Bassist Nathan East Talks New Solo Album, ‘Reverence,’ and Working with Eric Clapton
Bassist Nathan East’s resume reads like a music industry who’s who.
East, a founding member of renowned, contemporary jazz quartet Fourplay, also is one of the world’s most in-demand bassists with credits that include Eric Clapton, Michael Jackson, Phil Collins and Whitney Houston.
East’s sophomore solo album, Reverence, is a collection of original tracks and cover material spanning the R&B, pop, rock and jazz songbook. Included is a scorching cover of Earth, Wind & Fire's "Serpentine Fire," originally recorded in 1991 and featuring Eric Clapton on guitar and Phil Collins on drums. There’s also a soul-stirring interpretation of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" that features East's 16-year-old son, Noah, on piano.
I recently spoke to East about Reverence, his time performing with Eric Clapton, his gear and more.
Did you have a particular musical direction in mind for Reverence?
I always try to go in one direction, and it’s the same with Fourplay and all of the other projects I work on. You always try to go for sonic excellence. The idea is to keep the bar high in terms of quality and sound.
How did you determine what material to use for this project?
It’s a little more of a challenge as a bass player because you have to play bass and then any lead bass is in addition to it. So it’s actually two separate sets of basses on there. The idea is to find songs that lend themselves to that format in writing or covering. You always want to come up with something that will translate to the bass. The other thing I like to do is make records that are song-based and not just chops. Songs that touch a nerve or someone’s heart is also a big criteria.
Your cover of Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Serpentine Fire” actually began 25 years ago. How did it come about?
That was originally a project I was working on with my brother called Two Faces of East. We were living together at the time and doing work in the studio, and that particular song was one that we put together. Coincidentally, it was also when I was working with Phil Collins and Eric Clapton. I remember we flew over to England and asked if they’d like to lend their talents.
Sure enough, they put their stamp on it. We pretty much finished it up, but the project never got a deal and the song wound up sitting around in a basement on 2-inch tape.
When we went to record this new project, the engineer, Moogie Canazio [who had originally recorded and mixed that track], was working with me. He sat me down one day and said, “Listen to this!” and then pulled the track out. We always knew we had something we really liked with it, so we brought it back to life. Then we brought in the Fire to play on it and beef it up. That’s what you hear when you listen to it. It was a lot of fun!
What can you tell me about the track “Lifecycle”?
We had recorded 25 songs for my first album, but some of them didn’t make it because there wasn’t going to be enough room. It was leftover and it was great fun to be able to get this one on. That song is special because is has Ricky Lawson [who passed away in 2013] playing drums on it.
Your version of “Over the Rainbow” features your son, Noah, on piano. How did that collaboration come about?
On my first album, he came in and played a duet with me on “Yesterday." He had been working on some songs at his piano school, where the teachers always pull out some really cool arrangements. This one was a George Shearing arrangement, and when I heard it I said, “This is a contender!”
Will you be doing any live dates to support Reverence, and what are your Fourplay plans?
Yes! Now that I have a few records under my belt, we’ll be going to Japan to do some dates—and also Seoul, Korea. With Fourplay, we’ve been out supporting our 25th anniversary Silver project, and we just got back from celebrating the New Year in Japan.
Rumor has it you’ll also be performing with Eric Clapton on his upcoming tour.
Yes, I’ll be performing those dates at Madison Square Garden, the Forum in LA and the Royal Albert Hall in London. It’s very exciting!
When did you and Clapton first meet?
Live Aid  was one of the places where Eric first heard me, but prior to that we had met in the studio when he was working on his Behind the Sun album . He approached me soon after when Phil Collins was producing his next album, August . We’re talking 33 years now, and the cool thing is we’re still friends after all this time.
What’s your current live setup like?
I’ve been using the TC Electronic Blacksmith amp with two 4x10 cabinets along with a Radio Engineering direct box and my Yamaha basses. That’s pretty much my live rig.
Of all the highlights of your career, are there any that stick out to you as extra special?
It’s funny, because just this past weekend at the NAMM Show, we put together a show and I got to play with U2’s drummer, Larry Mullen. For me, playing with him was part of the bucket list because every time you see them, you’re looking at the greatest rock and roll band.
Getting to play with some really good people has been the story of my life. It was amazing be able to play on the Lincoln Steps for the first inauguration of Barack Obama. I’ve also gotten to play for the Pope a few times as well as the Queen of England and Nelson Mandela. Just incredible gigs.
Every day, I wake up and say a prayer of thanks—because it’s really been an amazing life.
For more about East and Reverence, visit nathaneast.com.
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.