Nathan East bassist and vocalist for the super-group Fourplay, is definitely the lord of the lower frequencies, whether playing with his own band, Fourplay, or as sideman to Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, or George Harrison. He has also played and/or recorded with Anita Baker, Al Jarreau, Andrea Bocelli, Barbara Streisand, Bob James, Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder, Kenny Loggins, Michael McDonald, Natalie Cole, Peter Gabriel, Elton John, Bob Dylan, Mark Knopfler, Sting, and Ray Charles, to name a few. His high level of musicianship has taken him around the world many times, playing at historical events, for presidents, queens, princesses, even the Pope. Considered an A player, he is talented at scatting besides playing bass and has written several of Fourplay's hit songs, as well as co-writing "Easy Lover" with Phil Collins and Philip Bailey. His infectious smile and genuine personality make him a perfect bandmate and his team player attitude has skyrocketed him to the top.
There are only a few Smooth Jazz bands that are considered “super-groups” and everyone agrees that Fourplay is on the top of that very short list. Four accomplished musicians in their own right, they have produced hit album after hit album and their latest CD, "Energy", has potential to produce several hit songs. Released on September 23, 2008, it has gone right to #1 on Billboard. Fortune Teller, written by Nathan and with some help from Bob James has been released as the first single and Cape Town, another Nathan East creation is sure to do well, being chosen as My Jazz Network's, Song of the Week. Several other songs, Argentina by drummer Harvey Mason; the melodic, Ultralight, a Larry Carlton tune, is very upbeat; and Prelude For Lovers featuring Esperanza Spaulding is a sure winner.
Smooth Jazz Notes caught up with Nathan East at a Herbie Hancock show at Mountain Winery in Saratoga, California, after meeting him at a Fourplay show at Rodney Strong Vineyards in Healdsberg, California.
SJN: Fourplay has a new CD out called Energy. Please tell us about it?
Nathan: Our new album “Energy” is a representation of what each band member brings to the mix. Usually, when you think of energy, most people think of something fast or exciting. It has all those qualities, but with this CD we are expressing romantic energy, creative and spiritual energy, fun energy, etc. When it all comes together, we tap into a new Energy from Fourplay.
SJN: The first single Fortune Teller, which you wrote with Bob James, is the most added song on the R&R chart this week, coming in at 28, and moving up to 26.
Nathan: Fortune Teller is a track my good friend Jeff Babko and I came up with. He’s an excellent musician & member of the Jimmy Kimmel Show Band. We co-write together for a lot of different projects. The Martha Stewart show among others has considered using some of our tracks. It was my turn to bring a song in, so I brought a track Jeff & I were working on which still needed a melody. Within five minutes of hearing the track, Bob (James) wrote some notes out on a blank manuscript, handed it to me and said “here’s my audition for the melody” ... it was perfect! The song has a lot of mystery to it and the usual Fourplay fun groove. The thing I love about this band is that you can bring a germ of an idea into the studio and everyone is so musical & creative that they can turn it into anything. That’s what I love about creating music with the guys in Fourplay!
SJN: What process do you use when you are with Fourplay to write songs?
Nathan: There’s no one particular formula. Over the years, I have had songs pop into my head while sitting in traffic or ideas will come to me in my sleep or when I sit down to write in the studio. The great thing is when Fourplay plays your music, they put their energy on it which takes it to another level. Larry Carlton will play a melody with the kind of soul that no other guitar player will play with. Bob & Harvey add a sensitivity and approach that is simply unique and magical.
SJN: The 4th track; Cape Town, you wrote with your brother Marcel and your cousin, Alan Dones. Can you tell us the story behind this song?
Nathan: The song Cape Town was co-written with my brother Marcel (East) and cousin Alan Dones. It's a musical depiction of the historic journey by our grandparents James and Lucinda East who set sail for Africa with just their dreams and their faith. After several weeks at sea, their ship finally landed on the beautiful shores of Cape Town. Their calling took them to the village of Middledrift, South Africa where they gave birth to our parents, continued their vision as missionaries, and laid the foundation for truth and reconciliation. Marcel suggested having children's voices singing "Cape Town" at the end of the song so we called upon the talents of their great-grandchildren, Marcel's son Elijah (6) and my twins Sara & Noah (8) who gladly added their charm and love to the song.
