Symphonic Planet co-founder discovers unique music niche exploring various cultures
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
August 17, 2020
Born into a musical family, Noor Che’ree is a multi-instrumentalist, producer, and music entrepreneur. Noor attended University of Florida and Santa Fe College, both in his hometown of Gainesville, Florida, and served as a member of the United States Marine Band. After spending time as a “struggling musician” in Los Angeles, Noor co-founded Symphonic Planet with acclaimed violinist Jonas Petersen. Symphonic Planet is a musically expressive vehicle used by Che’ree and Petersen, who describe themselves as “media creatives on a mission to inspire others with our discovery of music and culture with the world.” The Symphonic Planet team travels to remote locations to capture sound phenomena which are, in turn, transformed into musical compositions exemplifying various cultures across the globe. Symphonic Planet’s debut recording, Destination Imagination, was released in 2019 by Almond Trail Music.
FBPO: You’ve got a very interesting background. I understand your parents gave you your initial exposure to music.
Noor: They certainly did. I grew up in a musical family. I was a first-generation American. My father’s from Malaysia. I didn’t know this for a long time, until about, maybe 15 years old, when I was visiting Malaysia for the first time, I found out my dad was a pop star there. He kept that a mystery and secret for most of my life. His name is Ali Che’ree. He was a songwriter. He is an astounding bassist as well, and my mother is a traditional folk Venezuelan musician, so I had that growing up as a child. My dad was studying nuclear physics, and then he decided to make a change and focus on making a living through music and focus on playing jazz. As a child, I was used to seeing my father teaching and playing with groups from A to Z.
FBPO: Where were you living at the time?
Noor: I grew up in Florida. During my upbringing in the ‘90s, it was a pretty hot time down there, some fantastic musicians. So, that’s what I grew up with. My father played with a lot of people. I watched him perform with salsa bands and jazz groups. He played with Wynton Marsalis, The Yellowjackets at one point, I think. We had a lot of interesting people coming through our little town. My parents divorced when I was a kid, and my father met his current partner that he’s been with her a long time now. She is a professional flutist from Poland. I was exposed to such an eclectic variety of music growing up. I wasn’t so hip to what was on the radio as much. I was always exposed to different things that my parents were doing, and they were learning what clients wanted them to play at their weddings. My dad and I also had a little bit of a sound business. The local community, the city’s jazz foundation, would hire musicians and fly them to our town to give these exquisite concerts, and my dad and I were the sound engineers.
FBPO: How did you gravitate to the bass?
Noor: I started with piano, and then eventually I went over to saxophone. That’s when a big introduction to jazz really came in. I was listening to sax players. I just couldn’t get my hands off of Dexter Gordon and these great saxophone players. I just went deep into the bebop and discography. I listened to all. It wasn’t just sax players. My first CD my dad burned for me included Bird & Diz, Clifford Brown, Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck, Sarah Vaughan… Then my dad introduced, “Okay, well check this out: Scott LaFaro, Eddie Gomez, Gary Peacock…”
FBPO: Now we’re getting to the bass! You’ve learned a lot of instruments, so where does the bass fit in on the priority list?
Noor: I grew up observing bass. I knew a lot about it, but I really didn’t touch it. I was not really touching string instruments until I could actually start having feelings for girls. I became one of those romantics as a kid. My parents used to call me the Romeo of the family. I was the Don Quixote of the family. The moment that I had a knack for songwriting, I started touching the string instruments, and I started experimenting. We got a studio at home. My dad had a bass lying around. I’d pick it up during his breaks, and I’d try to fiddle around with it, based on observing how he was playing. I was always watching musicians play. I had that. That was a blessing for me. I had the opportunity to always observe musicians on a daily basis perform. That was my conservatory right there. When I first started bass, I watched my dad play in a Police cover trio, and I wanted to play that music. I was in middle school. My birth mother had a cheap Yamaha bass lying around. She let me borrow that because my dad didn’t want me to touch his basses, and I would get in trouble any time I did. I wanted to learn how to play Police music. So, that was my first introduction to falling in love with playing bass. What better way to get into that than learning Sting’s bass lines? I had this Police big book that was written out for piano, but I just had to figure it out. So I was stuck on that, in addition to jazz.
