Heylo Bassers! Here is another installment of my InterMagsView where I sit down and bribe really cool bass players with food and wine to talk to me about really cool stuff!
My interview below is with Zev Katz. We had a very nice chat over brunch this spring at Serafina’s on the Upper West Side –
Native New Yorker, Zev Katz has played with Roxy Music, Hall & Oates, Jeff Beck, Sheryl Crow, and the list goes on-and-on. Currently, he holds the bass chair on the Broadway show “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”.
Mags: I’ve been spending this whole week in the “Zev Katz World” and it’s so deep. I was thinking that I would listen to as much as I can and I don’t even think that I scratched the surface of all the different types of recordings that you have played on. It’s pretty awesome. There is no difference between your upright playing and your electric playing. You’ve achieved – I know that you would disagree – in my mind, maximum proficiency and mastery in both instruments.
Zev: I totally disagree! You’re very kind.
Mags: Thanks. So even now when you sit down to play something what are you grabbing? Are you grabbing your upright or are you grabbing your electric?
Zev: Um…well, it depends on the situation. Let’s say that I’m lucky enough to be working on somebody’s record. I just listen to a song and try to go with my instinctual feeling. I try to really hear something. Usually, I feel like I do. Sometimes my instinct doesn’t work out for the artist, but a lot of the time it does.
Mags: Sure, that’s the creative process. That’s what’s so fulfilling.
Zev: Yeah, I guess so.
Mags: What works, what doesn’t work and then learning from it.
Zev: It’s also one of those minute things, ya know – someone with limited intelligence like a bass player would be interested in!
Mags: I like the minutiae!
Zev: Yeah, well – I think we all do and that’s what makes us good at it.
Mags: When you’re playing on somebody’s record, what is that process like? I’m sure every situation is different. If you’re playing with Judy Collins – you know what. I’m not going to make any assumptions. Do people give you music and say this is the part that I want you to play or are you able to have artistic freedom to support the song? How do those rehearsals come along?
Zev: I appreciate that I’m in sort of a luxurious position where people generally seem to trust what I’m going to do, at least for starters…so, I don’t know. The goal is always to make the artist happy. It can go anywhere from “this person knows exactly what they want” to the worst possible scenario “they know what they want and I don’t like it” to “they’re cool with whatever I do because they’re happy that I’m there”.
Mags: Sure. They hired you for you.
Zev: So, if I played one note or no notes because that works, then okay.
Mags: Let’s talk about when you played on Bettye LaVette’s record. My favorite type of music is the British rock invasion and her interpretations completely transformed the songs. “Love Reign o’er Me” was awesome. I don’t know a lot about music theory and I don’t have the vocabulary to express what I’m going to try to express…some of the notes were changed in the instrumentation of the pre-chorus, harmony notes? Who came up with that? How does that process happen? Was Bettye like “this is what I want to do and this is how I’m going to realize the song.”?
Zev: I don’t remember the details, either of The Who record, or of the version that we did. That was part of a live performance, a segment on the Kennedy Center Honors that was in tribute to The Who who were among the honorees that year. Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, the only surviving members were there. The arranger was Rob Mathes, so I think it must have been Rob’s arrangement. That would be typical of him to re-harmonize or to change the arrangement in some way. He probably met with Bettye and they worked it out. By the time I was handed the paper the arrangement was done and I may have played a written part. The best-case scenario is when there is a genius arranger and they give you something brilliant to play. They gave you the brilliant idea. All you have to do is play it nice.
Mags: It sounds like the situation with Bettye was the best-case scenario because the arrangements are genius on that whole record. All of the interpretations are genius.
Zev: Part of surviving in any working environment is giving people space to – it sounds silly – but to express themselves. He’s the arranger, that’s what he was hired to do. Your job is to make his arrangements sound as good as they can.
Mags: When you said that “your job is to help them express themselves”…well, I’m a huge Roxy Music fan and a huge Bryan Ferry fan, and I was watching “Live at the Apollo” in 2001. Man, when you hear Bryan Ferry cover “Jealous Guy” for example, you believe that he really has been a jealous guy and he is really expressing that. As a listener, I’m buying that and I believe that. What was awesome is that everyone in the band was connecting to being a jealous guy. That’s what I interpreted it as.
Zev: If you felt it that way – it’s good.
Mags: Yeah, I felt it that way. Not only was Bryan giving a performance to the audience, the whole band was giving their performance to the audience.
Zev: Well, that was fun. That was also at the big hometown gig at the end of a long tour.
Mags: My husband saw it at the Theatre at Madison Square Garden.
Zev: He’s a pretty great interpreter, Bryan. I was lucky enough to get that gig. It was a last minute thing. It was Bryan’s solo tour and he had done an album of standards, which was at the same time when everyone was doing standards. Rod Stewart was doing standards; they were all doing an album of standards. But Bryan did something smart, I thought, which was he went back to the 30s. He didn’t stop at the 50s.
Mags: Ah…like Cole Porter.