SJN: You got a degree from UC San Diego and headed to LA to break into the music business. When and where was your big break?
Nathan: In the early 70’s, Barry White came to San Diego and heard a group I was in called Power. He was so impressed with our band that he hired us for his nationwide tour. This was my introduction into the ‘big time’. We performed in The Apollo Theatre and Madison Square Garden in New York City, the Kennedy Center in D.C., Cobo Arena in Detroit, etc; playing all of those places when I was 16 years old was needless to say a huge thrill! I got a taste very early on of what primetime was like. Barry then started calling me to play in the studio with him on all of his records. That was amazing ... being part of such a big “Hit making machine!" I met lots of great musicians on those record dates including veteran top arranger Gene Page. He really championed my playing, became a mentor and called me to play on all of his projects which included recordings for Madonna, Whitney Houston, The Jacksons, Dionne Warwick, Barbara Streisand... The music scene in LA is a business of stepping stones where one thing leads to another and the next thing I knew I was being recommended for lots of recording sessions finding myself from 1980 on, working everyday!
SJN: You are/were Eric Clapton’s bassist for about 20 years. Are you still playing with Eric?
Nathan: Whenever EC calls, I’m there. After such a long history and friendship, we have a deal that as long as we can we will play together. I’ve been touring with Fourplay and Herbie Hancock recently and haven’t done the last couple Clapton tours. We do keep in touch though and Eric keeps me posted as to how things are going ... much mutual respect there.
SJN: How did you get that job?
Nathan: I was introduced to Eric a few times. Once by Phil Collins when I was in England working with him on the Philip Bailey “Chinese Wall” album, but it was at Live Aid in Philadelphia (1985) where EC heard me playing with Kenny Loggins. I’ll never forget when we came off stage, there was Eric Clapton standing there with a big smile, he introduced himself to me and enthusiastically said, “Do you want to hang out?” How cool is that! He was very complimentary and later he asked me to join his band.
SJN: What is it like working with Eric?
Nathan: Fantastic! First of all, he's a wonderful and legendary musician but apart from that Eric is a great human being. He has become like a brother to me over the years. Once he signed a photo for me, it said .. ‘To the brother I never had.’ We’ve been around the world dozens of times together, laughed together and cried together. We’ve been through some tragic times including the helicopter accident that claimed the lives of our dear friends including Stevie Ray Vaughn, the unimaginable tragedy involving his son Connor, and we were together in Ripley when his Grandmother Rosie passed...she was very dear to me. So, there has been a lot of emotional and spiritual camaraderie between us that really takes the relationship to a another level. On stage we have a musical connection happening where I pretty much know where he is going and can meet him there, and visa versa.
SJN: You played on George Harrison’s last tour. Can you tell us about this experience?
Nathan: George Harrison was literally one of the nicest men I have ever known in my life, most gracious and generous. You have to imagine standing on stage with a Beatle performing those songs that are part of your DNA ... it was the experience of a lifetime, one that I will never forget. George like Eric became much more than a musical associate, he was a dear friend. It was really fun just hanging out with George ...we even meditated together. Every time I was in London, George would send a car to pick me up and take me to his house in the country to hang with him, Olivia, and their son D’hani. We had the best time! They even welcomed my parents into their home to stay once which was such a thrill for all of us! To play with George was like being part of musical history and to interact with someone so influential in the world of music was a huge honor and opportunity for which I will always be grateful.
SJN: This weekend you are playing with the legendary Herbie Hancock as the headliner at the 51st Annual Monterey Jazz Festival. You have played this renowned festival often with different notable artists. Please share with us some of your memories? Nathan: Fourplay has played the festival a few times. I have fond memories of the audience just being so into the music. I love Monterey especially being situated so close to the ocean and the weather is usually great for playing. It does get foggy in the mornings but Monterey is just a charming part of the world and to have a legendary jazz festival there is fantastic. The festival has also stayed true to jazz over the years. In many of the so called jazz festivals throughout the world these days, you are hard pressed to find a jazz artist.
