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Alphonso Johnson

 

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Many players in today's growing and busy Bass World seem to play as a matter of volition, more than from the emotion that calls to a musicians soul from a deeper plane. From that place, the matter of conscious play shows itself to be a matter of soul conversation, other than the result of a decision - based upon what the instrument looks like, for example. The idea of 'musician' is identified not so much in what a player plays, as much as by the voice that emanates from the closest instrument, once the player takes it into their hands to begin the concept of playing itself. In those musicians, the resulting voice is in its purest form from this chosen few, the idea of musician is both identified and defined for the world to see.

 

Such is the case of this masterful musician, Alphonso Johnson. It doesn't matter as much that he is a world re-known bassist and Chapman Stick-ist so much that it is when he plays... he sings through his instrument with uncommon grace and eloquence. 

Alphonso maintains an incredibly busy touring and recording schedules with the groups "Jazz Is Dead", "Gov't Mule", and with a trio that also features guitarist Jeff Richman and drummer Gary Novak. Also, beginning in June 2001, he will begin teaching privately at Torrance, California's Marshall Music. 

With his latest CD, "The Alphonso Johnson Collection" now available - featuring tracks from his three previously released solo albums: Moonshadows, Yesterday's Dreams, and Spellbound - this is a fantastic opportunity to catch-up with Alphonso and hear what he has to say about bass, life, and everything in between. 

 

BAJ: What's happening with Bombay Chill?

Alphonso Johnson: This has been a dream project of mine for a while now and it didn't start taking shape until I went to India and met Prasanna (Indian guitarist Prasanna Ramaswamy). At that point I knew that it was time to start making it a reality. We are still in the song writing stage as well as trying to finalize who the drummer will be. He and I have put aside some time in September to get together in Los Angeles and take it to the next step which should be to audition a few drummers and put something down on tape. The nice thing about Bombay Chill is that we both know from experience the importance of doing it right the first time so we are not in any hurry. While at the same time keeping the dynamic tension between us in motion so the music doesn't lose any of its urgency.

BAJ: It seems that you've been touring non-stop for the past several years. How did you get involved with Gov't Mule, and what status is "Jazz IS dead" in, at this time?

AJ: To be more accurate and honest I've been touring since 1974 and I only took off for two summers to take my family on vacation so it's been more than several years! Being gone for so long eventually takes its toil on your personal life so I'm trying to maintain a better balance between work and family.

I got a call from my friend (guitarist) Jimmy Herring who was out on tour with Phil & Friends and he said that Warren Haynes wanted to talk to me about doing some recording. Allen Woody had unfortunately passed away and Warren wanted to do a recording with all of Allen's favorite bass players. I was very shocked when he said that Allen had my name on that list because I didn't think he listened to me at all. So I went to San Francisco and did a track with an Azola Baby Bass and played with Warren and Matt and it went better than I expected.

As far as Jazz Is Dead is concerned, we have a new CD coming out on Zebra Records in July called "Great Sky River" and the band is going to tour in August. I believe Jeff Pevar will be on Guitar, T Lavitz on keyboards, and Rod Morgenstein on drums.


BAJ: Your solo releases have been very successful... What brought about the idea of releasing a compilation of your previous solo outings? 

AJ: That's an interesting statement... how do you measure success? I remember when my first solo album came out and it only sold 30,000 units and I was so bummed out because my friends in Earth Wind & Fire were selling millions. Then Joe Zawinul pulled me aside and reminded me that for a jazz recording 30,000 was pretty good considering that when most of the Blue Note recordings first came out they didn't do that well originally. Anyway, I have learned to be grateful for the opportunity to have my compositions recorded and to have my playing available all over the world for other people to share. The decision to release a compilation CD was not made by me but by the people at CBS/SONY. I'm happy to see that they put it out because there is a whole new generation of musicians that are getting to hear what I did 20 years ago!

BAJ: Are there new songs on the compilation, and will you tour in support of the release?

AJ: I haven't made any plans to do any touring as a solo artist so I won't be going out in support of that recording.

BAJ: Is your student roster completely full at Marshall Music? How did the relationship with Marshall come about?

AJ: I hadn't planned to start until June so I should get an idea this week what the number of students will be after everyone gets back from their Memorial Day break. I often shop at Marshall Music. So, one day I as looking for books and a guy named Glen who works there asked if I was Alphonso Johnson and it just developed from there. I had also begun thinking about what I wanted to be doing 10 years from now and I've always liked teaching... So that would be a good extension of some of the things that I like to do.

BAJ: Are you using a particular teaching program with your students? What is your approach to teaching, and what type of students do you prefer?

AJ: I try to personalize each lesson plan to what the students needs are at that time in their development. I've always disliked the "one shoe fits all" approach that most music schools tend to use... So this would be an opportunity for me to share my experiences as well as have the students brush-up on the basics. I normally accept any student as long as they come to me with a desire to learn and as long as I feel that I have something to share with them. Teaching is give and take and I usually learn as much as my students do in a different sort of way of looking at the situation!