FBPO: When did you start performing?
Noor: My dad was kind of this first-call bass player in town. He couldn’t take all those gigs. I had in my mind that I really wanted to be like my parents; I really wanted to start gigging. I could see they were making money, and I thought it was cool and I loved music. So, while my parents were going to gigs, I would be in the studio trying to teach myself how to play upright bass or electric bass and trying to implement the things that I knew on guitar. I had to come up with my own bass pedagogy and all this stuff because my dad wouldn’t really teach me. He would show me things, he would let me observe, but he was a self-taught musician and he wanted me to learn things properly. I was very belligerent. I was just like, “Forget that. I’m going to learn how to play on my own and do my own thing. I want to be able to take the gigs that my dad can’t do. That way I can save money to do things that I want to do.” I didn’t think about bass really as my primary instrument until I was in college, and I was already gigging a lot on bass in town. Eventually, my dad and I started to switch off gigs.
FBPO: Where’d you go to college?
Noor: I got a scholarship to go to Santa Fe College in my hometown. It was a very small school that didn’t have much of a notable music program, but it was a great place for me to grow and explore my musicality. I was also going to University of Florida at the same time for their music program. So, that was my introduction. I was playing at the University of Florida’s top jazz band. I was playing guitar with them. Then, I was picking up all these gigs. Sometimes my dad and I would have a jazz concert that we were doing sound for, and we’d have a gig, and we’d swap during breaks, because the gigs were so close to each other.
FBPO: That sounds like fun.
Noor: I played a lot of gigs with my parents, and it was great. I played a multitude of instruments. I had a wide interest in learning Latin percussion, bass, guitar, piano, saxophone, you name it. Whatever was lying around, I wanted to figure it out. It helped me develop a composer’s mindset and a knowledge of how all these instruments work together. It wasn’t until I was getting burned out of college, and I was just getting overwhelmed, that a suggestion came up: “Have you ever thought about playing for the military?”
FBPO: You do have an interesting military background. Is it true you were in both the Marines and the Navy?
Noor: No, I was in just the Marines.
FBPO: Didn’t you go to the Navy’s music school?
Noor: Oh, Navy School of Music, yes, yes. Actually, that’s great that you asked that question. I can answer that. The Air Force and the other Department of Defense (branches) have different music schools. I enlisted in the Marines and I had to audition, and I got in. When I was going through the process, they asked what I want to be. I was trying to be a guitar player or a sax player. They were like, “We don’t need those. Can you play bass?” I’m like, “Okay, yes.” So, I did my auditions and I passed with flying colors because you’re only required to play electric bass. But, me playing upright, they were like, “Okay yeah, we’ve got to have you.” So, I went through that whole thing.
FBPO: What was your experience like once you got in?
Noor: I signed my life over, lost my rights as an American citizen. I signed my contract for bass guitar, but in fine, small print in the bottom, it said “may be required to minor or major in percussion.” Traditionally, bass players would have to double on tuba, but at the time you had to double as a percussionist. So, when I got into the Marine band, about 80% of my career I played quarter notes for a living on a bass drum and cymbals. If anybody’s complaining about holding down half notes in a country tune, send them my way. I’ll give them a real spanking! [Laughs] It’s crazy that most of my injuries in the military have come from marching a bass drum because I can’t see over it. Quarter notes are deadly, just so you know. So, I signed my life away. I really did. They’re proud about saying that. You’re property of Uncle Sam. I didn’t touch an instrument for four months, so, I was just a Marine. What happens is that the Army and the Navy and the Marines share the same music school. The Marines and the Navy study together, their incoming recruits study together at the school. When I was there, the Army split into their own school, but sharing the facilities.
