By Devon Wendell
Nathan East’s long, illustrious career has firmly established him as one of the world’s top bass players and an impressive composer. Recently I had the chance to speak with with him about his latest release with the group Fourplay, “Let’s Touch The Sky,” as well as some of the high points in his work with Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, Stevie Wonder and many other major stars.
DW: Let’s start with the new album, Nathan. How does it differ from past Fourplay albums?
NE: Let’s Touch The Sky marks the beginning of a new chapter in the Fourplay songbook with the addition of our newest member, guitarist Chuck Loeb. Chuck brings a fresh energy to the mix with his compelling guitar style and sophisticated compositions. This project also contains three vocal songs when we normally only include one.
DW: Your smooth and soulful vocals are featured on your composition “I’ll Still Be Loving You.” How do you approach singing and vocal arranging?
NE: I have a great deal of respect for a variety of singers like Sam Cook, James Taylor, Nora Jones, even John Mayer and although I’d never try to jump in the ring with them, I imagine how they would approach a vocal and I try to sing with that kind of spirit. It’s nice to have role models! I also try to write in a range that I know my voice can handle, so I normally gravitate toward the soft & soulful ballad which suits my voice.
DW: From Quincy Jones, Barbra Streisand, and Michael Jackson, to Lionel Ritchie, Eric Clapton and Herbie Hancock (To name a few), you’ve recorded with such a diverse list of the greatest musicians ever. What were some of the greatest highlights of your career?
NE: There certainly are many wonderful highlights that I will be forever grateful for, among those is sharing the stage with the late George Harrison who also became a very dear friend. Hanging out in the studio recording with Quincy Jones & Michael Jackson was very special, everyone involved is at the top of their game, and you know while you’re recording that history is being made .. it’s very exciting! Performing for the Queen of England and Nelson Mandela at the Royal Albert Hall in London was most memorable especially having the opportunity to meet them after the performance! But I’d have to say that performing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. to an audience of two million people at the Inauguration Concert for Barack Obama pretty much tops the list of highlights. I must admit I’ve been blessed with some good ones!
DW: How has jazz inspired your playing and composing?
NE: Again there are so many wonderful role models like Bob James, Herbie Hancock & Wayne Shorter, Wes Montgomery, Bill Evans, Jaco Pastorius, Pat Metheny & Keith Jarrett that have set such a high standard for playing and composition that it’s easy to be inspired merely at the thought of such excellence. In jazz, you’re always composing whether you’re improvising a solo or writing a song, the creative process never stops and it’s most inspiring to study the greats and try to figure out how they arrived at such masterful conclusions.
DW: Who were some of your earliest influences?
NE: Wes Montgomery (my all time favorite guitarist), Vince Guaraldi, Ron Carter, Ray Brown, Scott LaFaro, Charlie Mingus, McCoy Tyner, Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley & Quincy Jones to name a few.
DW: Tell me about how Fourplay was formed.
NE: In 1990, Bob James recorded an album called Grand Piano Canyon. He asked Harvey Mason and Lee Ritenour to recommend a bassist for the project. As my good fortune would have it, they both recommended me. Bob,who held an executive position at Warner Bros Records at the time,was so intrigued by our musical chemistry that he proposed the idea of forming a quartet. He even suggested the name Fourplay. A few months later we were in the studio recording our quartet as new artists on Warner Bros. otherwise known as Fourplay. Thank you Bob for that vision.
DW: As a bassist and composer what do you try to bring to the table when recording with other artists?
NE: I try to bring musical integrity and a positive spirit to every session. My goal is to support and enhance the musical environment whatever it may be. I shoot for creativity and uniqueness in my performance. There’s an intangible ingredient in music that completes the connection between the mind, heart and soul.
DW: At what moment did you feel you had truly arrived in the big leagues of the music business?
NE: Touring the country with Barry White & The Love Unlimited Orchestra at age 16 was a good indication of things to come. Also, getting calls from people like Quincy Jones, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Lionel Richie .. a pretty good indicator that you’re in good company.
DW: Usually bass players are either “pocket” players or more melodic. Your style balances both. Do you feel that dichotomy is lost among today’s younger generation of players?
