Michael Thurber: Staying Human with 'The Late Show' and Collective Cadenza

January 15, 2016

When Stephen Colbert took over the reins as host of The Late Show last fall, it wasn’t just the Ed Sullivan Theater that received a radical renovation. Colbert, aiming to give the show a musical makeover, hand-picked jazz pianist Jon Batiste and his group Stay Human to be the house band for the rebranded late-night institution. Strong on versatility and crisp with creativity, Stay Human brings an eclectic energy to the show with a repertoire that is nearly entirely original music. The band’s core members include percussionist Joe Saylor, saxophonist Eddie Barbash, multi-instrumentalist Louis Cato, and the man now in charge of pumping low frequencies into the house that Sullivan built: Michael Thurber.

Although some might not yet know Thurber by name, the 28-year-old doubler and composer has created a major presence on social media over the last several years via the unique project he cofounded called Collective Cadenza, or CDZA for short. With a YouTube channel that has generated 30 million views and 300,000 subscribers, Thurber’s CDZA videos are innovative and often hilarious. In “The Story of the Bass,” for example, you’ll find Michael showing our instrument’s entire 275- year history by playing 45 songs on nine basses— all in eight minutes.

Thurber with Collective Cadenza
Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and raised in Portage, Indiana, Thurber began his bass journey at age 11. Studying classical on upright in public school and then diving deep into jazz at the Interlochen Arts Academy a few years later, he absorbed the influence of upright greats Paul Chambers and Edgar Meyer and electric masters Jaco Pastorius, Donald “Duck” Dunn, and James Jamerson. Thurber eventually moved to New York to attend the Juilliard School, where he took his love of both classical and jazz to the next level.

How did you go about putting together the “Story of the Bass” video?

I’ve always loved and played many different styles of music, which is why the bass is the perfect instrument for me: It’s the bedrock of every style. So I wanted to make a video that showcased how diverse the bass is. I did about a month of researching. You might think you know the history, the lineage, and all the great players, but when you dig in and look at the actual timeline, it gives you a new respect for how we arrived at where we are today.

Scenes from “The Story of the Bass”
How did you land the Late Show gig?

Jon Batiste and I met at Juilliard in 2005. At the time, I was studying mostly classical music, and he was all jazz, so we would show each other stuff. Even back then, his genius and charisma were radiant. Through the years, we would collaborate every now and then, but we didn’t really perform with each other until The Late Show.

The show is extremely diverse. Every day there’s totally new music, and we work with all different types of performers, from Willie Nelson to Yo-Yo Ma, in one week. And we have little time to learn the music. Also, doing on-camera work is a very specific type of thing. It takes a certain kind of energy and vibe. Jon needed someone who could cover many genres of music, play upright and electric, learn quickly, and be comfortable on camera. I’m happy to be that guy.

What is a typical day at The Late Show?

Every day is new adventure. We usually get to the theater around 10 am for an hour or two of rehearsal, where we put together whatever music we want to play for walk-ons and commercial breaks. If we are backing up the musical guest that day, we go down to the stage and rehearse with them for an hour to make sure we are ready for the taping. Then we go to hair and makeup and get all prettied up. After that, we have “comedy rehearsal” with Stephen, which is a quick run-through to get a feel for the flow of that day’s show. Then we go to our dressing rooms, get in wardrobe, and boom—we go to the stage for taping. We usually wrap around 7 pm.

What’s been the biggest challenge of the gig so far?

Learning a lot of hard music very quickly and then being able to not only remember it, but execute it well in the heat of battle. It’s hard because the cues happen fast! And you can’t miss it—you’ve got to be ready. It’s an amazing skill to learn, though. It’s like being at the musical gym everyday doing CrossFit.

Tell me about the NS Design Radial basses you currently play.

They are light and fast, and they sound incredible. I’ve never had more fun playing a bass guitar. Ned Steinberger and the team at NS put so much care into their instruments. I can’t say enough about the Radius—I have four of them.

What is CDZA all about?

CDZA is an effort to solve a dilemma that many young conservatory-trained musicians face today: How do we make older art forms like classical music, jazz, and theater relevant today? There is no wrong answer, but we wanted to find a way to have our cake and eat it, too—to stay true to the old music we love while embracing the current sounds of our generation.

CDZA was about creating a platform where young, gifted performers from different musical backgrounds could come together to collaborate in a unique setting and create videos that package their talent in a more universal, fun, commercially minded way. Creating mash-ups and live remixes of popular music creates a feeling of familiarity for people who might not be used to hearing violins or opera singers. It bridges the gap between pop music and musical talent one might normally only hear at Carnegie Hall. We also just have a lot of fun. We are all pretty goofy, ridiculous people with weird humor. Looking back on the videos, it’s amazing to see everyone who has been a part of it and what they’ve gone on to do. From Jon Batiste to Ariel Jacobs, who is currently in Wicked on Broadway, we’ve featured so many incredible young performers.

What advice can you offer bassists looking to carve out careers in the music business today?

Don’t be afraid to try things. Quality comes from quantity. The only way to find your path is put yourself in as many different situations as possible and learn as much different music as you can. Also, stay in love with music no matter what. Don’t let that raw, child-like, honest love of music ever go away. As long as it’s in you, you’ll be fine.

EQUIP

Basses Fretted and fretless NS Design CR5 Radius 5-strings, Aaron Riley/Guarneri House upright
Rig Aguilar Tone Hammer 500 head and DB 410 4x10
Effects Electro-Harmonix POG Polyphonic Octave Generator
Strings D’Addario Zyex Double Bass Strings

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