FBPO: Tell me about Symphonic Planet.
Noor: Symphonic Planet is a production company. Our mission is to inspire people, to push the boundaries of their comfort zones. We do this through art and innovation and storytelling. Since we’re musicians, we chose music as our vehicle to educate and share this and promote this mission. We travel around the world in search of some phenomena and new narratives and music cultures, and we document that by doing a TV show and shooting content. We record these sounds or these instruments and these people, and we build music software. We build virtual instrument libraries out of it, compose music based off of our experience of those places, and go into those places inspired by them. We rent the music and we record it with our live orchestra, and we put it out. We share it with the world. It’s quite an involved process of trying to be very organic and authentic with everything that we’re doing.
FBPO: I’ve seen a bunch of your videos. Very, very interesting stuff. What gave you the idea to create Symphonic Planet?
Noor: I was a struggling musician in Los Angeles. I was sleeping on my friend’s couch for a little bit, and I met his roommate, who once worked with Hans Zimmer. We were just so fed up with LA. I had done so much cover music and corporate music and playing in other bands and tribute bands, I wasn’t finding it fulfilling and I wanted to travel. So, I met this guy, and he and I were asking ourselves, “Why don’t we just write some music, spa music, sell to a bunch of spas, find some entrepreneurial way to make some quick money and get out of LA and travel the world and go on a glorious vacation?”
FBPO: You’ve been to a lot of places. How did you decide where to go?
Noor: I had this book that I bought at a Goodwill when I was in the military, and it was 501 must-take journeys. These are all like bucket list things to do before you die, and places to go and see. Something dawned on me. It was, what would it sound like if you had your own soundtrack for your own personal experience of going to one of these destinations, and taking one of these journeys they laid out for you in this book? Everyone’s stuck inside a four-wall dungeon. We wanted to find a way to make a recording studio outdoors, and in our experience with people in a village or wherever. So, we decided to go to Death Valley. I found this region in Death Valley, that’s tucked away, far away from all the tourists. It’s an area known as the singing sand dunes, and they sing a note at a certain time of the day, and climate and temperature. So, we went out there, we took a team, and we did our very first trip. When we got back, we knew we had to keep doing this. This was the most rewarding experience. We brought our instruments out there, I wrote music while I was out there. This happened right after I dropped a car on my hand.
FBPO: A car?!
Noor: Yeah. I thought my life and career were over. It was my birthday, I had a few friends with me, and I had a flat tire on my Mercedes. When we got back to the car in the parking lot, the tire was flat, so, I switched it. I’ve changed tires out plenty, but this one time I got it wrong. As I was putting the spare tire on the car, the jack lift fell down, and the car crushed my hand. Luckily, I had friends there, so it took them a few tries, they lifted the car just high enough for me pull my hand out, and I went straight to the hospital.
FBPO: Was it your left hand or right?
Noor: My left hand. That was a nightmare. So, they fixed me up, but that was a clean, clean break. Luckily, my fingers were still attached, but I thought that was it. I thought that was it for me playing bass, or music in general. I didn’t know what to do, but the doc said I couldn’t touch an instrument for over six months. Those who love music know that’s just almost impossible. My muscle memory and my fingers were gone. I had a little bit of a Pat Martino situation. Not that I had a coma or anything, but I had to reteach myself how to play bass. My fingers are still messed up. My middle finger won’t straighten out, and it looks like a snail and the index finger’s twisted.
FBPO: What happened to Symphonic Planet while you were recuperating?
Noor: I went back to the drawing board and started writing a bunch of music, and I started doing a lot of research on places I wanted to go. It was a time for me, when I was stuck at home and I couldn’t go anywhere, to do a lot of planning and experimentation with finding new ways to play instruments, with open voicings and working around the disability in the career, I was going through, and developing the sound of Symphonic Planet. I made a choice that I didn’t want to be a film composer, neither did I want to completely walk the route as a songwriter. But I had a background in both, so I wanted to write music based off of a format and form of the way life is experienced, where it may not end the way it started.
