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The Laboriel Legacy

A strong work ethic, diverse talents, and a genuine investment in the music they make have enabled two generations of the Laboriel family to thrive in the music industry.

By Mark Small '73

 
  Anthony Pidgeon

It's not uncommon for the tradition of studying music at Berklee to link generations of families together. Abraham Laboriel Senior '72 and his sons Abe Jr. '93 and Mateo '03 stand out among Berklee's notable legacy families.

Since his arrival in Los Angeles in 1976, Abraham has left an indelible mark on the music industry by adding his uniquely personal touch to more than 4,000 recordings during his four decades as one of the busiest studio bassists Los Angeles has ever produced.

Best known as a drummer, Abe Jr. plays various instruments, including bass, and is a gifted vocalist (to hear his duet with Mylène Farmer at an arena gig in Paris, click here). But despite his abundant musical talents, it's his extraordinary skills as a drummer that have earned him the opportunity to play on hundreds of recordings by top artists and to tour with many of the industry's brightest lights, including Sting, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, k.d. lang, Seal, and others.

The youngest of the trio graduated from Berklee's MP&E program just five years ago, but Mateo has already developed an enviable résumé, which lists credits as a songwriter, producer, and programmer for such names as Quincy Jones, Jamie Foxx, and Ashlee Simpson, and has made contributions to major motion picture soundtracks. Mateo has also supplied bass, guitar, and keyboard tracks to various studio projects.

Genesis

Growing up in Mexico City, Mexico, in the 1950s, Abraham started playing guitar at the age of six under the tutelage of his father, who was also a musician. Abraham's older brother was a member of Mexico's first major pop band, Los Traviesos, and recordings from American publishers hoping for Spanish-language covers of American hits were sent regularly to the Laboriel home. "The records were of all different styles, from Buck Owens to Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross," Abraham says. "As I played along with them, my tastes in music became very open, and I fell completely in love with American music."

 
"I feel like I am walking on clouds seeing my kids pursue music careers." Abraham Laboriel Sr.
 

The Laboriel-Berklee nexus can be traced to the late 1960s, when Abraham Sr. convinced his parents to let him pursue musical studies at Berklee after completing two years at Instituto Polytechnico Nacional studying aeronautical engineering. While living in Boston, Abraham spotted Lyn, his future wife, from his dorm window on the fifth floor of Berklee's 1140 Boylston Street building as she greeted students outside the Newman Center at Saint Clement's Church across the street. Now a pediatrician, Lyn was then a medical student at Boston University.

At Berklee, Abraham's principal instrument was guitar. But after discovering that he had an aptitude for bass guitar in 1971, he played the instrument in all his ensembles until he graduated the following year. The September after Abraham received his degree in jazz composition, Berklee faculty member Herb Pomeroy recommended him as the bassist for a show pairing Johnny Mathis and Count Basie. Mathis liked Abraham's playing and hired the young bassist to back him in concerts around the world. Between 1972 and 1974, in addition to working with Mathis, Laboriel made recordings with Gary Burton, Ella Fitzgerald, and others. During that time, Abraham and Lyn had married, Abe Jr. was born, and the couple relocated to Cleveland, Ohio, for Lyn's medical internship.

The Lure of the West

With his wife putting in more than 100 hours a week as an intern, Abraham decided to devote his time to taking care of Abe Jr., who was then two years old. "I pretty much put my musical activities on hold for two years and had the great privilege of spending that time raising him," Abraham says. In 1975, Abraham accepted an offer from Henry Mancini to come to Los Angeles to play on his Symphonic Soul album. During those sessions, Abraham met studio players that included guitarist Lee Ritenour, drummer Harvey Mason, and keyboardist Joe Sample. They told Abraham that if he moved to Los Angeles he would find plenty of work. But Lyn had one more year of residency to complete before they could relocate. The studio scene was constantly attracting musicians, and other great bassists had begun to make a name for themselves before Abraham arrived in 1976. "By the time I got there, Lee had started working with Anthony Jackson, Harvey had Louis Johnson, and Joe Sample had Pops Popwell," Abraham says. "So I spent the next two years wondering what I was going to do. Still, momentum took hold, and "little by little, gigs started picking up."

