The spotlight took a dramatic turn toward Nathan East during 2014. The bright lights began with the release of his first solo LP during March, which led to the release of documentary Nathan East: For The Record and then culminated with his first Grammy nomination as a headliner, as Nathan East merited a nod for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album.
Reflecting on the documentary (available now on Hulu), the bassist sounds as if he could use some sunglasses for the glare.
"It's kind of overwhelming," he told Music Times of feeling a tad camera shy. "I get a little embarrassed watching the film."
The prospect of being recognized by every casual listener might be a new one for East but the music industry has had him pegged for decades. The best plug for For The Record might be to list every one of East's former employers who appears on his behalf to discuss his work as one of the world's most influential session musicians: Eric Clapton. Quincy Jones. Lionel Richie, Phil Collins and Herbie Hancock. Michael Jackson and Beyoncé have featured his rhythmic contributions. Even Paul McCartney, a bassist himself, has turned to East for assistance.
Yet for the estimated 2,000-plus albums on which the sideman has appeared, East never took the step toward frontman. The closest he came was Fourplay, a jazz supergroup where he at least shared a 25 percent stake in the formal credits. Every other member of the group had previously released solo LPs and they jabbed at East—who by that time had toured with Clapton, George Harrison and Kenny Loggins—about when he would drop his own feature.
His response to inquisitors for nearly 30 years: "Soon."
Nearly every commenter throughout the documentary believes that East's solo debut has been building in the back of his mind for decades. Those theories couldn't be less true: He preaches the attitude and acceptance of being "the guy behind the guy," and the music industry has been more kind to session players in recent history than it once was to icons such as Motown's Funk Brothers. Still, a steady push from label Yamaha and perhaps the subtle sting of seeing himself replaced by Thomas Bangalter within Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" music video finally sparked the creation of Nathan East.
"I've waited 20 goddamn years to be on this project," snarks pianist and Fourplay member Bob James during the film while waiting to record.
East had somewhat dug himself into a hole due to the delay. Finding one direction in which to take the record would provide a challenge: Compressing more than 40 years of recording experience and a litany of genres experimented with into one unified product borders on the absurd. The bassist is universally renowned for his ability to adapt to the situation, if not deciding upon one genre, so he brought the whole smorgasbord to the party. Old-school funk holds down Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke," new-school funk on "Daft Funk" (a reference to East's appearance on "Get Lucky"), and blues in the form of Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home."
Although the film peppers footage of Nathan East's recording with bits of biography (and plenty of awkward-hug scenes), the album itself serves as a better musical timeline its star's career. "Yesterday" flashes back a 10 year-old East listening to The Beatles and admiring McCartney's style...multiple Wonder covers alludes to East's first touring gig—backing Barry White with the band Power—and "Can't Find My Way" was where Clapton would drop back during '80s tours and let the bassist take the front of the stage. Wonder and Clapton punctuate the moments with guest appearances during Nathan East, the latter musician playing the supporting role as his buddy once did for him. "Yesterday" brings the biographical concept full circle, as 14 year-old Noah East joins his father on piano, a new son rising in the East family.
The cherry on top: The Grammy nomination that voting members have presumably been waiting to hand East for 30 years. Finding golden gramophones that the session man has had some hand in earning isn't difficult. Random Access Memories (on which East recorded nine tracks) and "Get Lucky," the respective Album and Record of The Year for 2014, are but the two most recent examples. The 2015 nomination for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album is the first to feature his name at the top of the bill however.
East appreciates his award category for embracing his favorite style: a disregard for singular style.
"It doesn't lockdown to any specific genre. To be narrowed down from hundreds of submissions, to be in the final five...to me that's as good as a win," he said. "Gotta take my tuxedo in to the cleaners."
Regardless of who takes home the prize, fans and judges alike won't be in for the same wait with East's second round. He and producer Chris Gero (who also directed For The Record) have already begun planning for round two. Details are far from ironed-out but East hopes for a 2015 release date (and you know he could still call in favors from hundreds of former bandmates).
His bass will be at least one of the unifying themes between the two albums, just as it served as the only invariable element during Nathan East. He hinted that he might contribute a few guitar licks of his own or bust out the cello, his first formal instrument. He could call on a number of stars to hold down the keyboard but his son, like father, seems to have the knack for music.
"He's got an amazing ear, perfect pitch. He hears these songs and goes over to the piano and plays it," East said proudly, seemingly pleased to be back in the role of supporting act. "Whenever I need keyboards, I think he'll be there for me."
The younger East makes a brief appearance during For The Record, sitting behind a baby grand while his dad records bass in another room. The confident playing displayed on "Yesterday" doesn't sound like the boy who kept his eyes down on camera, abashed by loud greetings from world-class musicians. Given the opportunity to contribute to a collective however, to a larger project, the younger East excelled.
A chip off the old block.
Check out Music Times' interview with Omar Hakim, the other musician left out of the 'Get Lucky' music video.