LUIS ESPAILLAT (S+π+YACHT) = THE MUSICAL EQUIVALENT OF BASSLINE BRILLIANCE
Luis Espaillat has the ability to stop you in your tracks. Whether it’s hesitation in pronouncing his last name or watching him play bass guitar, you will stop and feel something. To assist those who are wary of venturing past his first name, his wife came up with an equation: Espaillat = S + π + YACHT (in picture form). This translation now adorns his guitar picks and a bracelet he wears when he plays. In that equation lies the embodiment of a bass player that was born to speak through that instrument. As π represents a mathematical constant, the bass represents a musical constant in Luis’ life. It would seem he was born with a bassline, measured as a vital sign to ensure his overall well being. His birthplace was Flint, Michigan. Perhaps the city name was a foreshadowing of what would happen when Luis’ passion for music met the object of his desire. Like flint on steel, sparks flew. His parents would have a significant influence on his creative choices growing up, increasing the odds that he would find his niche. Once he put his fingers on a bass guitar, his pulse became its rhythm. The mathematical certainty of his success was just a matter of time.
While Flint, Michigan can claim to be the birthplace of our soon to be famous bass player, he didn’t stay there long. He moved around a lot as a kid, eventually settling in Sebring, Florida at the age of 10. His music education, however, began at age five. At home, he was immersed in creative inspiration. His father was a doctor, but had considered the seminary and been a part of the choir. He was a classical music fan and Luis quickly absorbed his dad’s love of music. His mother excelled at the visual arts. She was an oil painter and he joined her in painting and ceramics classes. Together, they took piano lessons as well. While mom found success in the arts, Luis found his in music. His love for music and desire to do it made him a natural at the piano. On the path to finding his true musical muse, he learned to play a few other instruments. In middle school, he played the trumpet. In high school, he switched to the baritone horn. To further his music experience, his parents bought him a synthesizer and he started playing keyboards with rock bands during high school. With π representing the nexus of his musical equation, he was one step closer to solving it.
Towards the latter half of his high school years, Luis said despite playing keys in rock bands, the bass just kept nagging at him. He was quick to point out that he was never interested in learning the guitar. Bass was always his first thought. Thinking he would wait and ask for a cheap bass for Christmas or scrounge up enough money to buy it himself, the day came when he decided he wasn’t waiting any longer. Bass in hand, he taught himself to play by listening to records in his bedroom. The first thing he learned was Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall, Part 2.” He had the bass tablature transcription, but the song didn’t sound right when he played it. On further inspection, he discovered that reading the directions was vital to getting the right sound. “Tune down your low string to D” suddenly jumped off the page. This would be just the first lesson he would learn about the instrument he loves. When I asked, “Why bass?,” he didn’t have to think about the answer. Turns out, it was the solution to the equation. If S = rhythm and yacht = melody, π representing bass is the connecting force between the rhythm section and the melodic instruments. It’s raison d’etre is to get people moving. His favorite quote about the role of the bass came from Michael Anthony, bass player for Van Halen. He said that the guitar has tonalities that touch your soul. The bass touches you in places you can’t mention. Who can argue with a rock star?
To continue his bass education in a more formal setting, Luis joined the pop band at a local community college after high school. At the time, he had minimal training. This would be a good first step in learning to “play well with others.” The music professor at the college played bass in this band prior to Luis’ taking on that role. He taught him about listening to the drummer and feeling the bass from there. Over the year, he gained valuable experience in playing bass and it led to his decision to continue his studies at Berklee College of Music in Boston. The biggest asset he found to his years at Berklee was getting to play with so many different people from various countries and backgrounds. Learning to get along in this multicultural environment was an asset that would serve him well as he went off after graduation to pursue a career as a professional musician. After four years of college level instruction, it was time to hang the degree and go play.
Post-graduation, Luis decided to stay in Boston for awhile and test the musical landscape. He played with a couple of local acts and got his first discography credit with Jaye Foucher. During the day, he worked in a music store. A drummer he knew from Berklee who was making the move to Nashville suggested he think about moving there too. Luis wanted to be a session player and many of the guys from Berklee had gone to New York, Los Angeles, or Nashville in pursuit of such work. When a friend encouraged him to fly to Nashville with him to check it out, he agreed. Considering what he’d already done in Boston, it was pointed out to him that he’d most likely exhausted his musical limits there. Against being true to π = bass playing, which could not be fully expressed through the small fraction of opportunities available in Boston, it was time to give another city serious consideration. One visit to Nashville and he was sold.
