Nathan East didn’t need to ask Phil Collins and Eric Clapton to record last year on his new/old version of Earth, Wind & Fire’s propulsive “Serpentine Fire.” The two English music legends had contributed their parts to the song — a highlight of East’s new solo album, “Reverence” — back in 1991.
“It was sitting in limbo since then, with the idea that, at some point, something might happen,” recalled East, whose musical partnerships with Clapton and Collins date back to the 1980s.
Something did happen. But it was surely nothing this San Diego-bred bass great could have predicted.
The master tapes of East’s “Serpentine Fire” went missing — for a quarter century. They did not turn up until 2016, when his longtime recording engineer, Moogie Canazio, unearthed the tapes in the basement of Grammy Award-winning singer Patti Austin.
East had first recorded with Austin in 1984. That was six years after the Crawford High School alum earned his degree in music at UC San Diego and five years after he moved to Los Angeles. There, East quickly became one of the most sought-after bassists in nearly any and every style of music.
His impeccable bass playing has graced albums by artists as varied as Clapton, Collins, Ray Charles, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Dolly Parton, Iron Maiden, George Harrison, Kenny Loggins, Randy Newman, Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, Wayne Shorter, Daft Punk, Joe Satriani and many more. His concert credits range from former San Diego jazz sax legend James Moody and Herbie Hancock to James Taylor and Vince Gill, to cite just a few.
“Nathan is one of the great electric bass players. He’s so versatile and can do some many different styles so well,” said San Diego-born bass great Bob Magnusson, whose own recording credits range from Buddy Rich and Sarah Vaughan to Bonnie Raitt and Madonna.
A ‘Twilight Zone’ musical moment
After recording engineer Canazio unearthed the long-missing “Serpentine Fire” tapes, he digitally remastered them. East then invited percussionist Ralph Johnson and two Earth, Wind & Fire mainstays — singer Philip Bailey and bassist Verdine White — to add new parts to the song he had cut in 1991.
Having White perform on his version of “Serpentine Fire”, which first appeared on Earth, Wind & Fire’s 1977 album, “All ‘N All,” was a thrill for East, who grew up idolizing White’s playing. It was also something of a “Twilight Zone” moment for East, who in 1987 played in place of White on the Earth, Wind & Fire album “Touch the World.”
“For me, ‘Touch the World’ was me doing my Verdine White impersonation — on an Earth, Wind & Fire album,” he said, speaking from the Los Angeles home he shares with his physician wife, Anita, and the East’s 16-year-old twins, Sara and Noah.
“It was a little strange for me, knowing I was recording in place of my hero. I couldn’t figure out why I got the call, but I tried to do the best I could. To me, the spirit of his playing is really one of the most magical things that I revere about him.”
Singing the praises of artists who inspire him is a constant for East, who is in the rare position of having performed and recorded with many of those same artists. The title of his new album, “Reverence,” reflects the respect he has for them.
“Reverence for others is something it seems like we didn’t have very much of over the past year and a half,” said East, alluding to the intensely polarizing presidential campaign and election.
“The title ‘Reverence’ also applies to those artists we lost who I respect and revere, like (Earth, Wind & Fire mastermind) Maurice White, who was a mentor of mine. His music touched me so deeply — that’s why I have two Earth, Wind & Fire songs on the album.”
Album guests include Chick Corea & Yolanda Adams
Due out Friday on the Yamaha Entertainment record label, “Reverence” is the second solo outing by East. His self-titled debut album was released in early 2014 and earned two Grammy Award nominations.
“With both albums, the goal was to just to put a selection of songs together that reflected the soundtrack of my life, things I enjoyed,” East said. “Obviously, I listened to everything from A-Z growing up.”
“In my mind, there are only two kinds of music: good music — and the other kind! I didn’t look to make anything but the best music I could, something I could be proud of as an artist. It is sort of a shift to make albums that my name is on the front of. So as I look at the songs on ‘Reverence,’ I see the thread of people in my life who are woven together.”
In addition to Clapton, Collins and the Earth, Wind & Fire members, guests on the dozen-song “Reverence” include jazz keyboard giant Chick Corea, gospel vocal great Yolanda Adams, flute pioneer Hubert Laws, East’s keyboard-playing brother, Marcel, and “American Idol” alum Ruben Studdard. Four of the songs feature guitarist Chuck Loeb, one of East’s bandmates in the Grammy-nominated smooth-jazz quartet Fourplay, which last year celebrated its 25th anniversary.
The musical styles on “Reverence” range from big band romps (the Nikki Yanofsky-sung “The Mood I’m In”) and darting fusion-jazz (the Corea-showcase “Shadow”) to lush, Brazilian-styled instrumentals (the Loeb-penned “Elevenate,” which boasts a lithe 11/8 time signature) and an elegantly orchestrated version of “Over the Rainbow” that features East’s teen son, Noah, on piano.
There’s also an ebullient, bass-driven version of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” and a tender solo rendition of “Until We Meet Again,” which features East on both bass and fretless bass.
Wearing multiple musical hats, but no shirt
“As bass player, I’m concerned with making every part I record the right part for that song,” he noted.