In 1976, Abraham played on only a few big album sessions, but things accelerated rapidly soon after. Abraham began fielding calls to make albums with the Pointer Sisters, George Benson, the Manhattan Transfer, Barbra Streisand, and dozens more. The rest truly is history, as Abraham says. Some 4,000 sessions later, he has seen the business change considerably, but his phone keeps on ringing.

"Everything is changing, but I've been really blessed that the people who call me are really enthused about my talent," Abraham says. "These days I get to do a mix of jingles, films, and album sessions. There is no steady diet of one kind of work like there used to be."

Despite having a busy music career, Abraham never lost sight of his role as a husband and father. As is readily evidenced by the fun the Laboriel siblings and their father had during the photo shoot and interviews for this story, the members of the Laboriel family enjoy one another's company and have profound love and respect for each other. Abraham Sr. described the time a few years ago when Lyn was hospitalized for several weeks with life-threatening complications after surgery. Abraham, Abe Jr., and Mateo dropped everything to take alternate shifts round the clock at the hospital so a family member would constantly be at her side as she recovered.

All three Laboriels say that music was constantly in the air at home. "The record collection was thick with everything: classical, jazz, rock, folk, and ethnic music," says Abe Jr. "We listened all the time. Our mother brought home such things as the Bulgarian Women's Choir when they were new." Abraham Sr. adds, "Lyn was a great contralto singer. She had great training and exposed our children to very high-quality classical music. Once she took them to see [opera singer] Joan Sutherland perform."

There was a lot of jamming in the house too. "I started hitting pots and pans at two or three," says Abe Jr. "When I was four, Jamey Haddad gave me a little drum set, and I started to play with my father. I learned from playing for my dad that within a bar there is a lope and you can manipulate that. I remember being young and him asking me to play something on the drums for him. After I'd been grooving for five minutes, and he tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'That was a good bar.' I'd played all this stuff, and he singled out just one bar that felt good! This started a dialogue, and I realized that there were subtleties I had to be aware of in a groove."

Abraham sometimes took his young sons to studio sessions. Consequently, both Mateo and Abe Jr. became very comfortable in a studio environment. Abe Jr. would talk to the players. "My dad was playing with drummers like Steve Gadd and Jeff Porcaro," Abe Jr. says. "I'd pick their brains to find out how they thought about time and where they placed things.

"Abe would ask Jim Keltner and others about why a song felt one way at a certain moment and a different way in another," says Abraham. "They would just start sharing all kinds of things with him. Both Abe and Mateo seemed to ask the right questions. I remember when Mateo was really young, he came to the studio and was watching a guy working on sound effects for a movie. He was putting in gunshots, and Mateo told him that they weren't in sync," Abraham says with a laugh. "But he actually let me place a few of them," Mateo adds.

Although there were plenty of indicators, it was hardly a foregone conclusion that both Laboriel brothers would study music and pursue careers in the business. Mateo, who is seven years younger than Abe Jr., says, "For a long time, I asked myself if I wanted to become a musician just because my father and brother were doing it or if it was right for my life. I picked up guitar in high school, but had played piano, French horn, and saxophone before that. I went to college first for anthropology, but while I was studying academic subjects, I realized that I really missed music. I had been using the recording gear we had around the home and started making beats. That started a fire in me, and I knew I wanted to learn how to shape sound. I transferred to Berklee after two years at the other school and majored in MP&E."

For Abe Jr., Berklee was his first choice for college, but he still had to decide on a major. "I got my degree in music synthesis," he says. "I was a drum set player, but I wasn't that interested in the curriculum for drum performance majors. Music synthesis really excited me from a production standpoint, and I learned a lot. It was a great experience all around. The Music Synth department was very cutting edge, and there was a lot to dig into."

No Coattails

While Abe Jr. was still a Berklee student, he got to work with his father as the rhythm section for records by saxophonist Justo Almario '71, singer Dianne Reeves, and others. Despite that introduction and Abraham's reputation, both Abe Jr. and Mateo have not simply ridden their father's coattails into the business. They had to build reputations based on their own unique abilities.