Returning to Boston, Luis and his friend, Chris, packed up their belongings and drove to Nashville in September of 1997. This move would lead to the transcendence of his bass playing (=π) to a musical circle, where the possibilities never end. Proof that Nashville was the right answer, he landed his first gig within 48 hours of his arrival. A friend had invited him to come out and see a band with him. At the show, the bass player for Laura Darling (the act they came to see) offered Luis his job. The probability of this happening to anyone else, given these variables, is likely zero. From there, he went on to play with Lisa Turner. It wasn’t long after Luis’ move to Nashville that he got a dose of reality he wasn’t prepared for. His friend and roommate, Chris, had taken a gig with a Christian band in mid-January of 1998. Just two weeks into that tour, Luis got a phone call telling him that Chris had died in an accident involving black ice. He’d never had a friend die before, and this brought life’s harsh realities plainly into focus. A few weeks after the accident, he met another drummer while working at Sam’s Music that had just moved to town from Illinois. They became fast friends and roommates. He played some sessions with Kory Knipp (his new drummer roommate), did some local gigs, worked at the music store, and continued to build his resume over the next two years. Building a reputation in Nashville, and paying the bills, often requires taking on an array of jobs until you can either balance the fractions to your liking or satisfy your needs with just one gig.
In late 1999, Luis auditioned for a gig with Lila McCann and didn’t get it. He was still splitting his time between multiple activities, but the numbers weren’t adding up the way he’d hoped. That same night, he played a Billy Block show at the Exit/In with Kory and expressed his disappointment at the way things were going. Kory told him he thought he had something that would change his direction and perhaps his fortune. What Kory pulled him into would become Luis’ first rock deal, Hot Action Cop. The band was formed in 2001 with original members, Rob Werthner (lead vocals, guitar), Tim Flaherty (guitar), Luis Espaillat (bass), and Kory Knipp (drums). Shortly thereafter, they added keyboardist, Daniel Feese. Signed to Lava/Atlantic Records, they released their debut album, Hot Action Cop, in 2003. They toured the world and found success with their single, “Fever for The Flava,” which was also recorded as a video. The song was featured in five movies, one of which the band also appeared in, The Real Cancun. Both Kory and Luis decided to quit the band before the second record came out. Luis, however, did return for the session recording of that EP, playing alongside drummer, Miles McPherson (Paramore, Kelly Clarkson).
Luis reflected that while he got to play rock star and tour the world in that rock interlude, he lost touch with Nashville during his absence. What he gained in avoiding settling into a hired gun repetitive pattern, he countered with a loss in building a studio career. When he came back to Nashville to settle into a new work habit, he found the circle repeating itself. Despite his rock success and the padding of his resume, the ratio of job opportunities to the level of his abilities hadn’t changed. Working his way back into the scene in late 2004, the first call he got for a gig was from Lila McCann in 2005. She had some work and wanted him to play with her. Over the next couple of years, the session work picked up and he added gigs with LoCash Cowboys and Megan Mullins. He balanced the variables, adding and subtracting from his workload as time permitted. By 2007, he was ready to take on a widening list of variables, the scheduling of which would manifest itself as more of a polynomial expression than a tour schedule.
In 2007, a friend of Luis’ recommended him to American Idol alum, Bo Bice. The audition consisted of going to Bo’s house and playing. Nailing that test, he was in. He joined Bo at the time of his first post-Idol release, See The Light. At the first rehearsal, he met guitar player, Phil Shouse. This meeting would have a ripple effect up through the present. Alongside his gig with Bo Bice, he added playing with Johnny Hiland and Jamie O’Neal for the balance of 2007 and 2008. He accompanied Bo on his first USO Tour in October of 2008, traveling to Kuwait and Iraq. Further adding to the complexity of this equation, he added some session work and played with salsa bands around town. Luis said that all of these projects fit perfectly together over those two years and he was able to maintain the work load. It sounds like Luis’ bass playing did it’s best to equal π as a constant.