FBPO: It sounds like you came to a realization, a discovery.
Noor: All my original music and anything I’ve written was always reflecting that you go through phases and different points, so I was honing that craft and that formula, a formula that really didn’t have a formula, but really expressing feeling as an experience through playing and through writing. After I recovered, after we went to the first expedition, we got hooked and we kept going to more. Eventually, we started traveling the world and I would take my bass with me. Since it was an instrument that I was very comfortable creating on, I took it with me. I took it with me to the jungles in Malaysia or to the Orang Ulu tribe. We’d just hang out with them and jam and collaborate and create together. Bass is always a great instrument to have because it lays the groundwork with them, and they can understand. One thing that I learned through bass on Symphonic Planet was it all begins with a feeling. If you’re traveling and you’re meeting with different peoples and different cultures that may not have a Western take on things, they always know one thing that is constant in the music, in the communication world of music, is that they can understand the feeling and a pulse, and a groove. They understand those things. That’s universal. If you’re working with new people and learning about their culture, they have very similar things in their own traditional music. So, it was always important for me to have my bass with me wherever I went.
FBPO: That’s fascinating. Is Symphonic Planet just a passion of yours, or is it how you make your living?
Noor: It was a passion that we were trying to make into a living. We had big dreams for it. Then it turned around. Jonas and I were very serious about it. After three and-a-half, four years, we incorporated because we were selling. We started selling our plugins of these instruments from around the world that we’ve recorded, and you could play them in your music software, in your DAW. We create these composing tools for creators. We were shooting all this content. We wanted to build a TV show. Eventually, we had our own orchestra. So, I went from a touring musician to conductor and contractor, and a studio. We were recording music with our orchestra for composers, and film companies all around the world, and none of it we’ve ever even advertised. It just fell into our lap. My whole world was completely changed by Symphonic Planet. It became a legitimate business with employees. So, it’s a real thing, and we’re still doing it. We’re actually stronger than ever now. We’re composing music for TV shows and other companies, writing their music for them.
FBPO: That’s great. Good for you! Congratulations.
Noor: It’s a creative company. We’re trying to bring the world closer to people in a way that they’re probably not expecting. It made a little name for us here and our little circuit in LA, and it also helps that Jonas won a Clio Award, which is a big deal and it helped boost the credibility of the company. But then, we put out an album last year or two years ago, something like that, and people really enjoyed it. So, we’re putting out a new one soon. There’s a lot of stuff happening.
FBPO: Tell me about your bass gear.
Noor: I primarily play NS Design and I’ve been working as an artist relations liaison for them here in Los Angeles. That gets me to hang out with a lot of really cool guys like Darryl Jones and Phillip Bynoe and everybody. And Bakithi Kumalo has become a close, dear friend. Whenever a musician in town needs bass support or string support, and, you know, cellos and electric violins or whatnot, I’m their guy. I’m their representative out here. I’m an LA guy, so I have direct access to these musicians, from Dmitry (Gorodetsky), who plays bass for Charlie Puth, Nick Campbell who’s actually really close, is a good friend. He’s one of my favorite bass players. There are a lot of legendary bass players here and that come through here, and I get to meet them and hang out with them. So, I get to talk bass with them.
FBPO: Sounds like my job!
Noor: Yeah. For years I’ve also seen your articles, and you’ve interviewed all those legends, Henrik Linder and everybody and it’s just like, “Wow, what a life.” That must be amazing.
FBPO: It’s fun. It really is. This conversation you and I are having right now is very fascinating to me too.
