Bass player Nathan East is one of the most talented musicians on the scene today. He is well known not just in the jazz genre, but across many genres. The list of people he has played with, written for, or produced is a venerable who’s who of the music industry: Eric Clapton, Anita Baker, B.B. King, Barbara Streisand, Celine Dion, Stevie Wonder, Sting, Quincy Jones, Elton John, Baby Face, Herbie Hancock, Al Jarreau, Phil Collins, and the list goes on and on. Smoothviews is thrilled to have an opportunity to chat with Nathan East about his amazing career, including his work with the jazz super group Fourplay.
Smoothviews (SV): You’ve basically played with everybody, and I do mean everybody, in every genre.
Nathan East (NE): Yeah, it’s amazing. It even surpassed what I dreamt of doing. Back in the day, when you’re up and coming, you have these dreams. Actually, it’s gone way past that a long time ago. So now, I’m just looking up to say thank you.
SV: When I look at the list of all the people you’ve played with, it just goes on forever. I’m looking at all of these really big names and there’s got to be more to it than just being a great musician. How do you stay at the top of your game and in such high demand?
NE: I think, you did say that being a great musician obviously is one part of it, but, you’ve got to bring a lot more to the table. One of my mottos has always been come with a great attitude and spirit. Music is basically so much spirit. I’m not sure what percentage, but there’s a lot. That’s what I think people tie into and identify with, it’s just the spirit. Not to be too corny about the term energy, but, the energy that we bring. So, I always try to come with an upbeat, positive energy and spirit. A lot of times, I think that’s what people want.
SV: I understand that you are a recipient of the Congressional Record of Honor.
NE: It’s another thing that I found that was just like a dream. I appreciate the fact that when you really try to keep your standards high, and people notice it, then that makes you feel good about what you do. They approached us at one of our shows in New York a year or so ago, and said “we’ve been thinking about considering you for this. Where can we get in touch, and how can we present?” They came and presented it to me and the band in Philadelphia last year. [It’s] another thing to make you feel good about what you do.
SV: Again, you’ve played with so many people. Is there anyone you haven’t played with that you’d like to?
NE: I’d really love to do something with Pat Methany. The only time I’ve ever played with him was at a jam session at David Sanborn’s house. It was just an afternoon, and everybody was over there playing, so I jumped up and played a couple of tunes. That’s the only time we’ve really played together. He’s one of the guys that I really respect and love his music a lot. I always thought that he’d be a great guy to play with.
SV: I want to talk a little bit about what’s going on with the industry. I wouldn’t call it a transition anymore. It’s basically been turned upside down. How has that affected you, as a creative person, and what you do?
NE: Funny enough, as a creative person, it makes it easier to navigate through because the way it was before, there were these old models and everything had to be inside a certain box. I think it gives us a chance to be lot freer about our musical choices. I know it’s been upside down, but for me, this has still been my busiest year. I feel like although it’s a change, it’s an opportunity to spread our wings and do something a little bit different.
Now what’s going to happen to the young and upcoming musicians? I think the good people find their way. I feel that this change is probably a really, really good thing for the business. And, I think it gives everybody a chance to really see what you’re made of. I know when we went in to make the new Fourplay record, Heads Up International put no restrictions on us. Musically, that was a liberating feeling. They trust us not to go in and come up with something that is not really accessible. In music, there are so many different ways to go, so we just used our instincts. When you’re in a room with four producers, people that have been doing it for awhile, there’s a pretty good chance that you can come up with something. So, we’re still trying to bring it.
SV: You still do bring it. When I read the press release that said Fourplay had signed with Heads Up, I thought that was a really good fit.
NE: It made for a perfect fit. They’ve been great about supporting us. They set this record up beautifully. We couldn’t be happier about what everybody’s doing. We’re looking at this new industry as an opportunity to expand our ideas.
SV: When you have four musicians like the members who make up Fourplay, where everybody is at the top of their game, everybody writes, and everybody knows their craft so well, how easy, or how does that affect the ability to continually create good music? This is the 11th Fourplay CD. That is a lot of material. Because of the quality of the previous releases, and the band’s pedigree, the level of expectation is pretty high.
NE: I think you take each one, one at a time. They each become your little babies. It’s like we have 11 children. You don’t really have favorites. Actually, when I go back and listen, I’m still proud of the way the music holds up. I think between the four of us, we appreciate the challenge of trying to come up with new music. Everybody tries to push themselves to come up with something good. And, the way we interpret each other’s music helps a lot too. When you come in on a song and have these guys playing your music, it doesn’t get much better than that. You can throw pretty much anything in front of the guys and they can make it sound good. I think we just have a lot going for us in terms of experience, and wisdom, and everybody really enjoys what they do. Everybody has a lot of heart involved.
SV: So, you still enjoy it after all these years?