“The fun part as an artist is figuring out how to do that and still make it very musical. So, on most of the tracks on ‘Reverence,’ I’m playing two bass parts — the support part and then the lead part. It gives me two hats to wear.”
As the co-producer of “Reverence” and as its featured instrumentalist, how does East know when to let go of a song?
“That’s a fantastic question, because there really is no letting go,” he replied. “Whenever I listen to it, I want to reach for the recording console mixer or my bass. So, for me, the deadline becomes the thing that forces me to let go.”
East is featured on the new Barbra Streisand album. He recently performed with former Clapton band mate Collins at the U.S. Open, where they performed “In the Air Tonight” and “Easy Lover” (the latter co-written by East back in 1984). The tireless bassist also anchored the band at the all-star Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song concert honoring Smokey Robinson, which will air nationally on Feb. 10 as a PBS TV special.
Next weekend, East will serve the musical director for an all-star tribute to U2 drummer Larry Mullen, Jr., presented by Yamaha, at the annual National Association of Music Merchants’ confab at the Anaheim Convention Center. This will be followed by separate tours with Clapton and Fourplay, summer festival dates abroad as a member of Corea’s band and East’s tour of his own to promote “Reverence.”
Regardless of the musical context, observed fellow bassist Magnusson, East’s instrumental sound and style are as unmistakable as his easygoing and upbeat personality.
“Nathan has such a great sense of groove, and that’s the kind of thing you look for in a group,” Magnusson said. ”I know everyone loves playing with him because of the wonderful feel of his playing and the joy he brings to the music.
“Plus, he has such a warm attitude toward everybody. Yet, with all his success, he’s still the same warm, marvelous person.”
What East has never been, by his own choice, is a sex symbol.
That could change, though, given the shirtless cover photo of him that appears on the cover of “Reverence.”
“Heaven forbid!” said East with a chortle. “My co-producer, Chris Gero, had a vision for the cover. I was headed to Nashville to do some recordings and they were going to do the photo shoot there. My daughter and I went to a mall and came to the photo shoot with two bags of clothes.
“Next thing, Chris said: ‘OK, we’ll do it with no shirt on.’ I said: ‘Really?’ And Chris explained that nearly everybody dresses up on their album covers and he wanted to go in the other direction. So, in the spirit of co-operation, I disrobed and we took that shot.”
East chortled again.
“I insisted we also do some photos with me wearing the clothes I bought!” he stressed. “Some of those shots appear on the inner sleeve of the album. I think Chris was trying to go for something that was completely different than what somebody who makes the music I make normally does. He wants people to look at the album cover, and say: ‘Hey! What’s inside?”
From Philly to San Diego
A Philadelphia native, East was 4 when his family moved to San Diego. At 12, he began playing cello at Horace Mann Jr. High School. he soon took up bass.
At 14, East was hired to do his first professional recording date here. At 16, he was on the road touring as the bassist in the band of deep-voiced soul singer Barry White, with whom he performed at Madison Square Garden, the Kennedy Center and other prestigious venues across the nation.
In 1978, East so impressed former Mahavishnu Orchestra drummer Billy Cobham after they played at a drum clinic here that Cobham recommended East to fusion jazz guitar icon John McLaughlin, the founder of Mahavishnu.
Based on Cobham’s effusive endorsement, McLaughlin offered East a spot in his new band — without having heard him play. East, who was about to earn his degree in music from UCSD, reluctantly declined.
“That was a tough situation,” the bassist recalled in a 1985 Union-Tribune interview. “I was playing a lot of jazz at the time, and all my jazz buddies thought I ought to have my head examined for not doing it! But I was just three weeks away from graduating from UCSD, and I like to finish most of the things I start.”
While attending UCSD, East was also the bassist in the People Movers, which reigned for two decades as San Diego’s top club band. Reflecting now on his years as a young musician learning and honing his chops in San Diego, East speaks with a palpable sense of gratitude.
“When I was at Crawford High, I played in the stage band, so being in a jazz ensemble is part of my roots,” he said.
“I was grateful to have the big band experience. Dennis Foster who was the big band instructor, now lives in Phoenix. I always get him concert tickets whenever I play there, because he was such a great mentor to me and my brother David, and to (keyboardist) Carl Evans, (saxophonist) Hollis Gentry, (drummer) Skipper Ragsdale and so many more.
“Dennis was such a great teacher. I thank him every time I see him, and he always says: ‘No, I had great students.’
“I remember being this 14-year-old kid in San Diego and getting all these things to put in my musical tool box that I would use for the rest of my life.”
Nathan East Top 10
These are 10 of the best-known songs by other artists that feature Nathan East on bass. In many instances, he is also featured on many — or all — of the songs on the albums on which these 10 classics appear.
“Get Lucky,” Daft Punk
“Bad,” Michael Jackson
“Footloose,” Kenny Loggins
“Tears in Heaven” and “Change the World,” Eric Clapton
“Saving All My Love for You” and “The Greatest Love of All,” Whitney Houston
“Riding with the King,” B.B. King & Eric Clapton
“Easy Lover,” Phil Collins & Philip Bailey
“I Love L.A.,” Randy Newman