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Oz Noy: Wizard of Weird

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Oz Noy: Wizard of Weird

Listen to a track from Twisted Blues, Volume 1:

Back in the early ’80s, Brand X bassist Percy Jones debuted a trio at New York’s Bitter End nightclub featuring the then-unknown Bill Frisell. Soon after, Frisell became recognized as one of the most original electric guitarists of all time. Two decades later, history repeated itself when Will Lee and Anton Fig—the famous rhythm section from The Late Show with David Letterman—began to appear at the same club accompanying another unknown but truly original guitarist: Oz Noy.

Imagine a player with the combination of Jimi Hendrix’s sonic adventurousness, Jeff Beck’s wit, John Scofield’s harmonic sophistication, Yngwie Malmsteen’s chops, and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s tone. Now imagine that player writing and performing music as funky as James Brown and the Meters.

By age 13, Oz Noy was doing sessions in his native Israel. By 24, he had accompanied a slew of famous Israeli artists, many during a two-year stint as a member of a television show’s house band. Emigrating to New York City in 1996, he soon earned the respect of the city’s best musicians, becoming a fixture on the highly competitive session scene. To date, Noy has recorded five solo records. His first, 2006’s Live, reflects the excitement of his weekly club gig at the Bitter End. On his latest, Twisted Blues, Vol. 1, Noy is assisted by the likes of Eric Johnson and Allen Toussaint as he pays tribute to one of the musical forms central to his artistry. The original title tune recalls cool theme music from a ’70s cop show, while his takes on the Thelonious Monk tunes “Light Blue” and “Trinkel Tinkel” exude tikibar and Texas-shuffle vibes, respectively.

Noy’s singular, spectacular style invites endless raving from his contemporaries—just read the “Others on Oz” sidebar on p.180—but let’s hear from the man himself first.

You started playing guitar when you were 10. Did you start taking lessons immediately?
Yes. I started playing chords, Beatles songs, and Israeli songs. There were Beatles records in the house, and then my brother started bringing home jazz records. I began with the electric stuff—Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Allan Holdsworth, and Scott Henderson. I went to a teacher who said, “If you want to play like that, you have to learn the roots—bebop.” My whole thing comes from bebop.

How old were you at that point?
I was 15 or 16 when I started to concentrate on bebop. I played with my thumb for years—I was a Wes Montgomery clone. I learned a lot of Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk.


Noy onstage with his two Fender Custom Shop 1968 Strat Relics, both of which feature ’70s-style headstocks.

What were you playing on back then?
First, I had a copy of a Gibson L5, then a real Gibson ES-175. At the same time, I had a Charvel and was playing heavy metal—because I was growing up in the ’80s [laughs]. My friends used to ask me, “When are you going to decide [which style to stick with]?” I couldn’t—I liked both.

In the early ’90s, I discovered Stevie Ray Vaughan. That led me to Hendrix. I started to understand that, in order to sound anything like those guys, I had to get more into the blues. I began to get away from bebop and into people like Jim Hall and John Coltrane, which opened it up a little more. It became less of a strict separation between bebop and metal.

Because the blues is closer to jazz than metal?
Exactly.

How did your current style evolve?
In Israel, I used to do jazz gigs and a lot of recording with pop artists. At one point, I wasn’t getting many calls to do jazz gigs, so I became a bandleader. At first, I would do all Wes Montgomery, but once I decided to do a real electric thing I got a trio and we would play Stevie Ray Vaughan-style stuff. But, instrumentally, I got bored after a few months of that. So I added instrumental versions of Stevie Wonder and James Brown tunes. Then I got bored again, because I was restricting myself to the basic blues vocabulary. I thought, “What would happen if I just started playing some of my bebop stuff over it?” That’s when it all came together: I had my electric rock sound, the grooves weren’t really swing, and I was playing a mix of any style I wanted to—whether it was rock, bebop, or whatever. That is still basically the concept of the band to this day.