NE: As a young player, you just go for it and stay in the moment which is not a bad thing but with experience comes wisdom and that’s when I think the balance and good instincts come into play.
DW: Name some bass players out today that have caught your ear — if any.
NE: Esperanza Spalding! She’s a bright and shining star with a compelling career ahead of her. Hadrien Feraud and Dominique Dipiazza .. these two players from France are absolute virtuosos with impressive technique and taste. I still enjoy Pino Palladino, Marcus Miller and of course Abraham Laboriel Sr.
DW: Name some of your personal favorite recordings you’ve done so far.
NE: With three decades of recordings to draw from, I have quite a few favorites. I’m very proud of all of our Fourplay recordings including this latest one. Also all the Anita Baker records especially Compositions. Birdland from Quincy Jones Back on the Block, Eric Clapton Change the World and Tears in Heaven, Michael McDonald Motown, Philip Bailey Chinese Wall, Kenny Loggins Love Will Follow and recent CD’s by Andrea Boccelli & Michael Bublé. These are just a few of my favorites.
DW: Have other instruments other than bass influenced your style?
NE: Absolutely. I was influenced by the lyrical playing of sax men Cannonball Adderley, Charlie “Bird” Parker & John Coltrane. I gravitated early on to the piano of Vince Guaraldi, I loved his music on the Charlie Brown specials. Wes Montgomery, George Benson, Pat Martino & Pat Metheny’s masterful guitar styles are all still very influential.
DW: If you had to classify your style, what would you call it?
NE: That’s a bit tricky because I love playing in different genres, Jazz-R&B-Pop-Rock-Classical but if had to come up with a classification for my style, it might be “Warm-n-Fuzzy”. [He laughs.]
DW: Are there any artists you haven’t recorded with that you’ve always wanted to, if so who are they?
NE: Pat Metheny, Donald Fagen, Sting & Paul McCartney.
DW: What kind of bass are you currently playing?
NE: I play my Yamaha BBNE-2 Signature series 5-String bass.
DW: You started out on cello. What initially made you want to play electric bass?
NE: I’d listen to the high school stage band rehearse from outside the closed door and the bass just sounded so cool supporting all those horns. The Motown records also caught my ear, mostly because of the genius of James Jamerson’s incredible bass lines. My ear just gravitated to the bass in most of the music I was listening to and again I’m just thankful for the many role models of the bass.
DW: You were a member of Eric Clapton’s band for quite a number of years from the ’80’s to the ’90’s. Explain what that experience was like.
NE: It’s a wonderful experience on so many levels to make music with such an iconic musician. Eric became like a brother to me, we had many laughs, shared some tears and covered a lot of ground traveling around the world for more than 20 years. I’ve learned so much from him about life in general and I’m grateful for the life-long friendship that we established.
DW: Funk pioneers like Larry Graham and Bootsy Collins have certainly influenced most bass players in all genres. How has the funk effected your approach to playing?
NE: I’ll never forget hearing Larry and Bootsy for the first time. They both blew the roof off of the house when they played and revolutionized the way we all approach the bass.
DW: What lessons do you hope younger bass players will learn from your style?
NE: Well, not necessarily just from my style, but I hope young players become well rounded musicians and continue to push the boundaries of the instrument. Listen to all styles of music and incorporate them into your own development.
DW: What does the future hold in store for Nathan East?
NE: In the immediate future, Fourplay will do a bit of touring in the US and Japan in support of our new project. (tour dates are listed on www.fourplayjazz.com).
I’m moving more toward writing and producing these days which I really enjoy. I’m currently in production on a new Anita Baker CD. We’ve worked together since the early 1980’s and it’s been fun to watch her progress since her very first Songstress album. You can imagine how honored I was when she called and asked me to produce her. Anita’s voice is a national treasure and to work with such a gifted artist is a producer’s dream. I’m also working on a book documenting some of the amazing experiences that have contributed to the blessed life I live and love so much. Lastly, one of my long time ambitions is to record my own solo project with some of my friends that I’ve made music with over the years, simply celebrating music!
DW: Thanks for taking the time to talk, Nathan. It’s been a pleasure.
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