"When I moved back to L.A. after Berklee, I started playing around town with Tribal Tech," Abe Jr. recalls. "At one of their gigs, someone mentioned that Steve Vai was auditioning drummers. I learned that the auditions were closed, but I went down anyway to ask if I could audition. They said no. I asked if I could hang out and, if someone didn't show, maybe I could take the spot. I waited around, and after five or six hours, someone didn't show. I was allowed to play, and I ended up getting the gig. At that point, I didn't play double bass drums or odd times, and I'd never sung while playing drums. Steve wanted me to do all that. I learned quite a bit doing that gig.

"Every gig I've gotten since can be traced back to my work with Vai. We were on the road, and a band called Eleven was opening for us. They were friends with Seal and recommended me to him when he was looking for a drummer. I ended up joining his band. When Seal's tour got to L.A., it was the first time he had played here, and a lot of producers came to the show. When Seal played Saturday Night Live, tons of people saw that show. I started getting called for sessions as a result. The exposure helped a lot."

With his own reputation now firmly established, Abe. Jr. gets calls from producers wanting to pair him with his father. The word is out that the two have a unique understanding of rhythm and groove and feel time the same way. In a rhythmic sense, the effect might be compared to the homogenous blend that vocalists from the same family can achieve. "Abe and I have done a lot of sessions together," says Abraham. "We get calls to be the rhythm section, and that's really fun." Mateo adds, "Their lockup is like a heartbeat."

Abe Jr. recounts a time when a young producer asked him to play both bass and drum parts for a recording. Preferring interaction with other players to overdubbing, Abe Jr. asked without explanation if he could bring his dad to the session. "I guess the guy was unaware that my father was a musician and figured I wanted my dad there for moral support or something," Abe Jr. says. "He said it was OK for him to be there. Once we started playing together, he understood how much better his tracks were going to turn out."

In addition to the occasional session, Abraham and Abe Jr. also play in a group called the Jazz Ministry that is led by keyboardist and studio mainstay Greg Mathieson. The band also features studio guitar superstar Michael Landau. Whenever their busy schedules align, they book a gig at Los Angeles's famed jazz club the Baked Potato and pack the place. The band has also released a live record (visit www.gregmathieson.com).

Beat Making

While Mateo plays several instruments, he found his way into the business via hip-hop based on his ability to create catchy beats. "One of the first gigs I got after I left Berklee was working with Jamie Foxx," Mateo says. "I had been back in L.A. for a few months when I went to see producer Bill Maxwell, a family friend. He is big in the gospel music community, and I played him some of my beats, seeking his advice on whether the quality was high enough and if he had ideas for what I should do next. He said, 'I dig this stuff, but I don't know the hip-hop world very well.' He took me to meet Jamie Foxx. I played him my beat CD, and he started freaking out and put me together with a writer named Tank. We cowrote the song 'Unpredictable' that Jamie recorded. Jamie and I worked together at his home studio creating all kinds of stuff for about a year. Through him, I met other people, including Raphael Saadiq."

Another step forward for Mateo was the opportunity to work with Quincy Jones on the compilation CD We All Love Ennio Morricone, featuring the music of Italian film composer Ennio Morricone.

"When that came up, I had done a few projects, but I was still pretty young in the game," Mateo says. "I got a call from Quincy, and he said he'd been hearing things about me from Jerry Hey [studio trumpet player/producer], who told him I was the kid to call for programming. He asked me to help him on the Morricone project. I went to the studio, and there were Quincy, Jerry Hey, and Rod Temperton. The musicians on the sessions included Herbie Hancock, Patti Austin, Vinnie Colaiuta, Neil Stubenhaus, [and] Paul Jackson Jr. These were people I'd grown up around, but to be working with them was a different experience. I set up the rhythmic bed for the cut 'The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly' and did the vocals as well."

