You may not know Nathan East’s name, but you’ve certainly heard him play. East is a session bassist who has recorded and toured the world with a head-spinning list of musical giants that spans from Michael Jackson to Daft Punk. It’s his bass line that anchors the French duo’s 2013 megahit “Get Lucky,” as well as eight more of the 13 tunes on “Random Access Memories.” East’s distinguished résumé of 30-plus years among musical royalty made him a natural fit for the record’s all-star cast of modern luminaries and old guard legends. If a meticulous recreation of a pop music golden era gone by was what the robots wanted, it made perfect sense to have Nathan East in the room.
“Slowly but surely, I could feel the musical part of my DNA forming,” East says as he looks out the window of an empty ballroom at Boston’s Hilton Doubletree, recalling early inspirations like Vince Guaraldi’s jazzy Charlie Brown soundtracks, his father’s Wes Montgomery and Barbra Streisand LPs and his 3 years of cello lessons in school. The roots of East’s illustrious career are here, but it was Barry White who enlisted East’s high school band to back him at a San Diego concert and ultimately hired them to tour with his Love Unlimited Orchestra, who truly set things in motion. “The band was called Power and I was 16 years old at the time,” says East. “Here I am playing Madison Square Garden, the Apollo Theatre, the Kennedy Center in D.C….that’s when I was really bitten by the bug.”
East is in Boston on this late June Friday night for the start of a two-day run at the renowned Scullers Jazz Club with Fourplay, a collective he formed with guitarist Lee Ritenour, drummer Harvey Mason and pianist Bob James in 1991. With 12 studio albums under its belt, and New York guitarist Chuck Loeb now taking Ritenour’s place, Fourplay has soldiered on for nearly 25 years as just one of East’s many endeavors. The 150-seat Scullers, a room on the second floor of the Hilton that East describes as “legendary and quirky at the same time,” is something of an oddity on the group’s current tour of 2,000-plus capacity theaters and performing arts centers. East calls these “the Fourplay favorite rooms.”
The leap from the smooth jazz stylings of Fourplay and the session work with 1970s and 80s hit-makers to last year’s venture with Daft Punk surprised even East himself. “I had no idea what to expect because of the electronic nature of the music,” he says of his initial reaction to the project, “but that’s not why people like me and Nile Rodgers got the call.”
East describes Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo’s detail- and band-oriented approach to recording – from the hand-picked contributors to the multiple analog tape machines running in the studio at all times – as a refreshing change of pace for modern pop music. “Every note, we were together,” he says of his time with Daft Punk, “and we were laying down as many options as we could on all the songs, just so they could take it away, pick and choose.”
East demonstrates a deep admiration for the sense of vision and the human touch employed in the creation of that particular opus, and took a similar approach to the recently-released debut solo album he’s been “discussing, dreaming about, and threatening to do for many years.” He brought in an eye-catching roster of musicians like Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton and Michael McDonald to do what they do best, and entered the studio with a clear intention for the project as “a celebration” of both the music and friendships he’s made over the course of his three decades in the industry.
He describes the blend of familiar tunes, obscurities and original compositions that make up the final tracklist as a way of putting his best foot forward for a debut LP. “I wanted to make a record you could listen to and it wasn’t necessarily a bass player’s record, that bass players would love and the general public may not get,” he says. “You never get a second chance to make a first record.”
This far into one’s career might seem like a strange time to make a debut solo effort, but for East, it’s simply the first opportunity where the timing is right. “It’s been a nice solid career of touring mixed in with recording, making multiple albums with people like Anita Baker and Michael Jackson,” he explains, all too casually. “Those guys kept me busy, and for the first time in 30-some-odd years, in 2013 I was able to carve out a space that I needed to actually make my own record.”
For every point in a conversation with Nathan East, another observation or anecdote that demonstrates the man’s truly staggering career emerges. His favorite gig? Performing for an audience of 2 million at Barack Obama’s inauguration alongside Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Bono, Beyonce and Springsteen. “I couldn’t believe the sight of that,” he recalls, “for 3 miles as far as the eye can see, all you see is people shoulder to shoulder.” A performance with Phil Collins, Sting and Elton John at the Royal Albert Hall, with the Queen of England and Nelson Mandela in attendance, ranks as another contender.
To spend 20 minutes with East is to take a brief tour of decades’ worth of popular music history. He casually mentions recently joining Eric Clapton for his 200th show in Japan and cites the friendship he forged with George Harrison during his final tour as a career high-point late in the conversation, because that’s simply the first time they’ve come up. The studio sessions with Daft Punk, the countless stadium-scale tours, the extensive work with Fourplay and an online school of bass merely scratch the surface of Nathan East. He might never be a household name, but he’s accomplished much as a music industry secret weapon.