Abraham Laboriel was a revelation upon his arrival on the thriving Los Angeles session scene in the mid ’70s. As the first studio bass player to bring an international perspective to his grooves, Laboriel introduced an array of innovative techniques, including flamenco strums and slaps; spirited slides, trills, and whoops; and two-handed fingerboard forays that pushed the limits of bass coordination. But dead ahead lay the track that would challenge even a man of Abraham’s creative means. “Waterwings,” written by keyboardist Don Grusin for the studio supergroup Friendship, appears on the band’s only studio album, the eponymously titled Friendship [1979, Elektra]. It’s a standout among a career of standout tracks because it pretty much includes all of Laboriel’s signature moves, as well as a killer vocal component. Oh, it also involves a made-up language by Abraham. We got an inside look at the piece from the man himself, and from Don Grusin.

By the time Friendship coalesced in the late 1970s, the group’s members were already long-term musical amigos. “In those days, there was a lot of studio work, and we played together all the time and became friends,” explains Laboriel. “We also used to play clubs like the Baked Potato, and pretty soon somebody asked [guitarist] Lee Ritenour to put together a band, rather than just release more albums under his own name.” In addition to Laboriel and Ritenour, Friendship comprised drummer Alex Acuña, saxophonist Ernie Watts, percussionist Steve Forman, and Grusin (brother of composer/pianist Dave Grusin) on keyboards.

“Waterwings” was tracked at Dreambreaker Studios in San Fernando, California, with engineer Don Murray at the controls. Laboriel used a Yamaha BB-2000 strung with medium-gauge La Bella roundwounds, plugged into a miked Acoustic 300 amp. Murray also ran a direct line into the board. The track was recorded live with isolation rooms for the percussion and sax, while the guitar and bass amps were baffled. “We’d always play together to have as much of a realistic feel as possible,” allows Abraham. “There was no click track, so we were really concentrating hard to make sure the tempo and the feel of the music were strong.”

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The song unfolds with Ernie Watts’s soprano sax sounding a mellifluous repeated motif in E major, as the keys and percussion offer gentle support (letter A). Abraham joins the proceedings at bar 9, with a rising line that grounds the harmony through to bar 18.

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At letter B, Laboriel advances a scintillating bass-and-vocal unison that extends through C. He recounts: “We were rehearsing and performing one day when Don Grusin said, ‘Abraham, do you mind if I write something for you — a song with a written-out bass line?’ Then maybe a week or so later, he showed up with ‘Waterwings.’ I was like, ‘What? Do you really expect me to play this?’” Laboriel laughs. Of the scat-like vocals, he says: “Don asked me to come up with some syllables that went with the melody — you know, like a nonsense language. I was overwhelmed; I wasn’t sure I could do it. But I applied myself, and little by little it started to come together, and maybe a week later I was able to play and sing it. Most people think it was totally spontaneous, but the music and the syllables were completely written out — although by the time of the recording, I was doing it from memory.” (Laboriel overdubbed the vocals after the bass part.) Abraham — known for his guitar-like, multi-fingered plucking technique — reports that after recording the album, he subsequently began playing sections B and C an octave higher. “It’s much harder to navigate the fingerings [in the lower octave]. I never again played it where written.” Built around two eight-bar-long repeating sections, the melodies of sections B and C are rich in chord-defining triads. But there is also much in the way of stressed upper-extension harmony, helping to create tension and interest. for example: the flatted 9th (Cn) over the dominant-functioning B chord in bars 19–20; the downbeat 11th and 9th, respectively, over the Em chord that carries through bars 21–22; and the An (9th) over the Gm chord in the back end of bar 23. Dig also how Laboriel uses subtle slides to embellish his part, such as during the first three bars of section B.

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The band kicks in fully at D — an upbeat Latin-tinged section — with a new sax theme from Watts (bars 51–58), subsequently harmonized by Ritenour upon its restatement. Here, Abraham opts for simple root-notes on beats two and four, enlivened by finger-popped fills in bars 54 and 62.  

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The Latin vibe continues throughout Grusin’s piano solo (letters EF), during which Laboriel conjures a series of supportive ideas and approaches. Highlights here include the subtle introduction of ghost-notes from bar 87 (as Watts introduces a sweet countermelody over Grusin’s ever-intensifying rhythms) and the playful scooped notes from bars 99 to 106. “That section was just a bit of fun, to create a Brazilian feeling,” says Abraham. “I was thinking of the sound of the cuíca [Brazilian friction drum].” Dig also his use of short rests and the Afro-Cuban-inspired beat-four anticipation of the changing downbeat chords throughout section F.

