“Daft Punk’s Nathan East heads in his own direction,” a recent headline in a large-circulation newspaper read, announcing the bass player’s first solo album, titled simply Nathan East and released through Yamaha. Nice blast of attention for the journeyman musician. Truth be told, for three decades East has been a well-known session and touring player for the likes of Eric Clapton, Toto and Michael Jackson. He also cofounded popular contemporary jazzers Fourplay in 1990, long before his steady-pumping bassline helped drive Daft Punk’s catchy, eminently danceable “Get Lucky” to mega sales and a Grammy for Record of the Year.
“Anything to get you a headline,” East says, chuckling, from Los Angeles, his home since relocating from San Diego, where he grew up and earned a bachelor of music from UC San Diego. “After being in the business for 30 to 35 years you don’t get surprised by anything.
“[Daft Punk] reached out to me,” he continues. “They had put together a list of people they wanted to work with. I had just seen Tron: Legacy, so I was familiar with their electronica and the fact that nobody knows what they look like. [They said,] ‘This is the groove. Let’s throw some ideas out there and we could loop it in Pro Tools. We recorded prior to Nile Rodgers putting his guitar part on it. Later, they said we have to redo the bass to really lock it in with him and get that Chic sound.”
Not long after appearing alongside Daft Punk at the Grammys, East, 58, is celebrating the completion of a larger career goal. Why the long wait? “I’ve aspired to do this for years—for decades,” he says. “My biggest excuse is that I’ve been extremely busy. I had to find a time when I wasn’t on the road and I wasn’t recording somebody’s project.”
The album, with East joined by guitarist Michael Thompson, pianist Jeff Babko, organist Tim Carmon, late drummer Ricky Lawson and other longtime musical associates, is intentionally rangy. Variously playing his five- and six-string electric basses as well as an electric upright, East offers new takes on old favorites, including two by Stevie Wonder—a reharmonized “Sir Duke,” with Ray Parker Jr. on guitar, and “Overjoyed,” with Wonder guesting on harmonica. Michael McDonald sings “Moondance,” and two Fourplay bandmates appear: pianist Bob James on “Moodswing” and guitarist Chuck Loeb on “Sevenate.”
The bassist sings on several tracks, including the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” also featuring East’s 13-year-old son, Noah, on piano, and Steve Winwood’s “Can’t Find My Way Home,” with Clapton on guitar. “It’s a celebration of my musical relationships—I have lots of my friends on the album—and these pieces all have special meaning,” East says. “I remember playing ‘Moondance’ in my first band. I used to sing that song. With ‘Sir Duke,’ I sat in with a big band in Norway last year when I was on tour with Toto. I looked around, and everyone was smiling and having so much fun. That tune is like an instant love fest.”
East switched from cello to bass at age 14, and began playing in his high school jazz band in addition to Top 40 groups around San Diego. For a while, he tuned his cello like a bass. “I pretended that it was an upright,” he says. “It was a weird thing to do.”
His musical interests were diverse—Wes Montgomery, Clapton and Cream, Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, Santana. And he took some bass playing cues from the likes of Tower of Power’s Rocco Prestia, Earth, Wind & Fire’s Verdine White and Paul McCartney, among others. After a stint with singer Barry White, East quickly made inroads on the L.A. studio scene in the early ’80s, competing against such session stalwarts as Abraham Laboriel, Chuck Rainey and Max Bennett.
For his solo album, he handily demonstrates his skills on his instrument, particularly on the African-tinted “Madiba,” one of several tunes he co-wrote (including the Fourplay favorite “101 Eastbound” and “Daft Funk”), and “America the Beautiful,” which opens with his unaccompanied lead and chordal work.
But he made the album a song-focused effort. Says East, “I think everybody expects a bass player to kind of jump out there and [expects] it to be a bass fest, and so I kind of consciously opted not to go that route.”