SJN: You have played with some of the most renowned artists of our generation. Who has influenced you the most in your career?
Nathan: I’m very blessed to have had the good fortune of playing with such a wide range of artists like Eric Clapton and Herbie Hancock, Phil Collins, Sting & Bob James, Stevie Wonder & George Benson, etc. They have all been great influences in different ways. The one thing these artists all have in common is that they are at the top of their game. I pick up pieces of the puzzle from all of them. Pat Metheny who I haven’t had a chance to work with (yet), is a big influence, the compositional and improvisational value in his music is endless. He is definitely in heavy rotation on my iPod. In the rock and pop genres, guys like Phil Collins and Eric Clapton have been big inspirations, not only from a musical standpoint, but in their professionalism and the way they conduct their business, a very high standard to say the least. In the jazz world, obviously my partners in Fourplay influence me a lot however Herbie Hancock has had possibly the most profound influence on my approach to music as his level of genius is just extremely rare, far beyond what usually takes place in the mind of a musician. So, one could say that all the people I have worked with helped shape who I think I am, and I’m still trying to figure out who that is. (laughs)
SJN: You have had some life experiences that most people only dream of. We are wondering if you could share with us?
SJN: You played at President Clinton’s inauguration?
Nathan: If you can imagine the buzz, the security, and all of the things that come with inaugurating the new president. The excitement factor is on a scale of ten, all the time. All you see are guys with big bulges under coats and talking into their sleeves. (laughs) You just feel like you are being a part of history, to play the president and first lady’s first dance as president. It’s just an exciting time! I was at both inaugurations for Clinton, as well as the Millennium Celebration on the steps of the mall in Washington DC, which was another huge production. Steve Spielberg and Quincy Jones put this thing together. When the clock turned to twelve, there was an energy you just wouldn’t believe in the air. People were jumping into the freezing cold water, they were just going crazy.
SJN: You’ve played at the White House, as well?
Nathan: I have visited with some of the artists, but I haven’t played there yet.
SJN: You played for and met Princess Diana and Prince Charles?
Nathan: That was another time that I thought, you know! After we finished, they lined us up and came back and shook hands with us. It was a whole other side of the political spectrum that we don’t see over here. The royalty, the way they conduct themselves, it’s very, very cool! We also played for Nelson Mandela and the Queen of England at Royal Albert Hall with Phil Collins, one year. Again, the line-up and we shook hands. It was just exciting! These are the things your parents are proud to see you do!
SJN: Being Catholic, your parents must have been very proud when you met Pope John Paul the II?
Nathan: My Mother has had three sons who have interacted with the Pope. My brother Ray, who is a Monsignor in the Catholic Church, served mass with the Pope, my brother James, who plays bass has played at one of the rallies, as well. My Mother was very proud. Devout Catholics, from her generation were very spiritual. I think that we are the beneficiaries of a great deal of prayer.
SJN: On a more somber note, if you don’t mind speaking about it, we’d like to ask about your memories from August 25 & 26, 1990, since it is such an important event in the history of rock and roll? Editors Note: Guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn, pilot Jeff Brown, Eric Clapton's Hollywood agent- Bobby Brooks, Eric's assistant tour manager- Colin Smythe and Eric's bodyguard- Nigel Browne died in a helicopter accident upon leaving the venue. Stevie Ray Vaughn is considered one of the best guitarists in rock history.
Nathan: It was the darkest day in my life because, first of all losing some good friends. Having taken that helicopter to and from the gig the night before and then to the gig that day. Being a pilot, a friend offered me a ride in his small plane, so I actually gave my seat up to Stevie Ray Vaughn. So, when I went with that guy, it literally saved my life.
SJN: We would think that this experience affected your life?
