Alphonso Johnson

 

The renowned bassist-composer-bandleader-educator, Chapman Stick artist and proud Philadelphia native Alphonso Johnson is a deeply spiritual man of great humility. Alphonso has amassed an incredible recorded discography and a robust history of enhancing countless auspicious bandstands during his impressive career. With a touring and recording biography dating back to a youthful big band experience, the frontiers of jazz fusion and numerous genre-defying affiliations, he is not only one of the pioneering figures on the bass guitar, he’s also a recognized MVP on whatever bandstand is graced by his artistry, whatever classroom is blessed with his wisdom, and whatever original music landscape requires his composition.
Even a partial reading of Alphonso Johnson’s touring and discographical career is beyond category and impressive in scope & breadth. Johnson’s experiences range literally from Cannonball Adderley to Joe Zawinul; his resume includes the Woody Herman’s Young Thundering Herd, Chuck Mangione, Weather Report, the CBS All-Stars (Tom Scott, Billy Cobham, Steve Khan), Santana, the Crusaders, The Meeting (with Ernie Watts, Leon “Ndugu” Chancler, and Patrice Rushen), En Vogue, George Duke, Sergio Mendes, Gregory Hines, Tony Williams, the Grateful Dead/Jerry Garcia tribute band Jazz is Dead, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Chet Baker, Phil Collins, the Billy Cobham/George Duke Band, Flora Purim, Jeffrey Osborne, John McLaughlin, Bob James, The Whispers, and NEA Jazz Masters Sarah Vaughan, Joe Williams, and Quincy Jones.

 

 

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.
 
A major goal of Johnson’s education pursuits – from both student and teacher perspective – is to further develop his already impressive composition skills. Somewhat of an organic composer – “…in the car a melody comes up and you react immediately, send it to voicemail, and accept it for what it is…” – Johnson contributed to Weather Report’s book during that period, and has advanced to broaden those skills on both sideman stints and on his own projects and recordings. His first film scoring effort was a soundtrack for the children’s film “Sound of Sunshine, Sound of Rain.” It was nominated for an Academy Award in 1983. These days, as his compositional outlook broadens, Alphonso suggests that “I compose from the mindset of a different person, someone a lot more curious and willing to take chances; I’m now open to many possibilities.”
Life has not been without its challenges for Alphonso; he’s a cancer survivor. In ’07 he was diagnosed with stage four cancer, which had spread to his lymph nodes. Fortunately he and his doctor had the foresight to embark on a very aggressive chemo/radiation treatment regimen that lasted nearly four months. “After treatment I was physically and spiritually in a place where I’d cleaned house and wanted to build a new path.” Blessed with this heightened consciousness he became more spontaneous, more willing to live in the moment. Fortunately Alphonso didn’t have to go through this struggle alone, giving great credit to his wife’s selfless dedication to his recovery and the love of his two sons.

 

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.