As a Philadelphia native, there’s a lot to live up to as a bass player. Stanley Clarke, Christian McBride, Jaco Pastorius, Gerald Veasley, Gail Ann Dorsey, Victor Bailey, and our latest bass player to know, Alphonso Johnson, all hail from the City Of Brotherly Love. Heck, you may even say that bass playing is “in the water” (pronounced “wooder”). With a diverse musical history and a significant role in the development of jazz, Philly bred players that not only embraced harmonic sophistication, but were able to push the boundaries of the electric bass within the genres of funk, jazz, and fusion. Johnson is without a doubt one of these low-end visionaries thanks to his virtuosic ability on the electric bass and Chapman stick. A member of Weather Report, a session musician, and solo artist, Johnson is our latest bass player to know.
So Who Is Alphonso Johnson?
Born in Philadelphia, PA in 1951, Johnson began his musical journey by playing the upright bass in the elementary school orchestra. He adopted the electric bass as a teenager and in the early 1970’s played with various jazz outfits. After playing with the Chuck Mangione Quartet and opening for Weather Report, Wayne Shorter asked him to audition for the band. Johnson joined Weather Report and can be heard on Mysterious Traveller, Tale Spinnin’, and Black Market. Also during this time, he recorded and toured with Billy Cobham and George Duke, among others, and released a few solo albums including Yesterday’s Dreams, Moonshadows, and Spellbound. Throughout the 1980’s, Johnson continued to enjoy success as a session and touring player, particularly as a member of Bob Weir’s project “Bobby and the Midnites” and as a member of Santana’s band. Other recording credits include Dee Dee Bridgewater, Stanley Clarke, The Crusaders, Eric Gale, Lee Ritenour, and Phil Collins. Johnson continues to perform, has received the Bass Player Live Lifetime Achievement Award, and is an instructor at the University of Southern California.
Let’s Talk Style
As we look at the lifespan of the electric bass, there’s an obvious growth spurt and coming of age that happened during the 1970’s. Thanks to players like Johnson, the instrument stepped into its adolescence; no longer trying to mimic the upright bass, the new generation was willing to harness the raging hormones and adopt new techniques to step into the musical spotlight. Johnson was at the forefront of this movement due to his involvement with Weather Report, his releases as a solo artist, and the fact that players and public alike were receptive to the boundary-pushing role of the instrument. In many ways, his approach to playing and his tenure in Weather Report opened the door for a player like Jaco to walk through.
The funk, jazz, and fusion revolution were rooted in groove-based, technically difficult, and personality-driven playing. With a particularly active and articulate right hand, Johnson integrated quick sixteenth notes and staccato lines to bring tightness to the overall feel of the rhythm section. His mature understanding of harmony and execution of sophisticated melody lines make his bass playing interesting to the listener and engaging with the other instrumentalists. He is both pushing and being pushed by the music that he plays, particularly as a soloist. Add in the fact that he explored the sonic environment through the use of new sounds, effects, and the Chapman stick, it’s evident that he deserves as much credit as his contemporaries for furthering the role of the electric bass.
Where Can I Hear Him?
“Freezing Fire” (Weather Report: Tale Spinnin’)
An exercise in right hand dexterity and precision, Johnson plays brisk, staccato notes to establish the groove. Often returning to the double-hit higher octave, he integrates chromatic runs and blazing fills to add interest and variation to the groove structure. Throughout the solo section, he is keenly aware of maintaining the foundation while being able to respond to the synth with intriguing lines of his own.
“Hip Pockets” (Billy Cobham & George Duke Band: “Live” On Tour In Europe)
This song is not just a hip pocket, but a deep one. Over the course of the tune, Johnson provides stanky and articulate grooves that take on different variations as the harmony changes. He takes a moment in the spotlight, leaving space before establishing a melodic theme to begin the arc of his solo. Building dynamically, he crescendos with an ascending line to mark the final moments of the solo and is accented by Cobham’s crashes. The song then morphs into a new phase of enthusiastic and unconventional walking under the guitar solo before returning to the earlier grooves.
“Balls To The Wall” (Alphonso Johnson: Yesterday’s Dreams)
A full-throttle funk-fusion composition on one of Johnson’s solo records, it begins with a lick that stands up to the name of the tune. A demonstration in technical ability and versatility, Johnson also explores the sonic landscape with various tones and effects. Going between a heavy, overdriven tone and the synth-like filter effect during his solo, there’s no sense of bashfulness when it comes to embracing the next wave of electric bass.