Since Abraham Sr. entered the studio scene, the process of recording music has changed. When he recorded tracks during the 1980s for Al Jarreau, the Manhattan Transfer, Lionel Richie, and James Ingram, groups of musicians played together in the studio. These days his sons have far less interaction with other musicians in the studio.

Abe Jr.'s entrance on the scene represents a bridge, of sorts, to this new era in recording. "I came in on the end of the time when groups played together in the studio," says Abe Jr. "After Pro Tools became an industry standard, everyone wanted more control, so they would record the drums at a different time. It got to the point where I'd play on a record but never play live with the other musicians. It has gone even further now; I don't even go to a big studio. Mateo and I engineer our own sessions, record the drums in our little studio, and then send the files back. Many times I never even get to shake hands with the artist or producer."

Sacred Bovine Studio

In their small studio in Burbank, Abe Jr. and Mateo now work together. They haven't officially formed a production company yet, but the studio enables them to pool their production, songwriting, and instrumental skills. They complement each other's musical interests, creating a broad spectrum for the work they can undertake. "Even though we're from the same family, we're from different musical worlds," says Abe Jr. "I come from rock 'n' roll and pop, Mateo is the hip-hop and r&b guy. The two of us play off of each other. Eventually, we want to become a production team.

"We call our place Sacred Bovine Studio - in other words, 'Holy cow, we have a studio!' We've been there for a few years and have made a few records and done a couple of songs for the movies Shrek III and Brat. We are trying to find artists and develop things. We've got good material, great management, and access. It is really about finding the right artists at this point."

Earlier this year, the pair did production work at Sacred Bovine Studio for Ashlee Simpson's song "Little Miss Obsessive." "I was asked to play drums on it," Abe Jr. says. "There was a lot of info on the track that hadn't been sorted. We took it and redid guitars and bass, reprogrammed the main drum track and I played on top of that. We cleaned up the tune but kept the heart that was already in it."

When Abe Jr., the road warrior of the family, gets called for a tour, the brothers' work gets put on hold. For the past few months, he has been alternating tours with McCartney and Eric Clapton. "There were shows with Paul in May in Liverpool and Kiev," Abe Jr. says. "I went out with Clapton in June, and in July there are some dates in Quebec and elsewhere with Paul. In August I will play in Europe and Scandinavia with Eric. I get to juggle my heroes."

For Abraham Sr., passing on a music tradition to his children is enormously satisfying.

"I feel like I am walking on clouds seeing my kids pursue music careers," says Abraham. "After Abe did his first recording with Paul McCartney, Paul invited our whole family to come to the studio and listen to three or four mixes that were Paul's favorites. Abe was excited to tell me that he and Paul were singing together on the same mic. Everything sounded great, and I got a bit emotional. I asked Paul to forgive me; I didn't want to take anything away from his moment. I told him I was sitting in the exact place I was in 20 years before when Abe told me during a session I was doing with Terry Bozzio that he had decided he wanted to become a studio musician. It hit me that I was in the same place, but now I was listening to Abe playing on a Paul McCartney album. It was a great moment."

The Laboriel Ideal

While each of the three Laboriels has a different skill set and musical interests, they share a lot of common ground. They get excited about some of the same musical ideas. And that translates into a unique sound in the music: Mateo says that some of the recordings they've worked on together have a certain feel because they are family. While the Laboriels have no concrete plans at present, Abe Jr. says all three are open to the possibility of making a recording together. "Every so often, my sons will call me to their studio to put a bass part down on something they have written. We've started to accumulate a bunch of ideas."

For now, they continue to be in high demand to apply their expertise to various musical projects. "When Mateo and Abe work on other people's music, those people realize they have been helped by a team that has a special gift," Abraham says proudly.

"I think what a lot of people hear is that we really care about the music we work on," adds Mateo. "A lot of people will take a job just to make some money, but if you put your heart into it, you get back tenfold."

"We are hoping to be part of a legacy of musicians who care about what they play," adds Abraham Sr. "We've shown the people who hire us that we aren't there to just take the money and run."

"I think that's why we get as much work as we do," says Abe Jr. "We don't know how to do it any other way."