, I jumped at the chance to see Kyle Eastwood — master jazz bassist and composer (and, as an aside, Clint’s son) — play at New York’s Blue Note to promote his newest CD, Songs from the Chateau.  The album’s title refers to the circumstances of its recording.  While Eastwood grew up in California, he spends much of his time in Paris, and these particular recording sessions took place at a 15th Century chateau deep in the Bordeaux region of France.

While I had listened to the CD numerous times prior to the show, it was a treat, to say the least, to see Eastwood play live, accompanied by Richard Germanson on piano, Alexander Norris on trumpet, Jason Rigby on saxophone and Joe Strasser on drums. 

Eastwood came onstage, wearing all black from head-to-toe, looking eerily like a young version of his famous father.  The band opened with Marciac, the first track from Songs from the Chateau and, easily, my favorite.  Marciac grabs the listener instantly with its chill, foot-tapping groove.  As much as I love the recorded version, I enjoyed hearing it played live exponentially more with the band’s big sound filling the intimate, packed venue.  As is true of many of Eastwood’s compositions, Marciac’s title is the product of Eastwood’s travels — literal and figurative — in this case, the famous French Marciac Film Festival, where the then-untitled song debuted.

Switching effortlessly between electric and acoustic bass, Eastwood is no “one trick pony” as a player or composer.  Each of his compositions is carefully crafted to achieve a certain sound, often a sound reminiscent of another place, of another era or of a certain memory.  While many musicians clearly compose in such a way as to highlight their own instruments, this is not true of Eastwood.  Rather, his compositions allow each musician to shine on his respective instrument.  And shine they did, with Eastwood content just being “in the zone” with his fellow players, rather than always showcasing his own virtuoso.  The horns were especially impressive, blending beautifully with the bass, drums and piano.  The band’s playing was tight, and the musicians seemed lost in the music, rarely looking at the audience, but rather reveling in the synergies of rhythm and sound happening onstage.

While the band’s song selections, including Samba de Paris, Marrakesh, and Cosmo, came from various albums, they contained a common theme of exploration and pushing the envelope of what contemporary jazz is.  Much of the night’s music, including the achingly beautiful Andalucia, a track from the new album, struck me as slinky or romantic; “music to make love by” was the exact phrase I used in my notes.  In addition, perhaps, I was influenced by the knowledge that Eastwood had provided music for some of his father’s films, but, as I was listening, I couldn’t help but think that all of the songs would have made perfect background music for a film.  Each told a story, and I could picture in my mind the sorts of scenes they would accompany.

As a child of the 70s, one of my favorite moments of the night came during Cosmo, a song Eastwood introduced as being “in the style of Herbie Hancock with a little bit of Starsky and Hutch thrown in” and on which the band flexed its considerable funkadelic muscle.  As a nod to the era and Eastwood’s intro and a wink to the audience, Norris, at one point, busted out the signature riff from the Sanford and Son TV show theme song.

If I had one criticism of the band, it was that the sound of the piano (which I was sitting mere inches away from) was often lost, drowned out by the pure strength of Eastwood’s bass and the horns and, I regret to say, not really missed, given the fullness of the sound.  This all changed, however, when Andrew McCormack, the English piano player who played on the Songs from the Chateau sessions, joined Eastwood onstage.  McCormack’s playing was, in a word, soulful and matched Eastwood’s in its intensity.  There was no losing that sound in a crowd of instruments.  Together, Eastwood and McCormack played a moving duet – the theme from dad Clint’s film, Letters from Iwo Jima.  It was the highlight of a truly extraordinary evening.

Lest you think the story ends here, a few days after the show, I was honored and humbled to have the opportunity to interview Eastwood face-to-face.  Although I was nervous as hell, he couldn’t have been more affable and less pretentious, allowing me to question him about anything and everything.  When I asked him whether everyone tells him he “look[s] like a young version of Clint,” he laughed and answered, “Maybe, on a good day,” instantly putting me at ease.

Regarding his bass playing, Eastwood says that he was “always interested in music.”  His father, a known jazz lover and himself a player and composer, played jazz around the house, and he remembers attending the Monterey Jazz Festival with his father from a young age, meeting greats such as Count Basie.  Those experiences led to Eastwood’s early interest in rhythm which his father fostered by teaching him to play the bass.  Indeed, creativity is in Eastwood’s genes, not only from his father, but also from his mother, a painter, and his grandmother, a voice teacher.

Eastwood describes music and film as his “first loves” and, although he started out studying film in college, he quickly decided to concentrate on music instead.  In composing, he says, while he tries to highlight everybody, “it is important to have a nice collective experience and for a band to develop its own sound,” a philosophy that came through loud and clear at the Blue Note.

Asked about the evolution of his composing, Eastwood talks about the opportunities afforded him as a budding composer in terms of education (formal and informal) as well as exposure in terms of being able to travel to European jazz festivals frequently.  “Years of playing and traveling, experiencing new countries and cultures” have all helped him to evolve as a player and composer,” he says.  In addition to his travels, his most-of-the-time residence in France exposes him to a wider range of music than he hears in the States, he says.

Eastwood has been influenced by styles ranging from jazz to soul to classical and by musical greats as varied as Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Al Green and Parliament Funkadelic.  He considers Israeli bassist Avishai Cohen and Phil Lesh (of Grateful Dead fame) to be two of today’s stand-out bassists.  Still, with the wealth of opportunities Eastwood has had to listen to, meet and jam with some of the best musicians in the world, he has not yet gotten to fulfill his musical fantasy, he says — a collaboration with Stevie Wonder.  (At this point, I set aside any effort at serious journalism, as Eastwood and I bonded over our shared love of Stevie.  Oh, Stevie, you and Sir Paul at my wedding — SOMEDAY — let’s make it happen!)

Prior to the interview, I had debated the merits of asking Eastwood about working with his Dad.  I needn’t have worried, as he was happy to talk about it and is, clearly, a proud son.  Composing music for his father’s films, he explains, is a symbiotic process.  At times, his father hears or picks up pieces of music Eastwood has composed and, seeing a “fit,” asks to use them.  Other times, Eastwood reads his father’s scripts, watches rough cuts of his films and composes music specifically for those films (interestingly, for a bass player, on piano) in the recording studio at his father’s guest house.  The contribution of which he is most proud?  The score to Letters from Iwo Jima.

Playing in New York City, Eastwood says, holds special meaning for him, as he lived here for about seven years.  While he prefers the laid-back Parisian lifestyle to the hectic pace of New York, it’s always nice, he says, to visit old haunts as well as old friends. 

If Letters from the Chateau is a love story to his adopted homeland of France, Eastwood’s performance at the Blue Note was a true love letter to New York City.  If you weren’t fortunate enough to catch Eastwood this time around, he’ll most likely swing back through here in the spring, so stay tuned . . .

For more information on Kyle Eastwood, go to