When I came to New York, I brought my hollowbody guitar and my 1962 reissue Stratocaster. I always hated the sound of the hollowbody jazz guitar, even when I was heavily into Wes—it’s not as expressive as a Stratocaster. I was playing with pop artist Gavin DeGraw and needed an acoustic guitar, so I sold the hollowbody to buy one. That was best move I ever made: I only had my Strat, and I decided I was going to play all my music on that.

At this December 2010 gig at the Saxon Club in Austin, Noy was joined onstage by Chris Layton (drums), Roscoe Beck (bass), and Reese Wynans (keys).

When did you get into effects?
I was always into sounds. I used to have racks in the ’80s, but I really started to get into effects after I started writing my own music.

When did you start writing your own tunes?
I was writing in Israel. Then I started to write for my band here. I was playing at the Bitter End about twice a month until after I recorded my first record in 2001, then I started playing there every week.

That was some band: Will Lee and Anton Fig.
I got introduced to Anton at this musician’s hangout, The Bar Bat. Anton and Keith Carlock [Sting, Steely Dan] played drums with me from the beginning. Bassist Reggie Washington [Branford Marsalis, D’Angelo] played on most of the first album. I knew Will Lee a little. He saw me at a gig and said, “Why don’t you call me to play your gig?” I had always wanted to call him, but hey— he was Will Lee! Then Reggie couldn’t make a gig, so I called Will and that was it. Until now, it has been pretty much Will and Anton, or James Genus [Saturday Night Live] and Keith Carlock. Now and then, I might change the drummer or add an organ.

On this record, you’ve added Vinnie Colaiuta [Sting, Jeff Beck], Chris Layton [Double Trouble], and Roscoe Beck [Robben Ford, Leonard Cohen]. How do you decide which rhythm section is right for each tune?
I play in Austin a few times a year, and Roscoe is in the band I use down there, so he knows the material. I figured, if I was going to record there, maybe I could get Chris for the shuffle tunes, so I called him and he was totally down with it.

Do you use Chris Layton when you play in Austin?
No, Chris was new. But it is pretty simple stuff—I mean, Chris knows how to play a shuffle [laughs].

Did you go to Austin to record Eric Johnson’s parts?
I recorded half the record in New York at the Carriage House, and half in Austin at Eric’s studio.


Noy having a blast in the studio with a pedalboard that barely has enough spare room to route patch cables between stompboxes.

What is Eric Johnson playing on “You Are the State?”
He does some harmonics. At the end, he plays a couple of lines— some pedal-steel sounds and textures behind me. There was supposed to be another song with us really playing together, but it fell through. It will hopefully be on the next record.

Why did you decide to call the record Twisted Blues?
This is not a blues band, but it takes some of the blues forms and adjusts them to what I do. I always play jazz. When I improvise, I don’t think about what I am doing, stylistically. Even if I play with a fuzz pedal or play a Hendrix lick, it is still improvising jazz. The only difference is that we don’t play swing—we play grooves—but the improvisation part is jazz. For this record, I wanted to play more blues forms, like shuffles, and use a blues sound.

Which Strats did you use on this album?
I have two 1968 Relic Strats from the Fender Custom Shop. I told them exactly what to make, and they are fantastic. I mostly used the red one with a maple fingerboard. I used the sunburst-finished, rosewoodfingerboard one for “Trinkle Tinkle.” I also used a Tele.

Is this the first time you’ve played a Telecaster on record?
Yeah. It’s a ’58 Fender Custom Shop.

You’ve been playing a Les Paul a little these days, too, right?
I didn’t use it on the record, but yeah, I just wanted to have a Les Paul. I hadn’t played humbuckers in years. For a while, it was difficult to play, because it reacts so differently and is so loud. It took a while to get used to it, but now I am digging it.

You usually record as a trio. What made you decide to add organ to this record?
It felt to me like it needed a little more harmony. Plus, organ is very bluesy [laughs].

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