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June 10, 2014IM -
Grammy winning Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) member Nathan East is one of the most proliﬁc working bassists of the last few decades. In 1984 he co-wrote the hit single “Easy Lover” with Phil Collins and Local 47 member Philip Bailey, launching a mind-boggling progression of successful, award-winning collaborations.
Shortly after performing with Local 47 member Kenny Loggins at Live Aid in 1985, East was asked by Eric Clapton to play bass in his band. East has participated in just about every signiﬁcant milestone in the guitarist’s career since then, including the Grammy award-winning Unplugged (Reprise, 1992) album, which featured the hit song, “Tears in Heaven.” He also played on Clapton’s “Change the World,” which won a Song of the Year Grammy in 1997.
Since 1991, East has also been a member of the Grammy-nominated, contemporary jazz quartet Fourplay. In early 2010, he was invited to join the Grammy award-winning rock band Toto on their reunion tour to beneﬁt member Mike Porcaro, who had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Recently, East’s bass playing appeared on Daft Punk’s 2013 smash hit “Get Lucky,” Grammy winner for Record of the Year and Best Pop Duo/Group Performance (2014). “Get Lucky” sold more than 7.5 million copies.
This is just the heavily abridged version of East’s career thus far.
Today, East is promoting his eponymous solo debut. He recently shared music from the album on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. The album features appearances by many of East’s friends and former collaborators including Sara Bareilles, Eric Clapton, Local 47 member Michael McDonald, and Local 5 (Detroit, MI) member Stevie Wonder. The album epitomizes East’s time as the go-to player in the funk, soul, and jazz world. “Daft Funk,” East’s ode to the Grammy-winning album he helped record with Daft Punk, is the album’s ﬁrst single. It has reached number three on the Billboard chart and number one on multiple smooth jazz charts.
You’ve been in the game for so long that it’s hard to believe this is your ﬁrst solo album. Why did it take so long?
The obvious reason is that I’ve been recording and touring with everybody else for so many years. The group Fourplay has served as my solo project, if you will. I’ve been able to write songs and be featured without it necessarily having to be my own record. But in 2013, I ﬁnally found the time to squeeze it in—time being one of the biggest obstacles. It’s more than just a notion to get your own project done, start to ﬁnish, which I found out. The buck starts and stops with you—there’s nobody else who can ﬁnish it for you.
How did you select the cover tunes for the record?
Each song on my record has an associated story. I used to sing “Can’t Find My Way Home” with Eric in his show, so that was one that I knew, at some point, I’d want to record. Stevie Wonder and I used to play around with a chord-melody version of “Overjoyed” and Stevie said, “If you ever record that, I’d love to play on it.” The song “Sir Duke” comes from a personal experience, playing it in Moss, Norway, with an 18-piece big band in this tiny, little hotel and just watching all these people who couldn’t speak English singing and dancing along to it. I was thinking, “That’s the music I want to make—songs that move people.” I used to play the Jaco Pastorious version of “America the Beautiful,” and thought, “This would be fun to record since I don’t think he ever recorded it.” So, all the songs are little stories that are a part of my life or my past.
As a member of Local 47, how has union affiliation aided your career?
First of all, when you become a member, you’re listed in the local musician’s directory and potential employers have a way to ﬁnd you. As we contribute a portion of our earnings via work dues, health and welfare, we ﬁnd out on the other end, when we take our retirement, if it’s really been worth it [laughs]. I think it’s important to be represented by the union and I’m sure that, in time of need, legally or otherwise, they are there to help. I feel good about my membership.
Does being a union member play a role in touring?
From a touring standpoint there’s always the fact that, through our membership, we have a place to go should something come up. Most of the tours I’ve done are under the umbrella of a particular organization, but I do think that by being in the union you’re able to beneﬁt from the representation. It’s like a vitamin—you don’t really feel any difference when you take it, but you know it’s good for you.
How did you ﬁrst get into playing bass?
Early on, I was drawn to music by the Vince Guaraldi Trio and the Charlie Brown specials. [Guaraldi was a noted jazz musician and pianist who composed music for animated adaptations of the Peanuts comic strip.] That music was so cool. I thought I wanted to learn how to play piano, but my school didn’t have a piano. But they did have all the string instruments available—violin, viola, cello, and bass. The upright bass was too big for me and the violin and viola were a little small, so I took up cello for three years. Then I discovered the bass in high school, and as soon as I heard it, I felt a very strong attraction.
A cello is tuned ﬁfths, whereas the bass is tuned in fourths. Did that present any challenges or hurdles to overcome?
Absolutely. When sight reading music, the note you’re looking at falls in different places on the neck of each instrument, so your brain has to compensate to be proﬁcient on both. I gladly focused my attention on the bass and wired my brain for an instrument tuned in fourths.
You picked up electric ﬁrst then upright, correct?
Yes. It was actually in a church. I was tagging along with my big brothers, Raymond and David, who sang and played at the folk mass in San Diego and I noticed an electric bass at the altar on a stand. No one was playing it. I asked who it belonged to and nobody knew, so I picked it up and the next thing you know I had a gig in the church band. It was a divine experience where instantly I felt like, “Okay, I can handle this.”
Would you consider the church group your ﬁrst professional gig?
Since it wasn’t a paying situation I guess it was more like they just let me play. And because we were in church, where forgiveness is practiced, I didn’t have to be too proﬁcient [laughing]. Then, in high school, I joined the stage band and got serious about the electric bass. When I attended UCSD I studied upright bass with [Local 325 (San Diego, CA) member] Bert Turetzky, with emphasis on jazz and classical techniques. By the time I graduated, I was prepared to begin a professional career on both instruments.
After graduating from UCSD you went to Los Angeles rather than New York City for session work. Any particular reason you chose the West Coast over the East?
New York City, LA, and Chicago were the hot spots for sessions. LA is a two-hour drive from San Diego, so geographically it was an easy commute. Some of the ﬁrst sessions I did in LA were with Barry White. I would drive up and record with him by day, then drive back to San Diego and work in the clubs at night.
How important has the ability to read music been in establishing your career?
The ability to read music has been very important in my career as a working bassist. I’ll never forget early on working with the great arranger Gene Page (Barry White, Elton John, Whitney Houston, Lionel Richie, Madonna, The Jacksons, etc.) who wrote out every bass note. He had a very solid understanding of the role of the instrument and wrote some amazing bass parts. Gene told me many times how impressed he was with my ability to read and interpret his parts and I believe that alone generated a lot of work for me. I also recorded numerous motion picture soundtracks, jingles, and television shows, which all required extremely sharp sight reading skills. I remember one jingle session in particular with Larry Cansler where we recorded 29 spots in under an hour. The music was ﬂying by so quickly there wasn’t even time to preview it. And you didn’t want to be the one to make a mistake and have to record it over again, so it literally had to be perfect the ﬁrst time you played it. I look at sight reading as just another tool in your arsenal, if you’re serious about your profession. Sure, you can make it without reading music, but you have to be pretty lucky.