Fourplay bassist Nathan East talks touring with Clapton and making time for solo work

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Nathan East | photo courtesy of the artist via www.nathaneast.com/media
Nathan East | photo courtesy of the artist via www.nathaneast.com/media

When Fourplay released their first album in 1991, there was little doubt that the term “supergroup” was applicable. By that time, keyboardist Bob James had been recording hit albums for nearly two decades, had played a major role in creating the sound that would come to be known as smooth jazz, and had contributed the memorable theme song for the sitcom Taxi. Guitarist Lee Ritenour could boast a fifteen-year career as a leader, increasingly fusing jazz with pop music. And drummer Harvey Mason had been a member of Herbie Hancock’s ground-breaking Headhunters band and played with a who’s who of jazz greats besides releasing a string of funky albums under his own name in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s on Arista Records.

Which just left bassist Nathan East, who didn’t yet have a single recording under his own name – and still didn’t in 2012, when Fourplay released its twelfth studio album, Esprit de Four. But for those who pay attention to liner notes, it was clear that East had earned his place in this heavy-hitting quartet. One of the most in-demand session musicians of the last three decades, East has contributed to countless hit records, including songs and albums by Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Sting, Elton John, George Harrison, Anita Baker, Babyface, and B.B. King. He’s been an integral part of Eric Clapton’s sound since 1984, recording and touring with the legendary guitarist, and wrote the music for Phil Collins and Philip Bailey’s 1984 hit “Easy Lover.” This year, he contributed the bassline for Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and performed the song with the robotic duo at the Grammys.

When Fourplay arrives at the Keswick on Wednesday, it will be the first time the band has played in the Philly area since East finally joined his bandmates as a recording artist in his own right, with the release of Nathan East earlier this year. The belated debut is a grab bag of styles performed by a band of top L.A. session musicians with favors returned by a number of artists East has anchored over the years, including Clapton, Stevie Wonder, Michael McDonald, and Bob James. Smooth jazz is followed by a funk tune, a Stevie Wonder cover or two, a gauzy ballad, a straightahead bop number, a sunny bossa nova, or a rousing, string-laden solo bass rendition of “America the Beautiful.”

“I programmed the album as if I was programming my iPod, where you get a little bit of this and a bit of that,” East says. “I wanted it to be something that could stand up to repeat listenings, with the  fingerprints of the people I’ve been working with.”

East says that the reason it’s taken him so long to finally put out his own CD is simply the obvious fact that he’s been too busy. How many musicians, after all, can boast of a discography that includes Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven,” Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All,” Beyoncé’s “Listen,” Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.,” and Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose,” just to name a select few. Besides, he’s not the type to chase after the spotlight. “For me, it’s always been exciting to know that you’re part of this big picture, to know that you’re a part of the fabric of music,” East says. “My ego doesn’t really make me wish I was in the front of that. Sometimes if it’s a great record I’ll wish I wrote it, but most times I just enjoy the fact that I played a little bit of a role in this big puzzle called music.”

In addition to a rewarding session and sideman career, East has also had Fourplay to satisfy his creative side for nearly 25 years, contributing compositions to the band and being a key part of the decision-making process. “I’ve kind of used Fourplay to fill the role of a solo career since I haven’t had one of my own,” he says. “All those other gigs are my regular work, and Fourplay is my have-fun time. It started out as our little side project, and here we are twenty years later with probably a deeper connection than some of the other co-workers and compadres and bands that we play with.”

But the time has finally come to step to the front of the stage because, “I wanted to put it out while there were still records,” East says with a laugh. “It’s been a jam-packed thirty years. When I think back, it’s amazing to me. I think by diversifying myself musically, I’ve been able to jump from a pop gig to a rock gig to jazz and R&B and pretty much keep working non-stop throughout the last 35 years.”

A Philly native, East was born in Germantown’s Doctors’ Hospital in 1955, but moved to San Diego with his growing family (he’s one of eight children) when he was four years old. He studied music at the University of California, San Diego, which he credits for his multi-genre success.

“When I retrace my steps,” he says, “I was always in bands that were pretty diverse and then I chose to arm myself with an education. I got a degree in music from UCSD, where I was able to study classical, jazz, African rhythms, a lot of different things, and I feel like that prepared me to move up to L.A. And there’s always a little luck and blessing involved. When Quincy Jones or Babyface or David Foster is on the other end of the phone, you just count your blessings because there are a lot of people shooting for the same thing. I’ve always been very appreciative of that.”

East came to prominence in the mid-1980s through his work with Clapton, becoming a familiar figure on stage alongside Slowhand during the early MTV era. Clapton appears on Nathan East to contribute a solo to East’s cover of the Blind Faith “Can’t Find My Way Home,” revisiting a song he’d first played in 1969. Of his ongoing role in Clapton’s band, East says, “I’m so happy because it’s not just a musical relationship but a friendship. That makes me feel even better because I’m friends with a guy who, when I was learning how to play bass, I was picking up basslines from his songs. I would emulate Cream and The Beatles, so it’s really rewarding to become friends with George Harrison and Ringo and Clapton and Mark Knopfler. They’re regular, normal folks who just happen to be huge rock stars.”

They’re mortal, too, as East has learned firsthand. A longtime witness to the rock and roll lifestyle, he’s noticing more of his employers turning to health food and yoga as they get older, a tendency that he strives to emulate. “With the sheer energy that it takes to keep up with this pace, I have to make sure I’m eating right and getting enough exercise, all the healthy stuff that used to not be so cool to talk about,” he says. “I eat a lot of kale. It’s a different kind of lifestyle.”

He got a wake-up call of sorts while playing with Toto a few years ago, sharing a bill in Switzerland with Earth, Wind & Fire. “I was trying to impress [EW&F bassist] Verdine White,” he recalls. “They played and he was dancing, and then he was in the audience while we were playing and I’m jumping around, and I completely tore my Achilles tendon on stage. That was the first indication that I might not be 22 anymore.”

Prior to releasing his album, East garnered a bit of extra celebrity from his prominent role in last summer’s signature song, “Get Lucky.” He insists that he’s still not sick of the song, saying, “That was cool because I think in everyone’s career you begin to look at your relevance meter. Last year, every time we turned on the radio it was on, so that lets you know, ‘Ok, I still got it. They still want me out there.’ I realized in the studio that there was something very special about that.”

Having recently returned from tours of Japan with Clapton and Toto, East will be touring with Fourplay throughout much of the rest of the year, with a view towards celebrating the band’s silver anniversary in 2016. They’ll release their next album for the occasion, hopefully featuring reunions with ex-members Ritenour and Larry Carlton (Chuck Loeb has been the quartet’s guitarist since 2010). But he aims to hit the road with his own band in early 2015.

“I really love and have become really close to the people I’ve been playing with,” he says. “However, there’s something very fulfilling about doing your own thing and I I look forward to the challenge of getting out there and creating a space for myself as Nathan East the solo artist.”

Tickets and information for Fourplay at The Keswick can be found here.

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