Nathan: First thing is that we had about five more shows to do and Eric asked band and crew if we should continue. If one person out of the 80 people who were on that tour didn’t want to do it we were going to cancel the tour. We all decided that the guys would have wanted us to continue on. So we did continue on, but it was hard to do those last five shows. I remember looking out my window in that Chicago hotel. First of all, when I first heard the news, my heart was beating out of my chest. To be that close is just very spooky. I’ll never forget when I watched the sunset from my hotel window and I could just feel the life being sucked out. Having those friends go down, it was one of those things that really, really made me appreciate every second. It wasn’t business as usual after that. I never loose sight of that. The pilot I flew with, every time I came to Chicago, I would invite him to the shows. He would always send me a little something, a book, or some flowers, too. We have kept a lifelong friendship.
SJN: There was a Congressional Record in 2007 declaring you and Fourplay to be distinguished members of the music community. Fourplay is the only group in history to be recognized by Congress. How did this come about and can you tell us more about this?
Nathan: That’s pretty exciting too! We were performing in New York and a couple of the Congressional Members were in the audience. You know everybody likes jazz! I remember a lady saying, I think we want to put you up for a Congressional Record. When people say that to you at a show, it goes in one ear and out the other. She asked who to contact, so I gave her the manager’s number, my number, and e mail address. Sure enough, she contacted me and said that this is going to happen. ‘I have talked to everybody. Where can we present it?’ So I said, ‘Here’s our schedule.’ They came to Philadelphia and they had these plaques. ‘I’m thinking, they went on the floor of Congress and put this through.’ So again, I thought, ‘How cool is this?’
SJN: In Fourplay, you are the band leader and lead singer (what singing there is), whereas in the rest of your career your have held a side position in the band. Which do you prefer?
Nathan: I prefer all of it! It’s all so much fun that I don’t really separate the two. I’m playing with Herbie Hancock and even though theatrically we are sidemen, he gives the stage to us all. You want to just contribute, and more importantly when I play with Herbie, he brings it so consistently that before you go you just have to bring it. (laughing) That’s what we try to do. Whether, working with Herbie or Fourplay, it’s the same thing. Herbie encourages us. The first time I worked with him, we spoke about this and he said, ‘Don’t hold anything back.’ And his thing is if something worked the night before, that’s fine and dandy, but he’s still looking for new territory the next night. So, go out there and don’t play what you practice. Miles Davis used to tell me, ‘I pay you to rehearse on stage, don’t practice some lick and come down and try to interject it like some predetermined practiced lick.’ That’s something I have learned from Herbie is that every time we go out on stage it’s like we are writing new music. That keeps it really fresh.
SJN: You play 4 string, 5 string, and 6 string basses. Which do you prefer?
Nathan: I prefer the six string because the range it gives me. It goes lower than the normal four string bass and higher than the normal four string bass. You can tune a bass anyway you want to, but I like the extended low range and high range, obviously for different reasons. When I’m comping I like to keep a nice solid foundation underneath the music, then when it’s time to step out solo or play cords, you have that extra range up on top, too.
SJN: You scat. Everyone, from Ella Fitzgerald to Sarah Vaughan to Mel Torme, everyone has a distinct style. Can you tell us exactly what scatting is and how you developed your style?
Nathan: Scatting is when you are singing a melody but you aren’t using any words, so it’s like a scat. It’s a very old term. One of my biggest influences in that department is George Benson. He has the most amazing facility for getting something from your brain to your fingers, and then he sings what he plays. I sort of use him as a role model in my scatting approach.
SJN: On a personal note, you earned your pilot’s license in 1986. What drew you to flying?
Nathan: When my older brother, David, got his pilot’s license, I thought, ‘Wow, I can do this too!’ I tagged along and then I started taking flying lessons. Originally, I think we were all drawn to aviation because my father was an aircraft design engineer at General Dynamics Conveyer in San Diego. He designed the sweep wings on the F-14, the tail section of the C5A. He used to bring pictures of rockets and missile silos home, things he was designing. So, I think we got the aviation bug early on. Four of us have gone on to become private pilots.
SJN: You hold two World Speed Records in an experimental Lancair 4-P pressurized airplane. Can you tell us about this?
Nathan: I bought this airplane several years ago. I always dreamed of owning my own airplane, so I bought this kit plane and had it built. On the 100th anniversary of the first flight, which was 2003, I took the thing up and pushed the throttle as far as it would go. I flew from Burbank to Phoenix and Phoenix to San Diego and told the guys in the tower, ‘Start your clock!’ and when you get to the other tower, they hit the stop and I set two world speed records.
