The early 70s found Alphonso in the Chuck Mangione Quartet for the breakthrough recording session “The Land of Make Believe,” where Johnson’s bass artistry first came to NEA Jazz Master saxophonist-composer Wayne Shorter’s attention. Quickly Alphonso was recruited to become Weather Report’s second distinctive bassist, following Miroslav Vitous’ departure. When Weather Report co-leader Joe Zawinul once credited Philadelphia with producing “the world’s greatest bassists,” he clearly had Alphonso in mind, as Johnson was the first in an auspicious line of Philly bassists to work with the soulful keyboard wizard.
Alphonso’s initial recording with Weather Report was the landmark “Mysterious Traveler.” And who could ever forget his incredible bass performance on “Cucumber Slumber” from that date. “Weather Report meant a lot; I learned so much, not just about music but about what’s necessary to be a successful bandleader – how to select compositions, little subtle things that you don’t learn in the classroom,”Alphonso reflects. Despite these path-finding experiences Alphonso Johnson possesses an insatiable hunger for knowledge and development.
Alphonso Johnson embodies the perpetual student. Some of his earliest bass studies were under the tutelage of former Duke Ellington bassist John Lamb, at the Philadelphia Music Academy. Those early formative studies came to a halt when Alphonso began his education on the road and in the studio at age 18. “Right after high school I had an instant career,” he recounts, “no time for school. I was blessed with opportunities to perform and record.” Despite those professional opportunities, Alphonso was never detoured from formal learning environments.
Based on his prodigious touring and recording experiences, in ’04 Alphonso was appointed to a teaching position at Cal Arts. Later that fall he was engaged at USC as an adjunct professor for The Flora L. Thornton School of Music in the jazz department. Though he clearly enjoys conveying his wisdom to aspiring musicians, “I knew certain musical concepts, but I didn’t know how to explain them,” which spurred his eventual return to the classroom as a student. Ongoing studies have taken the bass master to Cal State Northridge, where he is on track towards achieving a Masters degree in Music Education. “I wanted to be able to more intelligently convey my ideas and practical experiences,” though in reality he’s been a student throughout his career, perpetually thirsty for knowledge and advancement. “I was always in school; Chuck Mangione would switch from flugelhorn to piano, which changed my role as bassist in the band on the spot,” Alphonso recalls fondly.
These days Alphonso Johnson is “…filling my days with things that have to do with growth.” That sense of renewal includes a new band project and fresh compositions he’s extremely energized by. “I’ve been very excited about the process of getting the proper musicians for the project. I want this band to not be so comfortable, to be spontaneous.” His preferred instrumentation these days is keyboards, drums, voice and bass, roles for which he has recruited such esteemed players as keyboardist Gary Fukushima, Johnson’s former Weather Report rhythm section mate drummer Chester Thompson, and vocalist Billy Valentine, with whom he’s also collaborating on original lyrics for this exciting project. .
In addition to developing this very promising new ensemble, Alphonso’s busy career also includes a new relationship with the German bass company Warwick Basses, a relationship that finds him giving clinics and masterclasses at sites across the globe, and participating in their annual Summer Bass Camp. An affirmation of Alphonso Johnson’s bass mastery came when he was awarded the 2010 Lifetime Achievement Award by Bass Player Magazine. Though the road has been winding and auspicious, it seems the odyssey has only just begun for this bass master and man of exceeding grace, Alphonso Johnson.