BAJ: You seem to find yourself in really creative musical situations. Is this a planned effort on your part toward a particular goal? 

AJ: First of all, I consider myself very blessed that I have had the opportunities in life that I have had given to me. Having a chance to study with George Allen in the public school system was best foundation that a musician could ever have. After playing with "Catalyst" in Philadelphia I thought that I had reached the top of what would be my career. Then, I got to tour with The Woody Herman Orchestra and that was more than I had ever dreamed would happen... until I played with Chuck Mangione... and then Weather Report! So after that everything else has simply been "icing on the cake", for me. I don't sit back and plan my career like an actor an agent who picks roles for them. I try to look for projects that are a challenge to me, personally.

BAJ: As you play in a number of different musical environments, where do you find the most creative platform for your talents?

AJ: It's probably more to do with the situation than with the actual notes that I play! For instance, when I was called to play with 'The Other Ones', the job had certain prerequisites that needed to be paid attention to - like filling a role that had been occupied by Phil Lesh for 30 years! In addition to that, there was the matter of playing where each of the band members wanted to hear the bass in their heads at any particular point in time during the show! Bobby (guitarist, Weir) wanted the bass more laid back; Bruce wanted to improvise a lot; and Mickey (drummer, Hart) wanted more grooves with his playing! It continues... Billy wanted me to be more free, and Mark wanted to play Dead guitar/bass lines together. In addition to all of this, Alphonso was trying to play himself throughout while at the same time trying to not disappoint the fans that were used to hearing Phil play. So that gig was both a challenge as well as a creative environment for me in many ways. The best playing situation for me is usually in a club with about 30 to 60 people and there are no rules...just play...like the gigs that I do around town with Jeff Richmond!

BAJ: What projects are you currently working on, and how will having a stationary teaching gig coincide with your never-ending touring schedule?

AJ: My current project is learning to successfully be a single parent this summer by spending some quality time with my two sons. We plan to go camping and try our hand at white water rafting and just hanging out at the beach as much as possible. My oldest son has threatened to teach me how to surf so that should be interesting! As far as my schedule conflicting with teaching there shouldn't be any conflicts at all - as I've already set aside this summer to be in town.

BAJ: You have a very heady concept toward playing the basses, as well as the Chapman Stick, and you flow from one instrument to the other without losing the intrinsic 'you' throughout. What is your approach to doing this, and what is your mental space as you approach the stage for a performance?

AJ: There is a period of adjustment when you switch from one instrument to another so I'm not sure if it's as smooth to me as it may seem to someone else. When I play bass I try to locate what my role is going to be so I have a pretty clear idea of what I am going to be doing.  It's the same with playing Chapman Stick! I try to make my statement as well as stay out of the way! Before I play a gig I usually find a few minutes to give thanks to God for the opportunity to serve and then I focus on what the set-list is so my music is in order and I know which instruments I'm going to play... then it's time to hit! 

BAJ: May we have a basic gear rundown, and do you use the same set-up for both the Chapman Stick and your basses?

AJ: Yes! I have a rack that holds all the electronics (Alesis M12 Mixer, ElectroVoice EV1000 Wireless, Roland G1-10 Midi Interface, Roland JV1010, DigiTech GSP2101 Processor, Alesis Midi-Verb and the AB Power Amplifier) and my two Epifani Speaker Cabinets, which reproduce the sound. I plug my instruments (Azola Upright Bass, Chapman Stick, Washburn Bass Guitar, and Modulus Bass) into the mixer then get a balance of tone and volume on each so no matter which one I pick up it's ready to go, and with the right sound. There are also times when I play locally and it's my basic club set-up with two Ampeg B-1 combo amps that run at 4 ohms in a stereo configuration using a Korg AX-30B pedal.

BAJ: How do you feel about being looked upon as something of a "veteran/statesman" of what have come to be known as "fusion bassists"?

AJ: I'm just happy to be alive and to still have good health and positive attitude to take on whatever new challenge life has to offer! I turned 50 this year - so if that qualifies me as a veteran then I accept that role! But I hope to be known as more than just a fusion bassist. If you look at my website you'll see a list of the recordings that I have done over my career and they all aren't just fusion gigs! The many different directions of music that I'm asked to do might qualify me as a musician of many dimensions. No matter how you describe it...it's all good to me!

 

Photos by Jonathan Rabhan rabhan.com and courtesy of Dave Rosenberg at OtherOnes.net.

 

Well said, man! Thank you for taking the time to talk with Global Bass Magazine, and we'll all look forward to what the future holds for you. I've really enjoyed our time together.

Alphonso's website is: 
http://www.embamba.com/


Brent-Anthony Johnson is a bassist/composer/author currently living in the Denver Metropolitan Area. You can reach him through his website at: www.myspace.com/brentanthonyjohnson



Brent has also instructed me that he wants serious presents for getting this great Cover Story in on time. I have, in turn, shipped Brent an entire collection of Slim Whitman albums I found recently at a garage sale.
~ Warren

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