Local musician Dan Cohen interviews his brother Greg, one of the hardest-working acoustic bassists in the world

FACING THE MUSIC New York musician Greg Cohen has spent a multi-faceted bass-playing career performing with artists as diverse as Tom Waits, Woody Allen, Keith Richards, Elvis Costello, John Zorn, Jewel and Dan Cohen.

FACING THE MUSIC New York musician Greg Cohen has spent a multi-faceted bass-playing career performing with artists as diverse as Tom Waits, Woody Allen, Keith Richards, Elvis Costello, John Zorn, Jewel and Dan Cohen.

Illustration By Carey Wilson

Last year, New York musician Greg Cohen was ranked the sixth-best acoustic bassist in the world by the venerable jazz publication Downbeat magazine.

The lanky Los Angeles native—best known as Tom Waits’ longtime bassist—shuns interviews with trade papers and, despite some major-league gigs, keeps a relatively low profile, which has aided him in collaborating with some of jazz’s and pop’s most eccentric and secretive cult heroes.

But Cohen’s older brother Dan is a local musician and contributor to the CN&R, so when Greg made a rare visit to Paradise recently, we took advantage of an interview opportunity.

Both Cohens started in the same band back in 1958, L.A.'s Charleston Grotto, pegged by some as one of the earliest punk groups ever recorded. The following is an abbreviated version of their conversation.

[On Charleston Grotto] When you made a mistake, Fidel [the band’s leader] slapped you. Did that brutality contribute to your later success?

Absolutely. Later in life in my own bands, if the guitarist did something stupid, I would reach over and slap him. He wouldn’t understand at first, but he got used to it. Because I was the youngest, I was the slave in Charleston Grotto … I was shamed into [playing bass]. You’d chosen guitar, Fidel was lead guitar, and both me and Bottom [another band member] wanted to play drums, but he was four years older, and we would have had to fight.

How did you move to acoustic bass in high school?

I wanted ceramics as an elective and got marching band, but I didn’t want to march with the tuba. They said if I practiced I could opt for orchestra and the stand-up bass.

You also played in numerous high school bands.

There were mainly two types, surf or greaser/blues bands. The surf were about setting up around a rich kid’s pool with potato chips, and the greaser were garage oriented with some original material—these made more of an impact.

Later, you studied at Cal-Arts with Buell Neidlinger.

He went from symphony orchestras to Cecil Taylor, Jean-Luc Ponty and Frank Zappa. Even though he was one of the first electric studio players in LA, I learned subtle bowing technique [from him].

You were with Tom Waits for 15 years. What was your role in that band?

Tom changed over the years, musically and as a person, trying to discover what was going on with himself. As he opened up, I began to work closer with him and became musical director [around the time of Frank’s Wild Years]. It was a workshop environment about collective texture to the sound, it wasn’t about perfection. Whatever it might need is what you’d play. One time I had to hit organ bass pedals with my fists for a staccato sound. For a Salvation Army effect, I played alto (Peck) horn and guitarist Morris Tepper [Captain Beefheart] had to play trumpet. The level of proficiency was minus 2, but it sounded authentic.

You later appeared with Lou Reed in the Wim Wenders film Far Away So Close.

Wim had a studio in East Berlin before the Wall came down, and we were in a bizarre industrial area rarely glimpsed.

And you introduced Reed to [his current wife], performance artist Laurie Anderson, with whom you also played.

There was a festival in Munich of radical Jewish music put together by John Zorn, and she got on the plane with us.

Another female eccentric you worked with was Marianne Faithful. Any colorful stories there?

[Laughs.] I’ve never been introduced to singers like Lotte Lenya, but I imagine Marianne to be part of that ilk—a powerful lady who demands a high energy level. Once we were doing a high-profile gig in New York, and her voice was going as the doors opened and she wanted to cancel. … But she had the type of voice to pull it off regardless, so I counseled her to confront the audience, and they rallied to her side for five encores.

Speaking of which, you played with Keith Richards and Charlie Watts on a Mingus project you supervised.

Weird Nightmare was the name of the record. One of the hardest things to do is lead a band from the chair of the stand-up bass player—both your hands are tied. Mingus was the best. His innovative compositions lent themselves to improvisations, and he found the best players [like Eric Dolphy].

You’re also an aficionado of Duke Ellington’s music?

He represents a happy alternative to be-bop—more melodic, more breadth. He was a great progressive piano player and knew what role to play. On Money Jungle with Roach and Mingus, tempers flared, but Ellington was even-keeled and found a consensual attitude.

Tell us about working with Bob Dylan.

I got a call from G. E. Smith [Saturday Night Live guitarist] in the dead of winter. There were no mikes or amps. We played all night in the snow. Dylan did some doo wop and obscure stuff from the ‘60s.

Your most progressive combo is Masada, with John Zorn, [trumpeter] Dave Douglas and [drummer] Joey Baron. You’re also in Douglas’ jazz group Charms of the Night Sky.

As an improv group, Masada is the most satisfying because of the level of the musicians. But they’re both about telepathy in compositional ideas, collective consciousness. It’s not about solos and one-upmanship. Everyone’s playing all the time for the good of the band.

Can you compare working with Jewel to working with Elvis Costello?

No! With Jewel I was trying to bring diverse elements together [Josh Redmond’s sax, Greg Lee’s pedal steel] with her style. Elvis I’ve known longer, and he’s more engaging, talking to the band. It was great working with Burt Bacharach and Jim Keltner on [Costello’s] Painted from Memory.

You also play regularly with Woody Allen on Monday nights at Café Carlisle [NYC] and appeared with him in the documentary Wild Man Blues.

That was a tour we did in Europe, a small film crew, no roadies. We did old opera houses. I like what they call New Orleans funeral music, ragtime forms have three or four sections instead of two.

You perform extensively in Europe, especially Italy—what’s the allure?

The audiences are upbeat. I like the way they eat, take time off in the middle of the day and then stay up late.

Any last comments before we run out of tape?

Only that the microphones we’re using [Sony cardoids] are the same that Grotto used—and hopefully those recordings will come out in a nice boxed set.