Zev: So the interpretation came from a very British way of playing jazz – a Trad jazz, British thing. He found the experts who could play that way in London and they were really great. The arrangements and his whole thing were older than Sinatra. That type of approach made it cool in my opinion. His voice to me is like – it sounds stupid, but a little Billie Holiday. She was 40s and 50s of course, but if you listen to that record there is a string quartet, harp…those are great interpretations. Also, I played on a Dylan record with him of Dylan covers. That’s another thing that a lot of people do, but he did it really well I thought…interesting and worthy of listening to.
Mags: I saw that DVD from 2000 when they videotaped it. I agree, they were good interpretations. I did notice in the video when they were doing the jazz standards that it was cool, it was nice and it was beautiful…what I really loved was when they did the Roxy tunes with the quartet behind it. It was really interesting to me when you played upright on Ladytron. You can sit in with Roxy Music, which is one of the greatest rock bands, in my opinion, of all time. You can play the Kennedy Center Honors and play R&B, you can play upright jazz with the best of them, and then play with Rosanne Cash, you can do it all and that’s pretty special.
Zev: That’s what I trained myself to do, but I’m not sure it’s relevant anymore in the professional world.
Mags: Why not?
Zev: Maybe it is…well, just because there isn’t as much work as there used to be. When we were doing sessions, that combination of jingle dates and film and people’s records, the ability to function in all of those different styles was called for everyday. It really was. It’s not like that anymore, for me anyway. Let’s say you get called to do a Broadway show that’s in a certain genre. You have time to go and study that, and try to do it authentically.
Mags: Back then you didn’t have that luxury.
Zev: Right! Then it was like “We’re doing this now!” “Play this fusion thing and this is like a Larry Graham thing – do that now!” But, my work isn’t like that anymore.
Mags: Your son plays in a band. Do you see a lot of different music and what the kids are doing? I only ask because that industry doesn’t exist anymore and maybe people’s interest in playing has changed.
Zev: Probably. I mean, there seems to be more bands and more singers and songwriters than ever. They don’t have to worry about playing different styles. My son Nick is a great bass player. He’s got the right things. A great feel and a big vocabulary of styles and sounds in his head…which I just said are no longer necessary in today’s world!
Mags: Well, maybe they are!
Mags: You’ve done a lot of touring, how do you dig deep and give a great performance every night? I’m sure that’s really hard, and if you get sick, you’re sick. No one in the audience is going to be like “Ya know what. I heard that Zev had the flu…”
Zev: Nobody in the audience is listening to Zev Katz!
Mags: Well, I am…
Zev: Thank you, Margaret. I think musicians get to a certain level where it’s just not going to sound bad. You’re not going to sound bad. You might have the flu and you might not sound as great as usual to your friends who know how you sound, but you’re never going to sound bad. You’re just not. You’re past it.
Mags: That’s really interesting…
Zev: It was a big thing for me to hear from a friend of mine who I really respect. That was years ago. I was probably freaking out about how something wasn’t good enough, and he just said that to me. He said, “You’re past that. You’re not gonna sound bad. Don’t worry about that.”
Mags: That’s a good thing to think about.
Zev: Yeah. I feel it like a language. I play my instrument, you play your instrument and we’re speaking a language. Some people speak it better than others based on how much experience they have and how hard they work on it. It’s a language you speak, so you can make yourself understood.
Mags: Some people really know the language and do not communicate as well as people who are more limited. I think about that a lot. Tina Weymouth is one of my favorite bass players. Let’s think about the early Talking Heads. If you got some guy who went to music school and knew all the notes on his bass, he would not have made the same artistic choices that Tina made. But let’s just say that he is going to make them. He still would not have made those choices on the same place on the neck that Tina made.
Zev: You’re talking about players who’ve done it for long enough that they have some kind of voice on the instrument. Sure, it’s not going to be the same. That’s an interesting thing about being educated and analyzing what you’re doing and operating from an intellectual zone. Being less knowledgeable and more intuitive…I don’t know. This is a dichotomy that I struggle with.
Mags: You struggle with that?
Zev: Yeah, because I’m educated. I put a lot of energy into trying to sound uneducated, which is really a challenge.
Mags: I did not go to music school and it’s even something that I struggle with. When I listen to my old recordings with bands 10 years ago, I’m blown away by the choices.
Zev: In what way? Blown away, how?
Mags: More of my rhythmic choices rather than my note choices because I was so limited. It was incredibly creative. Now that I know a little bit more, I’m trying to get back to being more of an artist.
Zev: I think what you mean is to operate more from the intuitive than the intellectual.
Mags: Yeah, absolutely.
Zev: That’s a hard thing to do.
Mags: It is hard because it’s kind of like – knowledge is a powerful thing! Sometimes the more you know…
Zev: …It can be a straight jacket. I love wrong notes. I love shit that clashes that’s not “right” all the time. Sometimes it’s because people didn’t know, or sometimes it’s because they did know but wanted to create a rub or a clash. Whatever it is, neat and tidy doesn’t sound good to me anymore.
Mags: Did it used to always sound good to you?
