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Published: 2016/07/20
by Laron Sutton

Alphonso Johnson: The Rest Is History…

In a conversation with legendary bassist Alphonso Johnson, twice he concluded anecdotes by saying, “The rest is history.” It’s a humble way of wrapping up any one of his countless experiences over the past 40 years playing with the most famous musicians in rock and jazz: from Bob Weir and Carlos Santana to Wayne Shorter and Billy Cobham, (not to mention his role teaching music at the University of Southern California or an ill-fated shot at joining Genesis). A few days after sitting in with the Night Train Music Club- a weekly gathering of touring and session veterans at a Santa Monica club- Johnson discussed a few choice moments from his incredible “history.”

You have played bass with three bands that connect to the Grateful Dead; Bobby and the Midnites, The Other Ones, and Jazz is Dead. Is there a thread that connects the experiences aside from the repertoire?

They have interesting and challenging music. I always liked their music, but I wasn’t really a Grateful Dead fan. Phil Lesh didn’t play like any other bass player I’d heard before. The whole idea is to be able to paint myself into a corner and figure out how I’m going to get out of it. In each of those three situations there was music that I was given the ability to take whatever was originally there and make it my own. For me, that was the common thread.

Playing with the Night Train Music Club is certainly a similarly painted corner.

I like the challenge of showing up and not knowing what is going to happen. I just love that. For me it’s like when I first started playing music. The thing I loved about playing music was the joy of discovery. It’s a very unique experience.

When you get together to play with people you know or played with before, informally or formally, is it in hopes of recreating some magic or creating something new?

Definitely the latter. It’s difficult to repeat the past, and probably not that much fun. I like getting together with people that I’ve known for a long time, but I also like it when we both bring something new to the table.

When you are asked to join a group, how much of you as an individual, your style do you incorporate, and how much is serving the role and the material?

There is no formula. I just kind of show up, look at the foundation of the music, and then it’s really bouncing off everybody else. In Jazz is Dead, for instance, every time we changed a band member the music altered. The stuff I played before then became the foundation. I had to assess that with whatever new was going on. Same with Weather Report. We changed members a lot. To me it was frustrating, but elating at the same time. I got to play with all these great drummers who all brought something different to the music. That was exciting.

How did Jazz is Dead come about?

I got a phone call from T Lavitz saying he was putting a band together. Billy Cobham was going to be in it, and this young, hot guitar player named Jimmy Herring. Would I be interested? And my first response was, “Of course.”

So, the appeal wasn’t necessarily the music of The Grateful Dead, but the musicians involved?

Yeah, it was the fact that I was going to get to play with a different chemistry of a band. And, it was going to be fun.

In Santana, you were playing with a group that is known for Carlos and his brilliant guitar work, but also its multi-percussionist rhythm section. Was it difficult to assimilate into that setting?

I never think about that stuff when I am playing. It’s difficult to describe. With Santana, it was like getting on this big train, this locomotive. At first, I’m just going to hold on and enjoy the ride. After a while that’s not enough anymore. I had to find different ways to make it exciting for them, as well as for Carlos. And for my own personal satisfaction- take something and modify, or find a different way of making it work. It’s always a challenge.

Are you ever incorporating the emotions and feelings of your day into the performance?

Yes, exactly. If I have an argument with somebody or what I eat, it’s in the music.

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