Boosted by hosts with a wider range of skill sets than their predecessors, the late-night talk show realm is undergoing a talent-laden transformation that extends all the way to the bottom. Meet Hagar Ben Ari, bassist for “Karen,” the quirky quintet fronted by keyboardist/comedian Reggie Watts on The Late Late Show with James Corden. Rounded out by drummer Guillermo E. Brown, guitarist Tim Young, and keyboardist Steve Scalfati, Karen’s spontaneous, seat-of-the-pants sizzle is grounded by Ben Ari’s funk-informed P-Bass lines. Born in Tel Aviv, Israel, the 36-year-old was weaned on jazz, thanks to her dad, noted guitar teacher Carlos Ben Ari. At his behest, she moved from recorder and guitar to her sister’s beginner bass, at age 13. Intially drawn to Meshell Ndegeocello and Charles Mingus, Hagar added the influences of Chuck Rainey, Paul Jackson, and Pino Palladino, and studied with Israeli-based, former Ndegeocello bassist Yossi Fine. Rapidly ascending the local ranks, Ben Ari was soon touring Europe with vocalist Noa and anchoring the house band of Israel’s most popular TV comedy talk show, hosted by the late Dudu Topaz. Seeking a new challenge, she moved to New York City in 2003, eventually making her mark—and valuable connections—via a four-year stint with Brooklyn’s Pimps Of Joytime. This led to a world tour with Moby in 2008, and in 2010, the bass chair with Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings (which included opening for and jamming with Prince). The call to move west came in March, after Hagar was recommended to Watts and got to jam with him.
What led you to take the Late Late Show gig?
I wanted to work with Reggie, who is a phenomenal musician and comedian, and James [Corden] is an incredible talent, so I knew the show had the potential to be great. It was difficult to leave New York, but in speaking with Reggie, he stressed that he wanted us to be a real band. Steve, Tim, Guillermo, and I had never played together before, but it quickly felt like a band. My favorite kind of musicians are those who know they’re good and therefore don’t have to prove it by overplaying or soloing on every song. These guys are very much like that; it feels like a team. We write all of the music together, and we play a weekly Tuesday-night residency at El Cid on Sunset Blvd. Coming from gigs where I was solely a sideman, it’s enjoyable and rewarding to be a writing, creating member of a band.
How does the music come together?
Reggie is an improviser, and his vision for the band was to be improvisational as well. The original concept was for him to sing us a melody or a groove or a bass line on the spot, and have us make it up from there. That proved to be a little too noisy during the show, so now we mostly write the music during rehearsal. And it’s not one style of music; we kind of play whatever makes us happy and makes us laugh. Sometimes Reggie will sing short ideas into his phone and text it to the band, beforehand. We don’t have any charts; I make little sketches for myself here and there, and we’ve memorized the opening and closing themes. We also try to record the music for the commercial bumpers so we can remind ourselves how they go. What makes Reggie a dream bandleader is he gives us a lot of freedom, and he wants us to be in our element and find our own way.
What’s your approach from the bass perspective?
I tend to keep it simple and foundational, because so much of what we do is spontaneous and is often a mash-up of styles. I try to anchor and ground everything so the music can be built on top. That’s fine; I’m not a showy player, I love just playing good bass lines. Also, Guillermo is an amazing and unique drummer. He’s very flexible and he explores different sounds and feels. It’s quite a contrast from the drummers I was used to in New York. It takes me out of my comfort zone, which is great.
What are the main challenges of the gig?
Concentration and focus, first and foremost; it’s the hurry-up-and-wait element. We’ll be on set without much to do, and then suddenly we have to get the music together and play it right away. To be able to write quickly, have it memorized, and play it well is the key. And, like most TV gigs, we have both the live and studio element. There’s a live audience that wants to hear you go crazy and play all your licks, and create energy. At the same time, the show is being recorded at a high quality, with no edits; every note you play is going to be heard everywhere the show is viewed, so you want to have the economy and discipline of playing on a record date.
Elysian Fields, For House Cats and Sea Fans [2014, elysianfields.bandcamp.com]; Salif Keita, Talé [2012, Emarcy]; the Pimps Of Joytime, Janxta Funk! [2012, Wonderwheel], Funk Fixes and Remixes [2009, Wonderwheel]; Cyril Neville, Brand New Blues [2009, M.C. Records]
Basses ’77 Fender Precision with DiMarzio pickups and Badass bridge; ’69 Harmony; ’67 Fender Coronado Bass I; Elrick N.Y. Bass Boutique 5-string; Rust Guitars J-Series Bass; ’65 Epiphone Newport Bass
Strings D’Addario XL Half Rounds ENR71 regular light gauge
Rig Ampeg SVT-CL head with SVT- 410HLF cabinet
Effects Boss OC-2 Octave, Electro-Harmonix Micro Q-Tron Envelope Filter, MXR La Machine CSP203 Fuzz
Other Countryman Type 85 D.I., Ultimate Ears in-ear monitors
KAREN KLIFF NOTES
1. Karen, the Late Late Show band, generally arrives at CBS Television City between 1 and 2 PM, with the show taped from 5–6 PM.
2. Viewers hear Hagar’s bass via a combination of direct signal and a feed out of the back of her amp head.
3. Hagar has missed only one week of shows, to play with Grace Potter, who was opening for the Rolling Stones. Her sub was Kaveh Rastegar.
4. Karen has not yet backed any guest musical artists, but did back Tom Hanks and Arnold Schwarzenegger on a medley of their movie-related songs, and singers Adam Lambert and Katharine McPhee in skits. They’ve also had Justin Beiber and Dave Grohl sit in on drums (Grohl on the closing theme, titled “Love Boat”).