I am pleased to report that Alphonso Johnson will receive the 2010 Bass Player magazine Lifetime Achievement Award. The ceremony will take place on Saturday, October 23 at the evening event of Bass Player LIVE! 2010, after which Alphonso will perform along with David Garfield, Mike O’Neill and Leon “Ndugu” Chancler.
Alphonso is best known to Zawinul fans for his two-year stint with Weather Report. He first came to Joe and Wayne’s attention in 1973, when Weather Report shared a bill with Chuck Mangione in Johnson’s hometown of Philadelphia. Alphonso was Mangione’s bass player at the time and Wayne and Joe liked what they heard. They later invited him to audition during the recording of Mysterious Traveller. He had just turned 23 years of age.
“Alphonso Johnson had a lot,” Zawinul recalled years later. “He was young, he was bright, he was disciplined, and he could lay down a groove that hurt and that’s what I wanted.” Alphonso was the linchpin that enabled Weather Report to transition into its mature phase that led to a string of ground-breaking albums. On Mysterious Traveller, Johnson memorably improvised the bass hook that launched the band into a jam that produced the ultra-funky tune “Cucumber Slumber.” He also brought in the composition “Scarlet Woman.”
Johnson toured with Weather Report throughout 1974 and 1975, and when Chester Thompson took over the drum chair, the band jelled and produced some blistering music that can be heard on the album Live and Unreleased. He also played on the albums Tale Spinnin’ and Black Market. The last track on the latter was “Hernandu,” which Joe once described as “a great tune by Alphonso Johnson.”
Joe and Wayne’s respect for Alphonso remained undiminished decades later. When I casually mentioned Johnson’s name to Joe during a 2004 interview, his response was immediate and unequivocal: “Ohh! He had the funk, man! He was the funkiest of ‘em all–even more than Jaco.”
And in an interview last year, Wayne gave a more abstract but equally meaningful response when asked about Alphonso: “We liked the way he set a groove–we use to say a ‘loping’ kind of groove. And we liked him as a person. He was well-mannered. He was tall and he carried his height well. He didn’t have a problem with self-esteem. He didn’t hide behind his instrument, or hide behind being a musician. He was well-tutored by his mother and father. Miles [Davis] used to say, (imitating Miles), ‘Some people are raised well.’”
In addition to Chuck Mangione and Weather Report, Alphonso has performed or recorded with Santana, Woody Herman, The Crusaders, Bob Weir, George Duke, En Vogue, Wayne Shorter, Sergio Mendes, Tony Williams, Joe Williams, Gregory Hines, Eddie Henderson, Flora Purim, Quincy Jones, Lee Ritenour, Phil Collins, The Whispers, John McLaughlin, Jeffrey Osborne, Sarah Vaughan, Dori Caymmi, Carl Anderson, and The Meeting. He also has three albums under his own name.
Alphonso is also a music educator, and he is currently on the faculty of the University of Southern California Jazz Studies Department.
Bass Player LIVE! is an annual two-day event that “brings players, manufacturers, and artists together in an intimate environment for hands-on access to the latest instruments, equipment and instruction on playing technique and application.” Previous recipients of the Lifetime Achievement Award include Charlie Haden, Rocco Prestia, Tony Levin, Lee Sklar, Verdine White, Anthony Jackson, Will Lee, Oteil Burbridge, Leo Fender, Percy Heath, Milt Hinton, Jerry Jemmott, Al McKibbon, Joe Osborn, Chuck Rainey, Bobby Rodriguez, and Billy Sheehan.
Congrats to Alphonso. If you’re in L.A. in October, get out to the Key Club and give him his props.