Oz Noy Explores His Soulful Side on "Who Gives a Funk"

Let’s face it—guitarists have a not-entirely undeserved rap for being a bit egocentric.
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Let’s face it—guitarists have a not-entirely undeserved rap for being a bit egocentric. We generally like to grab the spotlight and keep it focused on ourselves as much as possible. Given his ferocious chops, refined feel, clever compositional skills, and monstrous sense of groove, one could forgive Oz Noy for wanting to be king of the mountain on his solo records. But ever since the jazz-schooled guitarist first took the Manhattan scene by storm and began releasing albums under his own name, Noy innately understood the value of collaboration. Like many jazz greats before him, the Oz man seems to subscribe to the “primus inter pares” (first amongst equals) approach to band leading and regularly invites such luminaries as guitarists Mike Stern, Steve Lukather, and Eric Johnson to be his co-conspirators, not to mention the many other stellar instrumentalists. The glorious results are sessions that clearly showcase Noy’s vision but are undeniably enlivened by the contributions of some of the finest musical talent in the world.

Noy’s latest release Who Gives a Funk [Abstract Logix] is a mixed set of originals and classic covers that finds him sparring with guitarists Dweezil Zappa, Robben Ford, and Joe Bonamassa, keyboardist John Medeski, pioneering funk trombonist Fred Wesley, saxophonist Chris Potter, trumpeter Randy Brecker, and Living Colour vocalist Corey Glover on what is clearly his funkiest album yet.

Like all of your albums, Who Gives a Funk is a treasure trove of great guitar sounds. Has your rig stayed pretty consistent over the years?

Yes and no. As on past records, I used my alder-bodied ’68 Fender Custom Shop Relic Strats—a sunburst with a rosewood neck and a red one with a maple neck tuned a half-step down. Both have Abigail Ybarra middle and neck pickups and Lindy Fralin bridge pickups, and are strung with D’Addarios gauged .012-.048, which is like a set of .011s, but with a .012 on top. For Who Gives a Funk, I started using a ’57 Gibson Custom Shop Gold Top Les Paul and that’s probably the main guitar for at least 50 percent of the record. I also used a Gretsch Custom Shop Duo Jet on a couple of tracks. Believe it or not, one of the biggest challenges for me on this record was getting used to the Les Paul. I find that it takes me about a year to get acclimated to a new guitar, and I played gigs with the Les Paul for a while before bringing it into the studio. You kind of have to get intuitively dialed in to how the guitar reacts when you play a note, because different guitars will make the sound bounce around differently. I actually find humbuckers a little harder to predict and control.

My main amp is still the Two-Rock Gain Master 100. I also use a ’73 Marshall 50-watt head driving a Bad Cat 4x12 cabinet with Celestion Greenbacks, and a ’64 Fender Super Reverb. When I record, I use all three amps at once. I send all my delay, chorus, and Leslie effects to the Two-Rock and the Marshall, but keep the Super Reverb dry. Then I’ll blend the three together during the mixing process. Having the dry sound allows me to dilute the effects a bit if necessary. I learned that I get a beefier sound this way, as long as all the amps are in phase.

So you printed your effects as you recorded, which is kind of a daring strategy. You must have your sounds pretty well dialed in.

I have three main lead sounds that I use: an Xotic RC booster into an Xotic AC booster, an Ibanez TS808 with the Analogman Brown mod, and the newest addition to my board, a Vemuram overdrive, which you can hear on the slide parts to “A Change Is Gonna Come.” I usually keep a Boss DD-7 on for slap-back, and when I need a longer delay for ballads, I’ll kick in an Electro-Harmonix Memory Man. One feature of my sound that came about as a result of the way I play live is my use of the DLS RotoSIM. If you see me perform, you’ll notice that I have my foot on the pedal and am constantly turning it on and off. I like to play a clean line then respond with a chord played with the RotoSIM Leslie effect or vice versa. This gives a kind of organ-trio vibe and allows you to create a call-and-response musical dialog with yourself.

How much of Who Gives a Funk was tracked live?