SJN: 310 miles an hour…
Nathan: It’s fast! (laughs) Very fast! (laughs)
SJN: Were you alone?
Nathan: No, I had a friend with me. Evidence!
SJN: Do you ever fly to gigs?
Nathan: I have done so, yes! I would have flown here, but I’m not current in my license now. I have to go and do my currency check.
SJN: Do you get to fly much with your busy schedule?
Nathan: I used to more than I have of late. Recently, I have been out of the country so much, it’s not affording me enough time to fly, which is why I am not current now.
SJN: You are a magician. How did you get interested in magic?
Nathan: I was on tour once when a guy came up and took a lit cigarette and made it disappear before my very eyes, and I said, ‘We have to talk!’ We went in the back room and he started showing me magic. I’ve always been interested in little tricks you can do but then I took it seriously and I joined the Magic Circle and the Magic Castle and really started trying. People love magic all over the world so it makes for a great ice-breaker. Since I travel so much, I have extra time in the room to practice.
SJN: On your Myspace, Oprah did a show called “Nate’s Family Secret”? Can you tell us about this?
Nathan: (really laughs) I used the billboard for Nate Berkus. (laughs) I have played her show many times with Babyface and Phil Collins. One time my Mother had just had knee replacement surgery and was in the hospital. I was doing the Oprah show, so I had a card and I asked her to sign it, thinking Mom would get a big kick out of this. She takes the card and sits down and thinks about five minutes and then she fills the card with this long drawn out message, ‘I’ll be praying for you!’ It was so sweet! And you can imagine how my Mother felt. People would see this card from Oprah in her hospital room. Then she sent a thank you note and they became pen-pals after that. Really sweet!
SJN: You are married to a pediatrician and you have 8 year old twins, Noah and Sara. Do you get to spend much time with your family?
Nathan: Yes! Even though I travel a lot, when I am home, I’m home! We just had a great summer. Not only do I get time, it is quality time. I think its more than if I had a regular nine to five job, where you just see them in the evening.
SJN: Your wife being a pediatrician, must be very busy?
Nathan: Yes, she is, but when they were born, she took off work to be a stay at home mother. Of course, it’s fantastic because she is a pediatrician, she can tend to all the cuts and scrapes. It’s very convenient! (laughs)
SJN: Your kids sing background on Cape Town. Do you think they will follow in dad’s footsteps?
Nathan: I know they do love music and my son has perfect pitch and my daughter has a really good ear. They both take piano lessons, and sight read. They really love music, so you never know.
SJN: You are one of seven children. Several of your brothers are in the music business. We know that Marcel has written and/or produced several of your hit songs with you, Journey, 101 Eastbound, and now Cape Town, to name a few. Are you close with all your siblings?
Nathan: Very close. That’s one thing my Mother always instilled in us, guys love one another. We are very close, all of us! I am very lucky!
SJN: Herbie Hancock is off to Europe for two months in another week. You won’t be going with him?
Nathan: Since Fourplay is releasing the new record we have commitments through to the end of the year, including Mozambique, Johannesburg, and some dates around the country.
SJN: Will you be adding more dates?
Nathan: Yes, hopefully! It’s hard to coordinate schedules because everyone has dates of their own, Bob has some and Larry has some.
SJN: One more thing we wanted to ask you about was your photography. You are an incredible photographer! How did you get into photography?
Nathan: Well thank you! I always loved photography and when I was in college I was the staff photographer for the music department. I had access to the dark room there at UCSD and I spent a lot of time developing my own pictures. It’s just a love, a passion that I have!
SJN: Anymore exciting projects planned?
Nathan: I have been trying to get the Nathan East solo record done. Marcel just called me today and we booked some studio time. We have plenty of ideas. Now we just have to make some time to do it. So that’s on the horizon right now.
SJN: You have lived a charmed life. Is there anything more you wish to experience?
Nathan: Now that I have the family, it’s pretty good, but I would like to ride on Air Force One.
SJN: Thank you Nathan for taking the time out of your very busy schedule to chat with us.