Oz Noy's Twisted Blues

The title of Oz Noy’s new instrumental album, Twisted Blues Volume 1[Abstract Logix], might have taken a few of his fans by surprise—but one listen to any cut on this CD should be enough to convince anyone that “blues” is a relative term in the mind of this amazingly gifted guitarist.
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The title of Oz Noy’s new instrumental album, Twisted Blues Volume 1[Abstract Logix], might have taken a few of his fans by surprise—but one listen to any cut on this CD should be enough to convince anyone that “blues” is a relative term in the mind of this amazingly gifted guitarist. The fact that Noy has created yet another album of highly improvisational music with enough melodic adventure and terrifying rhythmic twists to keep a fusionist in stitches is hardly surprising. Still, Noy’s decision to make it more bluesy sounding than any of his previous releases—not to mention that he enlisted ex- Stevie Ray Vaughan alumni Chris Layton and Reese Wynans to help him do it—is noteworthy.

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“After I did my last record, Schizophrenic, I felt that I had done enough in that specific direction and decided it was time for a change,” says Noy. “I wanted to go a little more toward blues and that Hendrix thing. I don’t know if psychedelic is that right word for it, but what I do now with this band just kind of fits for me at this point in my life.”

What led you to make this album?

Ever since I moved to New York I wanted to have a blues gig, but I never got called to do one. So I put a group together called the Twisted Blues Band, which is a quartet with an organ. I’ve always wanted to make a record that was on the blues side, and since I had already written a lot of songs for one, it was really just a matter of collecting them together and adding a couple of new tunes.

There’s a hint of Stevie Ray Vaughan tone here and there on the songs you did with Chris Layton and Reese Wynans. Was it a challenge to not go too far into the SRV zone when playing with those guys?

I knew I was going to do exactly what I do, but especially when Chris and Reese were in the studio, I was super careful not to go too much toward the Stevie Ray thing. He had a huge influence on me and still does, so the guitar sound is always going to come from him because I really like it. But in terms of the phrasing and what I play, I don’t think it really has anything to do with Stevie. “Whole Tone Blues” is sort of a Texas shuffle, but harmonically, Stevie wasn’t doing that kind of stuff.

Are you extra conscious of what you’re playing when jamming with, say, Eric Johnson?

Eric covers a big chunk of ground between his sounds and his fast runs and his Hendrix stuff, and everyone who tries to go there ends up sounding like him. So when I play with Eric I try really hard to not go into his space. Sometimes I do, though, because he’s an influence on me. It’s the same thing when I play with Scott Henderson, who also has a very identifiable sound.

You do a Thelonius Monk tune called “Light Blue” that sounds beautiful with that “Lenny”-style groove and your slide work. Is there something about Monk’s music that translates well for you on guitar?

I play a lot of Monk tunes because I like his music and I think it fits well with guitar. His stuff seems simple but is actually very deep. I like to play over clear harmonies so that I can either play nice melodies, or go outside without it sounding like outer space. “Light Blue” is a kind of slow blues, but it isn’t blues really. It has a nice melody and the changes are kind of floating, so I can play around it pretty nicely.

On the other Monk song, “Trinkle Tinkle,” you’re taking a bebop tune and turning it into a Texas-flavored shuffle.

Often, I’ll take a song that I like and try to play it on guitar, and it’s just not going to fit. So then I have to figure out a way to adapt the tune. I’ve been playing “Trinkle Tinkle” for years and the melody is really challenging. The changes are easy, but it’s Monk you know? I was just thinking of an angle on it I could bring that would work for me, and the idea of the Texas thing came together. I’ve played that song with a swing feel, and it’s not as comfortable because it limits me to playing a certain way. So now I can use the [Fulltone] Octafuzz and go for the Hendrix thing and the Stevie Ray thing, and still play all the jazz stuff in there, too.

Do you think your use of effects has changed people’s attitudes about what jazz guitar can sound like?

I think I’ve probably made it a little freer by just doing whatever I want to and being fine with it. But my whole thing with effects was developed through the process of making records and writing tunes. I wasn’t just sitting at home and screwing around with bunches of pedals. My ear is always open to what’s out there, and effects were just another way of filling out space in the group or coloring things in certain ways to make the sound fuller.

The grooves you come up with often have lots of wicked breaks and odd syncopated rhythms such as we hear on the song “Steroids.” How do you communicate your ideas to the band?