Settling into his country rhythm, Luis spent the years from 2009 to late 2011 playing mostly with Jimmy Wayne and Sunny Sweeney. At the beginning of 2009, he subbed a couple of dates with Colt Ford before beginning headlining dates with Jimmy Wayne. That summer, they toured as the opening act for Brad Paisley along with Dierks Bentley. At the conclusion of that tour, Jimmy decided to do a charity walk from Nashville to Phoenix which would cover a six month span. Other than a few one-off gigs during that time, the work largely died off. In 2011, he was hired as the band leader for Sunny Sweeney. That summer, he found himself back out on tour with Brad Paisley, along with Eden’s Edge, The JaneDear Girls, Jerrod Niemann, and Blake Shelton. It was a summer he fondly remembers for the release of Sunny’s smash hit, “From a Table Away,” and the bluegrass jams he said occurred nightly by the bus. As the holidays approached, he got a call that would quickly put him back in the rock world.
On Thanksgiving morning, 2011, he was awakened by a call from someone associated with the rock band, Tantric. Their bass player wasn’t working out and they needed someone to fill in for the next 3 ½ weeks starting, uh, now! They wanted him to sing and play bass, which meant learning the lyrics to 18 songs rapidly. Luis agreed to meet the bus on Sunday in Louisville, Kentucky. That evening, they called back. The new request was to fly him into North Carolina in the morning so he could play with them on Friday night. This would require learning the bass parts to those 18 songs along with all the song lyrics in less than 24 hours. Telling them he’d get back to them, he consulted his wife. Looking for a way out, she didn’t give him one. She questioned his professionalism and his manhood and told him to get on the plane in the morning. He spent the few hours he had before that very AM flight cramming in his office. There were notes for the music, but he said there’s no way to fake the lyrics. He didn’t sleep for three days, but pulled off the gig as a professional would. His advice: avoid using charts whenever possible. It increases your stock value as a player. At the end of his brief stint with Tantric, he returned to Sunny Sweeney for a batch of dates leading up to Country Radio Seminar in March of 2012. He was then hired as the band leader for Greg Bates but the gigs never amounted to much. When he got a call from the tour manager of Tantric, he jumped on the rock opportunity they pitched him. Eve To Adam was a rock band out of New York City with a record deal and label funding behind them. They had a tour bus and he would have a guitar tech. Sweet! And they were opening for Creed (feel free to gasp here). They had a record coming up with a big name producer. The critically acclaimed, Banquet for a Starving Dog, charted, as did their hit single from that album, “Reach.” Fresh off the Creed Tour, Eve To Adam toured with Halestorm and In This Moment on the Jagermeister Presents Tour that kicked off in November of 2012. While on tour with Eve To Adam, one of the bands they toured with was Texas Hippie Coalition. This association would test the theory of thermodynamics in a concert setting. This was a heavy metal band from Denison, Texas. Luis said they had the look of a gang touring clubs. Sharing the stage one night, the guitar player’s internal energy released itself in a move that sent the point of his guitar (described as an EVH Wolfgang model), into Luis’ forehead. This thermodynamic interaction resulted in bloodshed. Unfazed by this, our bass playing hero didn’t stop playing. By the end of 2013, Luis decided that he was losing out on too many sessions with the constant touring and headed back to Nashville to seek new employment.
At the tail end of 2013, Luis had gotten a call from fellow bass player, Tully Kennedy, about a band they were putting together for Lindsay Ell. He had already written his exit letter for Eve To Adam and was excited about the prospect of touring with Lindsay. By January of 2014, Lindsay and her new band were headed out to open for The Band Perry. The killer band she had backing her consisted of Stephan Laplante on guitar, Luis on bass, and Mark Poiesz on drums. At the conclusion of that tour, the only other date he had on the books with Lindsay was CMA Fest. She went back into the studio and he went back to playing sessions while waiting for other dates with Lindsay. Most musicians who tour out of Nashville play sessions as well. It strikes a balance that is possible only in Nashville. As connections go in a town built on six degrees of separation (or less), session work often leads to touring gigs and vice versa.