All the tracks with my guitar, Will Lee on bass, and Rocky Bryant or Steve Wolf on drums were recorded live, including my solos. I look at my albums as jazz albums, so I try to capture a band vibe with as much spontaneity and musical interplay as possible. We’d been road testing most of these songs live for about a year at my regular Monday night gig at the Bitter End in Manhattan. I don’t like to go into the studio unless I have a well-formulated arrangement. Even then, I find that we still need a few takes to kind of loosen up and acclimate to the studio environment, because it’s different than playing live. Sometimes I’ll edit the best sections of different takes together, which can be time consuming because you have to really study them. Everything is on a click though, so even stitched together, it all sounds really seamless.

Were any of the guest appearances tracked live with the trio?

I would’ve loved to have been able to do that, but unfortunately the logistics of everyone’s schedules made it nearly impossible. Since this record had more of a funk vibe to it, a lot of the vamps were just steady grooves that we locked into anyway. This gave the soloists a wide open space, so I don’t think having them overdub parts later affected the overall quality of the music at all.

Do you give your guest collaborators direction beforehand or just let them do their thing?

Usually I just let then play what they feel. I’ve worked with John Medeski a lot and we know each other pretty well. When I had him play on “Flashback,” I told him that I didn’t want an ordinary organ solo, so he brought in an old Wurlitzer and used a lot of distortion on the amp, and that totally nailed the vibe. For “Better Get It in Your Soul” the trumpet solo was originally supposed to be played by Lew Soloff, who had been in my band for years, but he passed away before we could record it. We tried to incorporate a recording of a solo Lew had played live but the fidelity just wasn’t there. I decided to contact Lew’s good friend Randy Brecker, who is every bit as great a player as Lew was, and he stayed true to Lew’s style. When I bring in a guest, it’s not gratuitous; it’s because I honestly believe that their particular way of playing will really enhance the song.

What do the guest guitarists bring to the party?

Very often I just like having another soloist on my tunes. I brought Dweezil Zappa in for “Damn, This Groove!” because I wanted the song to have a Funkadelic vibe and Dweezil has a real quirky way of soloing. He’s also great with weird sounds and effects. “Ice Man” reminded me of Albert Collins in the ’70s, and I felt like Robben Ford would be the guy to best capture that. My take on Monk’s “Five Spot Blues” was to play it as a straightforward blues, and, for that genre, Joe Bonamassa is really the obvious choice.

I have to give you kudos for bravery because some of the songs you cover on Who Gives a Funk could really be considered sacred cows, especially “Little Wing.”

I had attempted to record “Little Wing” before for both Twisted Blues albums, but I could never seem to get the vibe quite right. One thing I needed to do was expand the harmony a bit, because the original is pretty straightforward and when you solo over it, any note that’s not a root, third, or fifth can sound strange.

My playing is a bit more “out” than Jimi Hendrix’s and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s, and I wanted my version to reflect that. One thing I did was to add chromatic approach chords a half-step above or below the target chord. For example, the opening to “Little Wing” is Em-G-Am-Em for a bar each, but I would play Em-G-Am-F-Em, substituting an F for the first two beats of the fourth bar. Corey Glover did an amazing vocal take, we added in a bunch of trippy effects, and it just seemed to work this time.

The original compositions on Who Gives a Funk fit very well stylistically alongside the covers. Can you talk a bit about the writing process for some of the songs?

I came up with the main riff to “Come On” when I first moved to New York 20 years ago, but it never seemed to suit the record I was making at the time until now. The A section of “Flashback” was based on something I prepared for a music library many years ago but had completely forgotten about. I rediscovered it and wrote the B section. ”Damn, This Groove!” was originally recorded live on my debut album, but I decided to resurrect it here with a less fusion-y, more straight-ahead B section. The tune that I’m most proud of on the record is a new one I wrote called “Zig-Zag” because it reminds me of “Sissy Strut” which was the Meters’ classic signature tune. I guess you could say “Zig-Zag” is kind of like my signature tune for this record.

What made you decide to record a funk album at this stage of your career?

After I recorded Twisted Blues Volume I and Twisted Blues Volume II, I felt like I was done with electric records for a while and wanted to explore acoustic jazz more. When I got back from touring for those albums, I was gigging locally with drummer Steven Wolf and keyboardist Jerry Z, but didn’t really feel like playing the tunes again. Instead, we built up a repertoire of simple, basic funk and R&B standards and that’s what gave me the motivation for this record. I usually need a concept in my head to record, otherwise I’m just not inspired. The whole concept of this record is that it’s about funk and soul. I wanted to write and jam on simple grooves. This is much harder than it sounds, because the music has to be catchy and every note counts for so much more.