Usually what happens is I’ll find a cool riff—it could be a melody or a groove—and I’ll record it to Pro Tools and program the basic drum and bass parts. Then, if it works, I’ll write the whole tune over it and use it as a demo to show the guys in the band. They’ll listen to the grooves and kind of make it their own. A lot of people say to me, “Man, you really like odd meters.” And I’m going “What are you talking about? I hate odd meters.” I believe the reason people think of my stuff as having odd rhythms is because in the compositions there are little twists and turns here and there. The changes in my music are generally pretty simple. What I do over them may be harmonically complicated, but they are just basic standard grooves.

Obviously you’re not playing free jazz, but does going outside the harmony as much as you do tempt other players to follow you?

Everything I play sounds inside to me, but people sometimes think I’m playing out, and their reaction is to go along with it. That’s something I really don’t like because I want stuff to be clear, and when everybody is going out it just sounds like a mess. For example, when we were doing the rhumba tune “Oh Really,” Vinnie [Colaiuta] sounded freaking amazing, but on the first couple of takes he was really busy and kind of going outside with me. I just asked him to keep it in more of a Cream-style blues vein.

What should blues players study or listen to if they want to be able to play outside of the pentatonic box?

You need to learn music, and if you want to expand your harmonic vocabulary, you end up learning jazz. I think of jazz as a more advanced form of blues, and as you get deeper into the roots of blues and jazz it’s going to open the door to finding the cool stuff to play.

My thing is based on Charlie Parker, Wes Montgomery, Bud Powell, and Thelonius Monk—but when I was getting into modern blues I was listening to Robben Ford and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Eventually you realize that you’re never going to sound as good as them and will never be as musically deep as they are unless you go where they went to grab what they grabbed. So for Stevie, that means going back to Albert King, and Albert Collins, and B.B. King—all those guys. So I think if a blues player wants to sound more modern, it’s not about learning what notes to play, it’s more about the whole approach. You have to know where the stuff came from in order to know how to connect it all together.

What effects have particularly inspired you?

Fuzzes are great for getting into new sounds that can inspire you to play other stuff or to write new things. The first time I heard a Fulltone Octafuzz, I was at a rehearsal and a friend of mine had one. I played one chord on it, and it freaked me out and I immediately bought one. Since then I’ve gotten so many different tones out of it. Any guitar you plug into an Octafuzz will make it react differently, and just playing with the controls and the pickups will give you a lot of different sounds. Then, when you combine it with other effects, you’re in a whole other world.

What amps did you use on this record?

For the last few years I’ve been using pretty much the same things: a ’67 Fender Bandmaster with a 2x12 Bad Cat cabinet, and a ’73 50-watt Marshall with a 4x12 Bad Cat cabinet. When I play live I just use one amp, but when I record I have them both on. When I mix the tracks, the amps wind up being about equal in volume because they complement each other so well. For the stuff I recorded in Austin, I used a Fender Super Reverb and a 50-watt Marshall plexi with one of Eric Johnson’s cabinets. The only song on the album that I used a single amp on was “You Are the State,” and that was a Marshall.

Are you using a Telecaster more now?

Yes, I’ve had a Telecaster for a while that I’ve mostly used for recording, but I find it fits really well with this band. “Twisted Blues,” “Oh Really,” and “Cissy Strut” are all played on the Telecaster.

Has anything changed on your pedalboard since the last album?

I used a different board for this record because I was trying to go for a more vintage Hendrix kind of sound. So, along with the Octafuzz and the EWS fuzz, I have a Uni- Vibe and a Tube Screamer. I don’t use a lot of saturation. My sound is pretty clean, and I just boost it with a pedal into the amp running at high volume. I use the [Xotic] AC Booster that Eric Johnson turned me on to. I also have three Boss delays, an Electro-Harmonix Memory Man, and the Line 6 M9 for looping and the modern-style delays.

Do you use looping in the studio?

Yes. I do it live first to see where it fits, and then I’ll do the same thing in the studio. I basically make jazz records—we’re all playing in the room together and we’re not overdubbing anything—so it makes sense to use looping because it’s all about the sound of the band. I’ve been doing it this way since my first record. We do a bunch of takes, and then I edit them to choose the good stuff. It’s all live playing, though. I’ve never overdubbed a solo on any of my records because it will never have the vibe.