Luis and Stephan Laplante were tapped by fellow Berklee alum, Ken Tondre, to back his duo, Waterloo Revival, on a showcase they were playing in October of 2014. That showcase led to their being signed by Scott Borchetta of Big Machine Label Group. That same month, he was the house bass player for Rich Redmond’s Drummer Weekend event where he got to play with 20 drummers over two days. A session that Luis had played previously with John Coleman, Trace Adkins’ keyboardist and band leader, led to Luis being pulled in when the band needed a sub. He had a few weeks to learn the material before he was asked to play the first show with Trace, and being prepared was what sealed the deal on his being asked to stay with the band. He said it’s important not to look like a deer in the headlights when you get on stage with someone new for the first time. A week after he played the Music City Bowl with Trace, he was asked if he wanted the gig. Playing without charts and knowing the material tells the artist the job is important to you. Odds are, you’ll get the gig. Luis is enjoying the tour with Trace, saying he’s very complimentary of the band and his bandmates are all exceptional players. Having just seen them play together, they perform like a band that’s been together a long time, and Luis’ recent inclusion doesn’t show in the slightest.
The constant of his bass playing (= π) has found a home based out of Nashville that allows him to participate in other projects alongside his touring duties. Luis met Judd Fuller, bassist for Rodney Atkins, back when he was the band leader for Greg Bates and they were opening for Rodney. Together, they now play in a band called The Drop Shots. His connection to Phil Shouse, guitarist for Rodney Atkins, goes back to their days playing with Bo Bice. Through Phil, he was introduced to guitarist, Jeremy Asbrock. Together, they’ve done Metal At The Mercy, which has become Thee Rock N’ Roll Residency. Just recently, Luis was part of a bass night with the Residency that saw him in rotation with three other bass players. He also played on the first three tracks of a benefit record with Tesla drummer, Troy Luccketta, which is available for purchase (http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/misterbolinslnr). All of the projects Luis is involved in are a credit to what he’s learned being a bass player. Playing well with others is the crux of being that bridge between the rhythm section and the melodic section of a band. Part of that is feeling where the drummer sets the meter and finding the right bass groove within the parameter that’s been set. Luis is a player truly in touch with the music, and it shows in his connection to the instrument and to his fellow players.
A bass player as skilled as Luis Espaillat and as passionate about the instrument as he is, is not without equally strong influences. The players he listed without hesitation were Geddy Lee, bassist and vocalist for RUSH, and Guy Pratt, bassist for Pink Floyd during the Delicate Sound of Thunder and P*U*L*S*E World Tours in 1987 and 1994. He recalled seeing Guy Pratt play with Pink Floyd in Orlando in 1988. The impression left was of a slap solo he played that Luis reviewed saying, “He killed it.” The passion with which he told me of this event seemed no less than his reaction to having seen it for the first time. One of the things Luis still remembers about his graduation ceremony at Berklee was a quote by the commencement speaker, STING. He said, “Music is the ultimate religion. It’s a belief system. It’s passion. It’s spiritual.” Seeing how Luis relates to the music through his playing, his musical voice exudes that statement.
At the end of high school, when Luis connected with a bass guitar for the first time, he said, “I found my voice. This is the language I speak, where you feel comfortable expressing yourself.” He followed it by saying that his love for the bass goes back to well before he considered playing it. The ubiquity of π = Luis’ bass playing makes it a musical constant both inside Nashville and beyond. His considerable resume, passion for playing, exceptional skills, and impeccable work ethic have made him a reputable bass player in a town that’s not light on talented musicians. To be called upon in some of the situations he’s been, shows the trust the music community has in the probability of his success in any project. But as good as he is as a session player, he comes to life in a live performance. Watching him play is like seeing music breathe and groove through his passionate interaction with the players around him. His bass playing is performance art that should be lauded for its rarity and celebrated for its ability to make you feel something as passionately as he does. Luis S + π + YACHT = bassline brilliance, and that, as assuredly as π, is a constant.
CONNECT WITH LUIS ESPAILLAT!
Catch Luis on tour with Trace Adkins! Visit Trace’s website for tour info: http://traceadkins.com/tour.
The photos of Luis playing with Thee Rock N’ Roll Residency at Dan McGuinness were taken by Bill McClintic of 90 East Photography.
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