Noor: Well, I’ve always been a person that is attracted to interesting perspectives in innovation in instruments, because that is the tool for creating. You need to have an instrument that inspires you or that makes you inspired to do something, or else it can be very difficult. My dad originally was a Steinberger player. When I came across Ned’s instruments, I was at a NAMM show looking for a new bass. I came across Ned Steinberger and I remembered him. I met Corey Redonnett, and I met one of the custom shop builders. They were introducing the NS Design “Radius” electric bass guitars. I put my hands on one and it fit like a glove! I like to think I’m a utility player, but I hate carrying around ten different basses for situations. Ned had designed an instrument that delivers all the utility sounds, very simply designed, in one instrument. That was a huge thing for me. I fell in love with it.
FBPO: Is that your primary instrument, the CR5 Radius?
Noor: The CR5 became my primary bass for probably the longest time. Right now, I am playing a CR4, actually. For the longest time, I didn’t touch a four-string bass. I either played five- or six-strings. This past year, I went back to four and I found it was way easier on my hands. Because of my hand injuries, I do have limitations, but I didn’t lose my dexterity. I rebuilt that up, if not better. Four was way more comfortable in my hands. I can’t do certain cord shifts, so I have to get really creative in finding workarounds for things like that. I picked up a four-string at the booth at NAMM and I found a lot of groove and a lot of freedom. There was a lot more going for me in holding that. So I play NS Design CR electric basses and NXT double basses. I play a lot of double bass as well.
FBPO: We have a lot of people learning bass online right here at for bassplayersonly.com. What advice can you impart to someone who wants to learn bass?
Noor: Bass, I go back to bass as a feeling. You have to treat the instrument as an extension of your feelings. When you play, there are so many different ways to develop this technique, that technique. There are a lot of different debates on the mechanics of that. I feel like a lot of bass players I’ve met really just focus so much on the technicality of it. If you’re playing to enjoy, really just play to enjoy. It doesn’t really matter how fancy your instrument is. Try them out, find the one that speaks to you and enjoy it. It’s important to have good amplification. I do believe in that because if you have a crappy sound, you’re not going to want to play. It is important to have quality gear that makes you want to keep on playing your instrument, and you can enjoy the feel. But, really most importantly is that you need to explore different music with the instrument. It’s the most versatile instrument in terms of style. You can pigeonhole yourself to one style, but you’re going to find a lot more that you can do by just listening to what is this person in this part of the world playing? I have bass students in Africa that I mentor, and I learned from them, the way they approach the instrument. How does the person approach your instrument differently than you is, I think one of the best ways to (learn). I got this advice from Bonnie Raitt’s bass player.
Noor: Hutch Hutchinson, yeah. I was hanging out with him.
FBPO: Great guy. I love Hutch.
Noor: I asked him his advice and he said, “Find someone from somewhere else around the world who’s playing your instrument and find out how they’re doing it differently because they don’t have the same resources that you have.” A lot of times we forget that there are great resources there, but people who learned to fall in love with bass found a way to play it themselves. If you explore and research another person in another country that doesn’t have those resources, to them, it still goes back to the feeling. They play this instrument because it creates a feeling. How are they creating that feeling? How are they approaching that? How did they learn how to play that instrument? It opens up a whole new realm on how to play it. It’s not rocket science. It’s very basic. In many cases, when we travel with Symphonic Planet to these cultures and these tribes, it was not a choice. It was part of their life, their lifestyle. It was not a deliberate. There’s so much beauty in exploring what is their technique, what’s their perspective. How do they approach these things? Why do they approach it? What is their philosophy behind it? It’s exciting.
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?
Noor: I thought a lot about this because I was afraid that music wasn’t going to work out for me. Originally, I wanted to be a foreign diplomat, or working in international development and humanitarian assistance. The other world of me loves cooking. So, I thought that I would be a chef as well. If I didn’t have music, I’d be either of those two things. I became an entrepreneur. I took everything I love with music and everything I love with geography and the world, and culture, and I found a way to combine all of these things into a career and a job that I wouldn’t ever take back for anything else.
Symphonic Planet’s Destination Imagination is available here:
See Jon’s blog, with key takeaways from this interview, here.