NE: Yes, it doesn’t even really seem like that because we come together to record and tour, say, every 18 months or so, so it’s not like you’ve been grinding away. And when we get together and play those first notes, you can tell everybody’s really excited. It’s one of those relationships where when it’s on, it’s on, and then we go our separate ways. Then, we come back together and reunite.
SV: You are one of the founding members of Fourplay, but that’s just one aspect of your career. How do you manage to balance Fourplay with your other musical endeavors?
NE: I’ve been very lucky, fortunate, and blessed. The timing of everything that has happened has just worked out; literally, sometimes to the day. Sometimes I’ve come off of a major tour to either go straight in the studio, or tour with the band. I’ve been very, very fortunate that the timing has worked out so I could squeeze everything in. It’s like a juggling act sometimes, but I enjoy it all so much that I try to fit as much in as possible.
SV: I want to talk about the new CD, Energy, released September 23rd. When I heard the first song, right away I knew it was Fourplay. It’s a very distinctive sound. I thought about what made it so distinctive. One of the things I notice is that when you listen to some other groups, you can tell what the dominant instrument is. You know if it’s a sax lead group, or a guitar lead group. You know who’s running the show. With Fourplay, it’s so across the board. You all take turns. There’s no one person running the show. You don’t hear one instrument leading all the time.
NE: That’s what we set out to do, be a democratic, equal opportunity group. And it’s really worked out for the best. You have four leaders, four distinct voices. We like it that way.
SV: That approach works well. I think you hear the music differently when there’s not one dominant instrument.
NE: Right. And I think there’s a lot of power in a group situation. We’re happy with the way things are going.
SV: Now, about the songs on the CD; “Cape Town” is a family affair for you.
NE: That turned out to be the family affair, which again, it’s the kind of thing where you’re not confined by the rules. We just sort of went in there and said let’s see if this will have legs. So, “Cape Town” was the main theme, but then we brought it home to the grandparents, who were missionaries in South Africa. We tried to keep it real. I was really happy to get the kids to sing on the end of the fade. Again, we’re really happy with the way it came out.
SV: Sounds good. I read the liner notes. I’m a liner note person, so I know that you work a lot with one of your brothers, Marcel.
NE: Yes, Marcel. We’ve written together ever since the first Fourplay CD. We’ve been writing for the band. He’s a great musician, producer, and contributor. We enjoy the collaboration.
SV: Another one of the songs, “Prelude to Love,” with Esperanza Spaulding. What a great song. She’s one of your new label mates.
NE: Oh yes, Esperanza. She did a great job. Again, it was all of the elements lining up. When they [Heads Up] heard about the song, they made a very soft sell suggestion that she’s on the label and might be available. We checked her out. We were like, c’mon, what are we waiting for? She’s really great, and I love her. I’ve seen her live. She’s one of the bright new shining stars.
SV: There seem to be some musicians coming along that I’ve noticed recently that are really good, and are getting into it, picking up the music and moving it forward.
NE: Yes, she’s definitely one of the new young stars. I think she has a really bright future. I was thinking, now, what’s going to happen to the young and upcoming musicians? I think the good people find their way.
SV: At one point, it didn’t seem like too many new musicians were getting involved with this music. I think because of the way the business is going, and the advances in technology, it’s making it easier for them to get their music out there and get it heard.
NE: That’s what I think. Everybody cried doom and gloom that the record business is over, but I think the music business is still alive and well.
SV: So, when you’re not making music with Fourplay, or playing with other great musicians, what might you be working on? What might we find you doing?
NE: Well, there’s any number of things. I pretty much divide the schedule up between lots of things. Sunday night I was doing movie themes with Chaka Khan, and that was great. I just finished working on the new B.B. King CD. That was great too, lots of really good musicians. I travel and do my Nathan East bass clinics around the world. That is an ongoing thing. I also do lots of different studio records. I’ve done all the Michael McDonald Motown CD’s. I’ve done every Anita Baker CD. As a matter of fact, I just saw her last weekend at the Greek Theater. She called me up to sit in and play a few tunes. I ended up climbing on stage and playing a couple of tunes with her. It’s like I said, you couldn’t really dream of having much more fun doing something that you love doing. I always say if I come back, I might have to come back as me because I’m having way too much fun.
SV: What advice would you give an aspiring musician today?
NE: Be prepared to have a lot of hard work involved. It’s by no means a cake walk, but, if you really love what you do and you’re passionate about it, just hang in there and stick like glue. With a little bit of luck and hard work, you can make it through. Some of my friends recommend, for people who are trying, to find another business, (laugh) but I think in any business that you go into; it’s going to be a lot of work. It’s not just the music business. Choose it, go forward, and don’t look back. And bring it, because there’s serious competition out there.
SV: Well put. Thank you very much for chatting with me this evening Nathan. It’s been a real pleasure. Good luck with the new Fourplay CD. We’ll be looking for you all on tour.
NE: Thank you.