FOR MANY MUSICIANS, LOSING a fingertip would be a career-ending nightmare. But the childhood accident that claimed Abe Laboriel, Sr.’s most important fretting finger didn’t prevent him from becoming one of the most successful session bassists in history. If anything, the injury contributed to the unique style that has captured the ears of countless artists, including Ray Charles, Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand, Al Jarreau, George Benson, Quincy Jones, Paul Simon, and Madonna. And that’s Laboriel anchoring “Let It Go” from the Frozen soundtrack, currently topping charts worldwide.
Laboriel came of age in an unusually artistic environment. His father was famed Mexican singer, songwriter, and actor Juan José Laboriel. “We had bohemian parties when I was growing up,” recalls Abe. “People from all over the world would recite songs or poetry, demonstrate ballet, or act scenes from plays. My father would take out the guitar and entertain everybody with singing and dancing. He participated in over 200 Mexican films, some of which he wrote the music for.” Abe’s mother was also a noted actress, and his elder brother, Johnny, sang with Los Rebeldes del Rock, one of Mexico’s first major rock-and-roll acts.

“When I discovered I could play bass, all doors became wide open. ”

Those weren’t the only remarkable influences. Abe’s parents, who migrated to Mexico City from their native Honduras, were of the Garifuna ethnicity—Afro-Caribbean people with a unique history, language, and musical style. “I wasn’t exposed to any of that until I was nine years old, when a cousin visited,” says the bassist. “I got up in the night for a drink of water and heard wailing in a language I didn’t know. I asked what was going on, and my parents revealed the whole Garifuna background and ancestry.”

abe-sideGarifuna rhythms informed Juan José’s guitar playing. “He sounded like an orchestra,” says Abe. “He would use his thumb to play bass lines and the remaining fingers to play melodies and chords at the same time. It was a very powerful experience to be raised hearing him play. He taught me to play with my remaining three fingers.”
Meanwhile, young Abe became infatuated with all styles of music. He devoured radio pop songs and the 45s passed along by his rock-star brother. The first two discs he owned were by country legend Buck Owens and jazz hipsters Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross. “I had no chance to develop prejudices about musical style,” he says.

At 21, Abe entered Boston’s Berklee College of Music as a guitarist, but switched to bass two years later. “When I discovered I could play bass,” he recalls, “all doors became wide open.” Instructors loved his playing so much they recruited him for their own projects. Abe made his recording debut with faculty member and famed vibraphonist Gary Burton, and played a pop date for singer Andy Pratt a few weeks later. “My life has never been the same since,” he says. “To date, I’ve played on more than 5,000 sessions.”

Laboriel dropped out for a few years while his physician wife completed her internship, serving as stay-at-home dad for their infant son, Abe Jr. (today a leading session drummer and a longtime member of Paul McCartney’s band). But at the urging of composer Henry Mancini, he moved to Hollywood and gradually broke into the session scene. Within two years he was one of Hollywood’s first-call bassists.

Around that time, Yamaha consulted Laboriel and other leading players while conceiving a new line of basses. “In 1977, their technicians came out and took notes,” he says. “And a year later, when Yamaha’s BB basses were released, they’d incorporated everything we suggested. It was an honor to know our advice hadn’t fallen on deaf ears.”

These days Laboriel favors basses from Yamaha’s TRB and TRBX lines. “The TRBX basses have an unusually deep sound that producers really like, so there’s been a lot of demand for them,” he notes. Laboriel plays both 4 and 5-string models, depending on the range of the required part. All his basses are stock. “The quality is always very high, so we don’t need to tweak them,” he says. “The pitch is impeccable, and the feel is ridiculous.” Laboriel usually records direct, unless a client requests an amplifier. He uses medium-gauge strings and keeps his action on the low side.

But Laboriel’s most important tools are his ears. “Years ago,” he recalls, “I heard a pastor say, ‘Listening is the greatest form of love that exists, because when people feel that someone is listening, they feel loved.’ Musicians are professional listeners, which means we’ve chosen the greatest form of love as our vocation. The advice I give all young musicians is to fall in love with listening. The more you listen, the more you truly understand musical languages and styles, and the more valuable you become. When Dolly Parton called, I could play with her with total conviction. When Ella Fitzgerald called, I could play with total conviction. It’s all because of those years of listening. Because when I listen, I listen with my whole heart.”