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Break out your pen and paper. Write down the names of five bass players. You know what? Let’s make it challenging – see if you can do 10. 15, even.
Is Nathan East on your list?
Chances are, unless you’re in the biz, or spend your days watching endless YouTube videos of Grammy Awards recordings and Hall of Fame inductions, you might have no idea who I’m talking about.
Well, it’s time for a little music history because Nathan East is secretly one of your favorite artists.
East has made a career of being the industry’s go-to bassist, and over the past 40 years, he’s worked with icons like Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Anita Baker. He has been part the touring band for performers like Barry White, Kenny Loggins, Al Jarreau and Quincy Jones. For the last 35 years, he’s been a part of Eric Clapton’s band, and travelled the world with Phil Collins. He’s a genre-crossing, musical chameleon with a resume that runs about a mile long.
“When I first started I realized, if I really wanted a career, I would have to focus on longevity,” he says. “I studied a bunch of different genres and styles so I wouldn’t get pigeonholed into one area.”
Today, East is the bearer of a number of awards, including an Ivor Novello Award for co-writing “Easy Lover,” and his own Congressional Record from the United States Congress for his contribution to the community of music around the world. He was recently featured on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories (2013), Andrea Bocelli’s Passione (2013) and Barbra Streisand’s 35th studio album Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway (2016).
Needless to say, he has avoided the pigeonhole.
Now, 40 years, hundreds of collaborations, thousands of gigs, and millions of notes struck around the globe later, East is gearing up to release his sophomore solo album, Reverence, in January of 2017. The record will feature collaborations with other artists, including gospel singer Yolanda Adams, and Nathan’s own son, Noah East on piano. The songs on the track list should be familiar to listeners, as some are covers of popular songs like Earth Wind & Fire’s “Serpentine Fire”, Randy Newman’s “Feels like Home” and Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”- while a few will be East originals.
In comparison to his debut, self-titled release, “the new record – there’s definitely a bit more featured lead bass,” East explains. “But I still believe in making a record song-based, and not an academic [study] of what can be done on the instrument.”
It’s what East has always been drawn to himself: “I find that when I hear a player that I’m so impressed with, whether it’s speed or notes, that I don’t do as many repeated listenings. I do continued listening, however, of music that touches my soul. Song-based music,” he explains.
It’s the one thing that hasn’t changed over the course of his career. Personnel, venues and recording techniques have certainly evolved, but somehow, East has managed to adapt. The latter being the one thing he tries to keep “old school.”
“When I first started recording there were only analog tape machines. 24-tracks were all you had to work with, no Pro Tools, no Auto-Tune. Artists were really trying to capture the moment. There was no, ‘Okay, we can fix this later,’” he explains. “That’s why singers like Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson were making records that were really connecting with people. It was a different ball game.”
He’s not wrong. Way-back-when, recording an album meant everyone in the studio together, working, re-working and recording song after song for days or weeks on end. With today’s tools, it can be a lot easier and less time-consuming to record a full-length record. But it’s also easier to sound sterile or inauthentic.
With his solo work, that’s exactly what East works tirelessly to avoid. The band and the team behind him scheduled around tours and prior commitments to work together in real time.
“We didn’t really want it to be a ‘send your tracks around, and phone your part in’ kind of record. We believe in having all the musicians in the same space,” East says. “There’s a magic that happens when artists are in a room together, experiencing the chemistry and musical dialogue that is taking place between them.”
In recording Reverence, East and his engineer, Moogie Canazio, worked in three studios across the country – United Recording Studios in Hollywood, NRG in the Los Angeles valley, and Yamaha Entertainment Group Studios in Franklin, TN – to achieve the juxtaposed sound of gorgeous and polished, but gritty and loose.
To get his optimal sound, East uses a TC Electronic Blacksmith Amp with two 4×10 cabinets. His signal path is a Firefly direct box by Radial Engineering, and they mic the speakers using two microphones, a Sennheiser 421 and a U47. East explains that they use one channel for the direct sound and two channels for the mic sounds – this adds to the variation in the sound you can get on record.
The other technical element that he relies on is his trusty Yamaha bass guitar. East has been playing Yamaha basses since the ’80s; it’s a tried and true relationship that has paid off in spades. He now has his own signature bass design – the Yamaha BBNE2 – and is signed to Yamaha’s in-house record label, Yamaha Entertainment Group.
East’s success in the music world doesn’t feel like it’s calculated. He’s worked tirelessly for all that he has, for sure. But he has the temperament and dedication of your classic bassist – content in the shadows, and happy as the number two. He’s a quintessential right-hand-man, supporting cast or consigliere (for you Van Zandt fans out there) to his front man. But he knows his role, and the importance of the part he plays.
There was a study done by researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario that showed how our brains are better at comprehending and deciphering a song’s rhythm if it occurs at a low tone. In other words, it proved that the bass is literally the base for the melody. Without it, we wouldn’t understand our favorite songs.
East elaborates, “If you were to look at the foundation of a house…you find the mixed concrete that becomes the support for this beautiful home. I have this one responsibility – to be the foundation for whatever musical situation I’m in…and with the bass, it’s such a magical instrument where you can be the sideman and then you can be the leader. You’re the foundation, and then you are the house!”
East has spent the better part of his career as a staple on other people’s greatest hits, but he understands better than anyone how his role impacts the big picture. Modestly, he’s happy to have played his part – and played it well. In reality, he’s shaped music as we know it today, and he has no plans of stopping. Whether it’s writing, recording, or performing, East is a lifer, and he’s just trying to leave his mark.
Standout Track: “Feels Like Home”
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