Zev: I think it was, more so in the 80s, and coming from the music study world – yeah, I felt like I was striving for perfect execution and musical integrity that worked on paper. Now, I want to run screaming from that. I want to play shit that’s wrong that sounds right.
Mags: Do you sing in a lot of projects?
Zev: No, my voice is low. I can learn the parts and sing in tune as long as I can make it work with the bass parts that I’m playing. I like doing it. It’s very satisfying when I can sing parts and they sound good.
Mags: You’re inspiring because you’ve had some pretty fantastic gigs. You’re not playing with Hall and Oates for your singing chops.
Zev: No, but it would have been very helpful if I was a strong singer. Being a good singer would be more of a useful double than acoustic bass.
Mags: Yeah, maybe. I guess it all depends on what people want.
Zev: At the end of the day people want songs. People want a way to translate their emotions and they’re more connected with words than with music.
Mags: It’s true. It’s the songs.
Zev: If you can sing, you’re at the front line of connecting with people and that’s what you want to do.
Mags: I love “Live from Daryl’s House”. Does that still exist?
Zev: That was fun. Yes, but I’m not part of it anymore. I was in Hall and Oates and then Daryl started doing the show. I did 50 of the shows. You noticed how I never smiled?
Mags: Never. Why is that?
Zev: One: Because I’m a serious person!
Mags: You’re very serious!
Zev: Two: Because I sort of go-away when I’m playing. My eyes are open, but I’m sort of not there…
Mags: I think that’s fine.
Zev: I’ll tell you this. Being a person who smiles is good for you in life, in career, in everything. Being a person who doesn’t smile…ya know, it can be a little bit of a road block.
Mags: Well maybe. But you’re smiling right now. All lunch you’ve been smiling.
Zev: Yeah! Just, when I play it goes away.
Mags: I will say that you don’t have a funny bass-face. You’re not playing with a funny look of constipation. You’re just playing. It’s nice.
Zev: Well, thank you.
Mags: And nobody cares what Zev Katz is doing, anyway!
Zev: Absolutely! Complete insignificance!
Mags: The audience is only really into what the singer is doing. Oh! But you did smile when you guys were playing “Tears of a Clown”.
Mags: I know. How can you not smile with Smokey?
Zev: That was one of the greatest things, ever.
Mags: He projects love.
Zev: That was such a great day.
Mags: That was beautiful. What was that other song, “Oooh Baby, Baby” where Daryl did the high parts?
Zev: Yeah, it was good. It really was a magical thing. Back then it was so fun. We would hang out and have dinner after.
Mags: Oh yeah! Didn’t you make chicken wings on one episode?
Zev: I don’t know? I was into the food thing and that was good, too. Smokey was a thrill. He was into telling stories, he was very social able. He decided to have a couple glasses of wine, which he doesn’t often do and it was great. He was really nice.
Mags: That was awesome. I love you and Shawn Pelton together. That’s a good combo.
Zev: Yeah, I think we have to get me and Nick and Shawn and have a trio.
Zev: I have one more serious music thing…
Mags: Is it about tone? Gear?
Mags: Because we didn’t talk about any of that.
Zev: We could, or we could do that another time. I don’t mind.
Zev: I think playing music is all about listening. Listening is the most important part of your job. Listening to what the other people you’re playing with are doing. If you’re ever stumped for an idea or you don’t know what to do, listen to them and you’ll find your idea. They are already doing it – somebody’s already doing it.
Mags: That’s good.
Zev: It’s a good one right? Whether or not it’s true, it makes a good pronouncement.
Mags: Yeah, well – as the bass player…
Zev: You don’t have that much else to do, so you can listen!
Zev: I also find for me, if I get nervous in the middle of a gig, which sometimes happens to me, my path out of that is to focus on the other people in the band. To get out of whatever is making me nervous in my head and focus on them. There’s safety there. If I don’t have any idea or if I don’t know what to do, you look to them. They have the idea.
Mags: That’s great advice.
Zev: I think it works and even if it doesn’t work it sounds really fucking good! Here’s another piece of advice that’s good. People hear with their eyes. That’s why the smiling thing is so important. That’s what I tell my son. You gotta make show. They hear with their eyes.
Mags: I like that…
Zev: You know what. I always felt that music could save me and I still kind of feel that way. Let’s say that I’m really tired or jet lagged or something, I never feel like I won’t be able to make it through the gig. Once we start playing, the music is going to carry me and it does. It still happens. Music is a very giving thing.
Mags: It is! Those are the best experiences. When you’re in the audience and you’re receiving that love and you walk away and you feel good.
Zev: One of the greatest gigs I’ve ever had the pleasure of being at was a couple of years ago. I went to see Stevie Wonder at The Garden. It was fucking great. It was loose and he would talk for awhile and he would play some tunes, make a joke, it was a hang. It was great.
Mags: That’s good because everybody was sharing that same experience.
Zev: Yes, exactly! His vibe was so great and to just be in the room with him. Pure music and love.
See you on the low end!