Interview: Bassist Nathan East Discusses Fourplay's New Album and His Days with Eric Clapton

by James Wood
Posted Nov 29, 2012 at 4:24pm

With more than 20 years together and a dozen records under their belts, Nathan East and the members of Fourplay show no signs of slowing down.

The quartet’s latest release, Esprit De Four, continues the trend of exceptional musicianship and songwriting prowess that’s become a staple of the smooth jazz super group. There are amazing grooves and melodies in "Firefly," "All I Wanna Do" and the beautiful "Put Our Hearts Together," which was written as a tribute for the people of Japan following the devastating tsunami.

Alongside Chuck Loeb (guitar), Bob James (keyboards) and Harvey Mason (drums), East shows why he’s one of the most in-demand bassists in music today.

East also is no stranger to music royalty. He’s performed alongside Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Barry White and Kenny Loggins, among many others. He was part of the Bad sessions with Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones, played for presidents and the Pope, performed at Live Aid, toured all over the world dozens of times and even co-wrote the No. 1 song “Easy Lover” with Phillip Bailey and Phil Collins. Not bad for a guy who started out playing cello in the orchestra.

I spoke with East about Esprit De Four as well as his early years and tenure with Slowhand. We also discuss an encounter with the divine and more in this exclusive interview. His life and journey in music is a story worth telling.

GUITAR WORLD: What makes smooth jazz such a great musical genre?

I always avoid trying to do too much labeling. Personally, when I create music, I’m not thinking about any specific genre. I just come up with something that’s a hybrid of the things that have influenced me. When I create, I try to bridge the gap between genres.

What inspires you to do a Fourplay project?

We enjoy each other’s company and try to come together every year and a half or so to make a record. Whenever we do come together, we always ask the question: “What’s our spark?” Fortunately, we don’t have to worry much because everyone comes in with at least a few songs and ideas rolling around in our heads.

On Esprit De Four, the song “Put Our Hearts Together” is very powerful.

That song was written for the people in Japan following the disaster and it really has touched a nerve over there. Chuck [Loeb] and I were actually saying that would have been another good title for the record. Although it’s called Esprit De Four, "Put Our Hearts Together" really describes the spirit that we have and also in trying to help our people who are in need.

Were you always a bass player?

My first instrument was actually a cello. I played that in the orchestra for three years before I discovered the bass. And once I did that, there was no turning back. It was the love of my life!

Who were some of your influences?

When I first started playing, I was all over the map. I was listening to The Beatles, Motown, Cream and Hendrix. Wes Montgomery was one of my biggest, earliest influences. After Wes, I discovered the music of Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis and George Benson. When I started playing in bands, I was influenced by groups like Earth, Wind and Fire; Tower of Power; Chicago, Kool and The Gang; and Blood, Sweat and Tears.

What were some of your early gigs?

My first “big time” gig was with Barry White. He hired our entire band to go on tour with him. So, here I was, 16 years old, and playing at the Apollo Theatre, Madison Square Garden, the Cobo Arena in Detroit and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and I thought: “You know what? This is IT!” [laughs]. From there, I met Hubert Laws, who invited me to come to the Philippines with him and I wound up also playing with him at the Hollywood Bowl. Then John McLaughlin called me, then Phil Collins, who called me in to record on Phillip Bailey’s record.

Tell me the origin of the song you wrote with Phil Collins and Phillip Bailey — "Easy Lover."

I remember we were in the studio in London and had pretty much finished the album. Phillip expressed to me that we still needed that one, undeniable single for the record label (CBS) to release. I went to the piano and started playing the basic changes to the song and in about 20 minutes we had the music written. We recorded what we considered a rough demo of the song that night and the next morning when we came back in to listen to it, we all loved the track!

Phil Collins came up with a working title “Choosy Lover." He took the track home and came back with full lyrics to “Easy Lover." Phil's voice sounded so good as he sang the lyrics to us that we all had the same epiphany, this should be a duet with both Phils! They worked out their parts, went into the vocal booth, sang the song and the rest as they say is history. I also have to give credit to George Massenburg [engineer] and the brilliant guitar performance by Daryl Stuermer as well.

Tell me about your experience at the Live Aid event in 1985.

I was playing with Kenny Loggins at the time, and it was amazing to be a part of such an epic concert. Just looking out from the stage at an ocean of people filling the stadium was electrifying. It was also where Phil introduced me to Eric Clapton. Collins and Clapton were scheduled to perform directly after us so when we finished, they were standing on the side of the stage. As I walked off Eric said to me, “Sounded great, wanna go hang out later?” Not only did we hang out, but we wound up touring and making records together for the next 20 years!

How would you describe your time with Clapton?

It was the brotherhood. We’ve grown to be very dear, close friends over the years, and he truly is one of those artists who not only became a friend, but also a role model. He’s just very creative and passionate about every note he plays.

Clapton is preparing a new tour for next year. Will you be taking part?

Not at the moment. I am juggling my schedule a bit now so that I can tour with Fourplay and Toto next year.

What are some of the things you treasure most about your days with Clapton?

Oh my, there are so many treasured experiences with EC! We played the Royal Albert Hall in London over 100 times; we've been all around the world numerous times and had a lot of laughs both on and off the stage. I remember playing with him in South Africa for 100,000 people. That sight was just amazing.

One of the most heartfelt moments was when we were with his grandmother Rose at her home in Ripley the day she made her transition from this life. She was so dear, like a grandmother to me as well. I’ll never forget just being there recalling all the good times we had together. Of course, the MTV Unplugged experience is something I will always treasure.

Out of that came the classic "Tears in Heaven" dedicated to his son Conor.

One moment where I feel like a little miracle took place was when we played Alpine Valley just outside of Chicago. We performed two nights there and traveled to and from the shows in four separate helicopters. On the second night, one of my friends (a fellow private pilot) offered to fly me back to Chicago in his airplane. I took him up on the offer and also invited Greg Phillinganes along for the ride. That left two seats available on our helicopter, and that's when Stevie Ray Vaughan took one of those seats. The ill-fated chopper would never make it back to Chicago. It was such a tragic event and the darkest day of my life. It definitely felt like there was some major divine intervention going on my behalf, and I'm just thankful to be here having this conversation with you.

Tell me a little about your role in the upcoming Toto tour and other projects.

Toto has been touring in support of their bassist, Mike Porcaro, who has ALS, and I was asked to fill in for him. A portion of the tour revenue goes to help Mike and his family with medical expenses. Next year is the band's 35th anniversary and they're planning a pretty expansive world tour. I've also started an online School of Bass Guitar in partnership with ArtistWorks.com designed to teach students from all around the world.

Recording-wise, I've been writing and producing new music for the forthcoming Anita Baker CD scheduled for release in January 2013. Other projects include the new Daft Punk CD, Steve Lukather's solo record and work with David Foster on a new Andrea Bocelli album. But I'm most excited to announce that I have signed on with Yamaha Entertainment Group, a new label, to record my very first solo album. It's finally going to happen! I really look forward to finally getting on the board as a solo artist ... like my fellow bandmates!

Have you ever given thought to writing a book about your experiences?

Absolutely! That's another thing in the works. Having such memorable experiences like George Harrison's last tour, playing for the Pope and for three presidential inaugurations; there are a lot of fun stories I'd like to document and share with the world ... and the grandkids whenever they come along!

What do you find most amazing about music?

You never know who is listening. We just got back from Nigeria and couldn’t believe how many people were aware of our music. You’re halfway around the world and it still amazes me to this day: the power of music and how it reaches people.

James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.


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