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The group drops the volume at G, as Laboriel launches into a killer solo that incorporates his innate melodicism and several trademark techniques. “Basically, at Berklee [College of Music] I was taught to think in terms of chord scales in relationship to developing a solo … but the ‘Waterwings’ solo was totally spontaneous. I just started to play, and if it sounded good and felt good, we kept it. We maybe ran the track three times and then put the solo together afterwards, so it was a composite.” Observe how the melodic arc of bars 127–130 subtly reflects the previous four bars. “I came up with a melody, and it just worked, you know,” he says, singing the 16th-based figure in bars 123–124. “Then I did it down a whole-step [from bar 127]. That way, instead of being a solo that meanders or is really scholastically correct, it became a little melody that people can remember.” Note also how Laboriel punctuates the first half of his solo with spirited trills. (Trill tip: Try using a single finger to oscillate rapidly between the frets, and don’t pay scrupulous adherence to the written notes; Abraham’s trills often loosely engird the principal note from above and below to produce that characteristic “zing.”) “Those little trills and scoops are very much part of my personality and way of expressing things. I’m particularly grateful that it’s consonant and that people like it.” The last eight measures of the solo can be broken down into two contrasting groups of four (139–142 and 143–146). “That approach was inspired by a conversation I had with [pianist] Joe Sample. He said that his favorite music has questions and answers, so inside a solo, you build a conversation and a dialogue.” Of the tricky-to-finger octaves in bars 139–142 he says, “I don’t have a consistent right-hand technique, but the first note is always the thumb, then an octave higher would be either the second or third finger. I just play with whatever finger is available.” The percussive strums that follow are another Abraham trademark. “The strums are done with everything except the thumb. But the thumb plays the low notes.” 

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Letter H echoes C — note how Laboriel plays the melody up an octave for the latter half of the section — while letter I revisits material from D, leading to a brief pit-stop over a C#m11 chord (bars 178–181) before a neat segue into Ernie Watts’ song-opening sax theme at J, which is transformed into an extended outro. Here, Abraham fleshes out his earlier part with syncopated phrases (bars 191 and 195), short flurries of 16ths (bars 201 and 205), and a couple of celebratory high-E “whoops” (bars 198 and 202). “Going to the high E like that had become one of my favorite things to do. Most basses only went to Eb.”

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Laboriel reflects: “‘Waterwings’ was really special because I’d never played anything quite that involved before. The band gave me the permission and authority to turn it into my own thing, and I became passionate about it. I slowly began to realize how much beauty Don Grusin had built into the song. I haven’t played it in a long time, although I did a performance in Switzerland with Vinnie Colaiuta, Paul Jackson Jr., and Tom Brooks [available on Abe Laboriel & Friends Live in Switzerland, 2004, Worship Alliance]. Also, Don invites me to occasional jazz festivals in Colorado, and we perform it together then.”

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Don Grusin On “Waterwings” & Abraham Laboriel

How did you get to know Abraham?

I had moved to Los Angeles, and Abe had moved to L.A. from Boston, and we’d drive together to the [San Fernando] Valley to rehearse for gigs we were playing at a jazz club called Dontes. It took forever to drive there in those days, so we had long conversations, and I learned so much about him and his family. It was a great time, and we immediately became friends.

How did the Friendship band come together?

We all used to work together, different guys that were all part of the same family, and at least once a week, Mondays or Tuesdays, we’d get together at the Baked Potato in the Valley, which was kind of like a recreation room. We’d all play and bring our songs and try them out for the first time. It was a lovely time, and you learned how to make things work in a club.

Can you recall your writing process for “Waterwings”?

I had a house in Ocean Park that had visual connection to the water, and I was sitting at the Fender Rhodes looking out at the Pacific Ocean, and the main melody slowly came to me. Abraham and Alex Acuna and I invented this language for the melody, called “Poridatalla,” which became the fake lyrics of the melody line. It was just a musical way of expressing the sensibility of the song. We’d been hanging around with Brazilians a lot, and part of the equation was the internationality of the music. I brought out the song, and everybody felt comfortable with it. I remember that we rehearsed it some; it was a community effort for sure.

What do you remember about recording “Waterwings”?

I think the recording was basically spontaneous. There were cues when somebody was running out of solo ideas [laughs], and then we’d all look at each other and we knew to go on to the next thing. We had probably honed the song at the Baked Potato, because that was the weekly jam session back then. We tracked it all together, and then we made repairs. I wouldn’t suggest it was like a perfect delicacy at first [laughs], but it was an easy kind of thing to fix. When you have [engineer] Don Murray — the cream of the crop — it’s not a big hassle. Abe might have a better memory of the recording session than I do; he’s still a lot younger than I am [laughs].

How do you rate Abraham as a bass player?

Abe is beyond a good bassist. His musicianship supersedes most people that I know. He’s a sublime musician and understands music from any quarter, all over the world. The fact that he plays some jazz or Latin music is one thing, but he also speaks some Italian, French, Portuguese, Spanish, English … he’s just so versed in the cultural communities of the world. He’s a reigning master of music in all of its parts. I think more than bass, he’s a master musician. He just happened to be like, “Well, I think I’ll just pick up the bass and make this thing work.” And he does.

What are you up to these days?

I recently finished a project with Abraham, Harvey Mason, Paul Jackson Jr., Ernie Watts, and a Japanese friend of mine, Minoru Mukaiya [former keyboardist of jazz-fusion group Casiopea]. We recorded a CD in Los Angeles called The Games —East Meets West 2018 [JVC, 2018], and we did three concerts last fall in Fukuoka, Osaka, and Tokyo, with a Japanese horn section. We had such a good time; it was great fun. I’ve also just recorded an EP called Populism Dystopia with Filippo Gaetani, an Italian friend of mine, which is available on Spotify. I’m also working on a project dedicated to friends who have passed on, mostly in the music business. It’s not a requiem by any means, but it’s a tribute record, and I’ve been working with a dozen artists. That will probably come out next year sometime.

Download the complete transcription: HERE

Read our full cover story on Abraham Laboriel: HERE