On TV and on the Move: Louis Cato '04

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Louis Cato ’04

In between a cowriting session with Londoners via Skype and an early-afternoon rehearsal for a December episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Louis Cato ’04 took a few minutes to talk about his unfolding career. At the Starbucks across the street from the Ed Sullivan Theater in Midtown Manhattan where Colbert’s show is taped, Cato describes the twists in the road that led him to become a member of Stay Human, the Colbert show’s house band, and a multi-instrumentalist and in-demand songwriter and producer.

“It all goes back to Wally’s Cafe,” he says smiling. Like generations of Berklee students before him, Cato played regularly at the small brick-faced jazz club on Massachusetts Avenue a mile from Berklee’s campus. “I was playing there with Andrew Marsh ’[02], Corey Bernhart, and Khris Royal [’06] in the band Dark Matter,” Cato recalls. “Khris grew up in New Orleans around the corner from Jon Batiste [Stay Human bandleader].” Royal and Batiste had attended a Berklee summer program and Royal brought Batiste to the club. “Jon always remembered that night, even though I forgot about it,” Cato recalls. “After that, I’d run into him on the touring circuit when he was playing with Cassandra Wilson, Wynton Marsalis, and Roy Hargrove.”

A dexterous drummer and bassist, Cato is also proficient on low brass instruments, guitar, keyboards, and vocals. He gained his first touring experience with the bands of saxophonist André Ward and vocalist Robin McKelle, appearing at festivals across Europe. He first played with bassist-producer Marcus Miller at a jam session at the North Sea Jazz Festival, and ended up touring with Miller for several years. He has also toured and or recorded with John Scofield ’73, Donald Harrison ’81, Snarky Puppy, Q-Tip, and Bobby McFerrin among others.

In November of 2012, Miller’s tour bus was on the way from a gig in Monte Carlo to another in Amsterdam. As the band slept, the bus crashed. “I survived, but the bus driver didn’t,” Cato says. “The inside of the bus looked like a tornado had gone through it. I broke my back in two places and sprained my neck, but I’m still here and am very grateful for that. I took away from that that I am still supposed to be here.”

During his recuperation, Cato returned to Boston. Remarkably, a little more than a month after the accident, he was onstage at the Berklee Performance Center for a Boston First Night gig drumming with John Scofield’s überjam band. Boston was his home base for run outs with McFerrin and gigs and recording sessions with others. While working in New York during March of 2015, Jon Batiste asked Cato to produce a session for him.

“[Jon] said he was recording theme music for a TV show,” Cato relates. “I almost didn’t do it because I had to get back to Boston the next day to have some wisdom teeth pulled, but I followed my gut and stayed.” Ultimately, Cato played drums, bass, guitars, keyboards, and sang background vocals on the track. When Batiste became the Colbert show’s bandleader, he offered Cato a spot in the band.

Before Colbert’s December 17, 2015 show, I watched Stay Human warm up the crowd marching onstage playing in New Orleans second-line style. For the show’s theme and during commercial breaks, Cato played acoustic guitar, hand percussion and electronic percussion, and trombone on various selections. As an intro to guest Jonathan Groff (the star of the Broadway show Hamilton), the band gave a nod to the Baroque period with a rendition of the prelude from Bach’s first Cello Suite. Later the band backed British musical guests Squeeze on the band’s song “Happy Days.” In addition to all of the musical colors Cato brings to the band, he has a warm presence on camera and a natural smile.

His current work far surpasses the early musical aspirations he had growing up in rural Albemarle, NC. His mother was a church organist and music was a constant around the house. Cato began playing drums at age two, guitar at eight, and bass and brass instruments later in life. He couldn’t imagine the career he now pursues. “The only people making a living as professional musicians where I grew up were teachers and band directors,” he says. “I figured I’d get a job teaching tuba.” Two local band directors urged him to set his sights high, and one gave him a Berklee brochure. He applied and received a scholarship. Since leaving Berklee in 2004, doors have continued to open up to him.

“One of the pros for [joining Stay Human] was to come off the road for a while and focus on aspects of my career as a producer and songwriter that I have been building over the past few years,” he says. “I’m also married and have two kids, so my time is very limited.” Still, Cato found time to record material for a forthcoming EP. “My music is soulful pop—‘If John Mayer was black’ is the vibe.”

Through the Colbert show and other opportunities, Cato has worked with many contemporary legends. James Taylor, Herbie Hancock, Bobby McFerrin, YoYo Ma, and Wayne Shorter top his list. Unlike them, he sees himself as a generalist rather than a specialist. “I feel it’s not my gift to try to be the greatest drummer or singer in the world. I’m at peace with the idea that my gift is spread out over a number of areas.”

Nurturing them all means Cato is always moving. “I get up at 6:30 A.M. and hang out with my family until the kids go off to school,” he says. “After I work out, I go to my studio for a couple of hours until I have to come to the theater.” The Colbert show’s business generally occupies him from 12:30 to 7:00 P.M. Afterwards, he heads back to his studio or to a session, and then home. Talented and ambitious, Cato is someone to watch on TV and elsewhere.