Album Review: Nathan East - East
There's something in the first 5 tracks of this record that niggles. It's familiar. It's like a mild case of deja vu, or when you see someone you know and you just can't place their face. Usually, these instances can be frustrating to the point of infuriating, especially if you have a short temper. Those of you not blessed with patience should have no fears, however, digesting East's album. Dealing within the most docile of Lounge and Jazz realms, East manages to soothe and entrance without crossing in to the elevator music category. It's a fine line to tread.
That persistent niggle of just where you have heard this before becomes starkly clear on track 6, entitled Daft Funk. You got it! You've heard Nathan East before, he provided the bass on Random Access Memories, most famously on Get Lucky, and this blend of Chic-era funk, Spanish solemn guitar and broken Jazz Fusion is the standout track, and the most dynamic example of just what East is trying to do on this record. There are so many elements combining to create this dancey funk number it's incredible he managed to corral enough musicians. In a world of pro-tools, fruity loops and Garage Band, anyone can add an entire brass section to a gospel record, but few can truly replicate the smooth beauty of a live jazz band on wax.
Now, you may still be sitting there with a tiny itch. This is just so listenable, it's like nothing I've heard before, yet it's got this familiarity, like seeing your cousin for the first time. They kind of look like me, but I don't know them. Fear not! You are not insane, and Nathan East (probably) isn't your immediate family. The truth is that he has been on EVERYTHING. I mean it. He is like a more subdued version of Nile Rodgers, or a less flashy version of Brian Eno. Daft Punk aside, he is Eric Clapton's go to bass player, he has done work for The Pointer Sisters, Lionel Richie, Eurythmics, Barry White, Joe Cocker and he even provided bass for Beyonce on B'Day! The list is quite endless. Session playing, which is a foreign entity for anyone not actively involved in the playing or researching of music, is an incredibly lucrative business. Artists and bands frequently require extra help, and by becoming a household name in the 70s and 80s, East has carved a rock solid name for himself. As part of Fourplay, the lovely smooth jazz quartet who birthed the insistent and slightly quirky Bali Run, he began to hone his song-writing style, a formal sticking point for session players, and this allowed him to branch out creatively.
East is immediately recognisable to Fourplay fans. Opener 101 Eastbound begins with a funked guitar riff before settling in to a lovely groove, carved with a broad bass line, darting touches of wood wind and dreamy vocals, used purely for instrumentation purposes. Sir Duke (Stevie Wonder) continues this theme, although the slightly fanfaric expression of brass adds a nice temper to the dextrous bass playing that acts as the lead, determinedly pointing the track in divergent directions, beginning with a muted scat section moving jovially in to a happy twist of noise that is both pleasant and exciting. SeveNate, Overjoyed and Madiba follow this theme, a nice Jazz Fusion come Jazz Lounge come Mahavishnu Orchestra that would comfortably sit on a nice High Tea playlist, the soundtrack to a lovely afternoon stroll in the park or even a nice relaxing way to drift off, to de-tune the mind and allow the soul a little breathing space just before our most vulnerable hours.
Don't, however, expect to remain asleep. East may be 58, he may present as a kindly jazz stalwart who favours a smooth glass of red wine over a bottle of Jack and a bar fight, but there are teeth on East. It's taken him a whopping 35 years to come this far, he's not going to announce his solo arrival with a record of pleasant offerings that could be taken straight from the Fourplay back catalogue. Speaking to Wayne Lockwood before the release, he said " I really wanted it to be full on, committed, jump in with both feet – and get really wet.” On Moondance, he achieves this, taking on Van Morrison's classic, and allowing good friend Michael McDonald to absolutely thrive as he playfully teases with his smouldering whisper before exploding in to a pure fit to spray life and experience all over it. The arrangement on I Can Let Go Now, with vocals from Sara Bareilles, is even more stunning, as she pours staggering amounts of heart and soul in to a beautiful piece that floors you, the way she evokes the moment of tension release, of finality, allows you to wonderfully envisage yourself in her words, whether it be suicide, the death of a partner, the carrying of any load heavier than we should have to bear. East is a master puppeteer.
He has to be. No less than 70 musicians are enlisted for this project, and when he says you only get one chance at a solo record so you better make it count, he isn't joking. This is the absolute grass roots level of what the pop world is attempting to do right now. As artists like Justin Timberlake, Daft Punk, Timbaland and Pharrell try desperately hard to recreate the magic of having a whole bunch of talented people just jamming, the sepia tinged days of the funked out 70s and 80s, East is just going straight to the source. The cultural waypoint of Can't Find My Way Home is blessed by the sultry fingers of Eric Clapton, and all of East's more jazz focused numbers capture that jam dynamic stunningly.
My first encounter with East was blind. I knew nothing about him, and I formed the opinion that he was a Southern Jazz musician who had cut his teeth on country. There is Americana plastered all over the record. His version of Yesterday, with son Noah, is such a lovely piece, yet sounds enticingly like a Louis Armstrong arrangement. Finally Home, the final track, screams "Disney". The way the strings rise and fall to create an atmospheric mood, the huge gospel noises at the end, the picked 'From sea to shining sea' is worthy of any Hollywood blockbuster score, the final scenes of Armageddon, or the blatant patriotism of Independence Day. America The Beautiful hammers this home. A giant piece of music that scales stratospheric heights, as East does what he does best, he goes ballistic on the bass, allowing the music to rise and fall with him, culminating in an enormous audience sing-a-long that belies the smokey jazz room nature of the track, propelling it to superhero status with a swift stroke of genius.
So often, a man who is accustomed to reading sheet music and getting stoned with solo artists whilst playing their hits could be admonished for wishing to step out from their lucrative arrangements and go it alone. Nathan East had to be coaxed out, he needed years of creative simmering before he was ready to boil over. East is the perfect materialisation of a gifted career that always led to this point. Whilst the sum of its parts may not equal some of the tracks he has graced in his long career, it stands as exactly what he wanted it to be. A whole bunch of people in a room making damn good music.