Kyle Eastwood: Movies, Motown & Monterey
Bassist/composer Kyle Eastwood can whistle. It's a talent to which few musicians lay claim, but it's one which he puts to good use on his version of Bob Haggart's "Big Noise (From Winnetka)," a tune that serves as a popular encore to his live set. The fact that Eastwood whistles in concert says much about the man and his approach to jazzslightly self-effacing, good-natured, with a quiet confidence in his own talent and an awareness of the importance of emotion in the making of great music. All of that translates into the creation of some beautifully melodic compositions, and the delivery of great concert performances.
Now in his early forties, Eastwood has over 20 years experience as a professional musician, with five albums as leader. Eastwood and his band are touring Songs From The Chateau (Candid Records, 2011) for most of 2011. The North American dates will be in September, but most of the early dates have been in Europe. In mid-May, Eastwood played a sellout gig at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, where this interview took place after the soundcheck, sitting in the warm evening sunshine outside the stage entrance to Norwich Playhouse.
As a member of a major Hollywood family it might have seemed logical that Eastwood would follow in his father Clint's footsteps and plan for a career in the movies. Indeed, that's initially how it was as Eastwood entered film school at the University of Southern California. But that particular period of study proved to be short-lived. As Eastwood explained, "I was doing more and more music so I decided after my first year to take a year off and concentrate on the music. I was starting to play gigs with a fusion band around Los Angeles, starting to write music of my own, so I thought I would take a bit of time outand I never went back to film school." Eastwood not only didn't returned to film school, he never went back to formal study of any sort. "I did music at school, did piano lessons with private teachers, but never that formally" he says.
While he never immersed himself in a formal musical education, his informal education had started at a young age. Eastwood's early exposure to jazz, courtesy of his jazz enthusiast father, is well-documented. As a small child he would sit on his father's lap and play bass patterns on the piano while Clint played the melodies. Soon after, family trips to the Monterey Jazz Festival gave the young Eastwood his first experiences of live performance, often from major jazz legends. He would also go backstage with his father, gaining direct access to some of these giants of jazz: but was he excited about meeting these legendary figures, or did he simply see them as "Dad's friends"?
"My first trip was in '76 or '77, when I was seven or eight years old," Eastwood recalls. "I was probably the only kid around the place at night. But I do remember getting excited about it: it was cool to be brought along to somewhere that you wouldn't usually go along to as a kid. Some of the musicians I knew from seeing their records around my parents' house, some of them I didn't know but later I'd come to realize how important they were. I think the first band I remember seeing at Monterey was the Count Basie OrchestraBasie was still playing. That was probably the first live music show I ever went to as well. It was a pretty amazing, powerful, big band. I remember being pretty impressed by that."
By his late teens, Eastwood was playing bass in covers bands that featured Led Zeppelin and Motown songs. So were Zeppelin's John Paul Jones and Motown's James Jamerson big influences on his style? Eastwood is emphatic: "Oh, definitely. That was the first stuff I played on bass. I'd played piano for a couple of years then I borrowed an electric bass and started to play around on it. I figured things out by listening to records and taught myself."
What makes the bass so attractive? "I don't know. I liked messing around on lots of instruments but when I picked up a bass guitar it just felt natural." The double-bass came later, after a year or two of work with the bass guitar: "I started to learn more seriously, began the upright bass and took lessons again. Proper classes, proper teaching." The move to double bass meant that jazz players became influences on Eastwood's approach. "Lots of them, but especially Ray Brown, Ron Carter, Paul Chambers, Dave Holland."
After film school Eastwood went on the road as a working musician. "I was playing around LA, working in a couple of different bands. I also did some film session work, playing in the bass section. Then two or three years before the debut album I put together my first jazz quartet. We were LA-based but played a little around the US. That was the band on the first album."
His debut, From There To Here (Sony), didn't appear until 1998, ten years after he turned professional. What influenced Eastwood's decision to make that first record? "We'd written some interesting things so we went into the studio and recordedoriginals and standards. We got a tape together and took it around, and that's how it happened."
Eastwood is not a prolific artist in terms of record releases. Since From There To Here, he has produced just four more albums. "It depends on how and when I'm writing. After I did the first album everything changed over at Columbia, then I put together a couple of different bands, then moved to New York. By that time I was playing with a lot of different people ... working on my playing." Eastwood moved to Europe and signed to the British label, Candid Records, which has released all of his subsequent records. "I moved here before I signed to Candid. I started to work in Paris, just for a change really. My daughter started to go to school in Paris too. I also started to play in Londonthat's how this band came about. That's when I met Alan Bates and signed to his label."
The titles of Songs From The Chateau, Metropolitain (Candid, 2009) and Paris Blue (Candid, 2005) are strong indicators of his love for Europe, and France in particular. "I like it here. I really enjoy living in France, working with the musicians. There are still musicians in New York and Los Angeles that I work with, but the steady, regular band is here." The Candid albums have all been recorded in Europe too; in Paris and London and, most recently, in Bordeaux.
Songs From The Chateau was recorded at the 15th century Chateau Couronneau, a beautiful venue but not one purpose-built as a studio. This suited Eastwood, but required some preparation before the session could begin. "The Chateau belongs to a family who are friends of friends, as it were. We were looking for a different place to record, something less clinical than a recording studio." The band moved into the Chateau for a few days for the recording, with the whole process taking less than a week. "We brought in the equipment, took a day setting up, then the band came down. I was there for five days, the rest of the band came down for three days."
The speed of recording is due at least in part to the compositions having been written beforehand. "Most everything was written over the few months leading up to the session. We wrote one song while we were at the Chateau, that's all. Andrew [pianist Andrew McCormack] and I got together in Paris earlier in the year, we wrote some stuff at rehearsals and the rest on the road." Eastwood tried some of the tunes out while touring: "We don't always get the chance, but I like doing that. This time we did get the chance to play some of the stuff on stage in the spring and early summer last year, so everyone had the music fresh in their heads and in their fingers. So they didn't have to think about reading the charts so much."
The tunes also develop as they are played over a series of gigs. "Things change, dynamics change. The song takes on a different life. It's always nice to be able to work that out." The album also sounds like a band having fun: "Yes, it was. It was a beautiful place; we recorded off and on all day, a little at night. It was the end of the tour, so it was a nice 'decompression' too."
The tunes on Songs From The Chateau have an immediacy to them, a ready accessibility with strong hooks. This element is important to Eastwood: "I like writing music that has a lot of space for improvisation, but I also like through-composed pieces. And it's always good to have a strong melody."
Eastwood's work as a film composer has also garnered praise, and he's created some striking pieces of music. Indeed, one of the highlights of his live set is his duet with McCormack on the theme from Letters From Iwo Jima (2006). It's a beautifully melancholic tune, far removed from the more upbeat numbers on Songs From The Chateau. It brings to mind the question of approach: just how differently does Eastwood approach writing for movies rather than writing for a jazz combo? "Well, it's a totally different thing," he explains. "You're writing for something that's already on the screenyou're playing a supportive role. You're always having to be concerned about not treading on the toes of certain dialogue, or certain shots or edits. Sometimes you have to create a very short piece of music, five or ten seconds, then next you have a ten minute section to write. Sometimes the way the film moves is not a particularly musical way and you have to work round thatthere's a lot of time spent sitting in front of the computer, working things out.
"The beauty of jazz, as a writer, is the freedom to do what you want," Eastwood continues. Film music is a different discipline, but it is one that I enjoy. And luckily, when my father directs he's usually pretty good at getting things locked downhe knows what he wants. It's always easier to write for a finished piece."
Eastwood's burgeoning career as a composer for films begs another question: if he had stayed in film school, what would he be doing now? "I guess I'd probably be trying to be a director. That was what I set out to do, even if it didn't quite work out that way."
Most fathers and sons have a conversation about careersdid Eastwood senior ever sit down with his son and say "Are you sure you want to be a musician? Wouldn't you rather try something more reliable, like acting?" Eastwood laughs loudly before replying: "I don't know which is worse, which is less reliable, being a musician or acting. He was very supportive of me; he wants me to do what I want to do, what I'm passionate about. That's what he does, after all. So he was supportive of me, as long as that's what I wanted to do and was prepared to work hard at it. I think he'd be supportive of me no matter what I wanted to do as long as I was serious about it."
Kyle Eastwood, Songs From The Chateau (Candid Records, 2011)
Kyle Eastwood, Metropolitain (Candid Records, 2009)
Kyle Eastwood, Now (Candid Records, 2006)
Kyle Eastwood, Paris Blue (Candid Records, 2005)
Kyle Eastwood, From There To Here (OST) (Sony, 1998)