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Published: 2010/03/11
by Brandon Findlay

Bruce Katz and His Bands of Brothers

If it were possible to personify the essence of the jamband world; its past, present, and future could be embodied by one Bruce Katz. A natural student of music since his childhood, he has spent his life learning and interpreting every major form of American music, much like Jerry Garcia once did. Day to day, he can be found recording or touring with a multitude of artists who have come to depend on his mastery of his art, as he moves amongst the rarified air that exists for artists such as Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks. And as an associate professor at the storied Berklee College of Music in Boston, he works with the coming generations, sharing hard-won wisdom from years of touring while modeling true devotion to the art form. In this regard, he has few peers; perhaps the future he’s working toward will see a wiser, more devoted class of musicians.

Whether you’ve heard of Bruce Katz or not, his star continues to rise across eras and genres, and his light is currently shining brightly in the land of peaches and peace. Touring as a full-time member of both the Gregg Allman Band and Jaimoe’s Jaaasz Band, this past October saw Katz finish the fall Allman Brothers tour as their pianist while Gregg rehabilitated a shoulder injury.

A musician since age six, the fifty-eight year old is coming off his widest-reaching year yet. Besides the aforementioned touring, he backed modern-day blues hero John Hammond, Jr.; hung around Levon Helm’s Midnight Rambles in his adopted hometown of Woodstock, New York; toured with songstress deluxe Maria Muldaur; recorded with Hendrix contemporary Joe Louis Walker; fronted his self-titled quartet in support of their first live album, Live at the Firefly, signifying the first release on Katz’s own Brown Dog Records/Vizz-Tone; toured with his secondary group, the Organiks; and produced Project A, a Jazz Is Dead-esque look at the Aretha Franklin catalog released by Anzic Records.

Co-led by modern saxophone luminary Joel Frahm, Katz called on friends old and new for the A sessions, using the first Bruce Katz Band rhythm section, bassist Marty Ballou and drummer/engineer Lorne Entress, and current BKB members Chris Vitarello on guitar and Ralph Rosen on drums. Current bandmates in Gregg Allman & Friends, bass legend Jerry Jemmott brought his singular funk to the proceedings, while saxophonist Jay Collins helped flesh out the horn lines when needed with trumpeter Kenny Rampton. All of this presented an interesting situation for the arranger in Katz. The result? Some tracks feature both acoustic and electric bass, two drummers, extremely tasty guitar work, a three-man horn section, Katz’s keyboards, and Frahm’s melodic sax lines. A true jamband in every sense of the word, the principals reconvened for a handful of shows in New York; all remain hopeful that it can happen again.

To paraphrase Warren Haynes, “all of our heroes are strange dichotomies,” and Katz surely fits such a mold. For a man who wears so many hats so well, Katz speaks with earth-bound wonder when recounting times spent with icons, and humble grace when describing himself and his ambitions. In conversation, his vernacular mixes free-love charm and the precision of man with acute care for facts and history.

Just as the young Bruce dug into his parents’ records and found Bessie Smith, Fats Waller and so many treasures; Katz is now the gem waiting for the rest of the world to dig deep and make their own joyful discovery. Let the journey begin…

BF: In looking at your different musical adventures, you’ve got your fingers in a lot of different pies. What’s “an average week” like for you?

BK: (Laughs) You know, it depends. During the school year, if I’m not on tour, Tuesdays and Wednesdays I’m at Berklee, so that’s sort of one whole world. Some weeks I’m flying around and playing, or driving in buses and playing gigs, and then boom, I’m back in sort of an academic situation. My head gets really turned around going from one extreme to the other. It’s weird sometimes because to do any of those particular gigs I kind of have to throw myself into that person’s world a little bit. It [is] just really getting deeply into one particular musical experience and just living it for a while, and then sometimes turning around and doing something completely different twenty-four hours later. It’s kind of cool.

For instance, before doing the Maria Muldaur stuff this summer, all I listened to for about four or five days was live recordings of Maria Muldaur playing fairly recent shows, making cheat sheets and playing along with the recordings. Then I got in the van and did a week’s worth of tours, and it was just like my life was the Maria Muldaur band for that week and then I turned around and it was Gregg Allman or one of my own tours.

My thing is that I’m not one of those people that go in sort of half-prepared because that’s no fun at all, So, I have all these little worlds that I get into and then come out of, sort of hit and run, Like I have all these books- I have my Duke Robillard book, my John Hammond book, my Gregg Allman book. I literally have these books to remind myself of preparing for these bands. I’ll never read charts on the gig, but I’ve found that the act of writing things down really puts it into my head better

BF: Would you rather have it this way, or would you prefer to be in one stable group?

BK: You know, maybe somewhere in the middle? I feel like between the Bruce Katz Band (BKB) and the Gregg Allman Band (GAB), both are fairly active and I am a part of a stable collective voice, and then there’s just a lot of other little things that come up. I guess I like having the variety. Sometimes I think, depending on how busy a certain month is, maybe it’s a little bit too much of a good thing (laughs).

In 2009 in particular, I just found myself… like, I love the Jaimoe band and we don’t play all that much, but that’s so much fun, and it’s a certain kind of music that I probably wouldn’t get to play otherwise. Sometimes I’d like to be doing a little bit more with my own band, but things come up that are too good to pass up, you know? If I had to give a short answer, maybe it’s a little too crazy, but I love pretty much everything I’m doing, actually.

BF: When you first joined the GAB, Floyd Miles (percussion/vocals) was surprised by the fact that you were a professor and scholar of the music, yet you didn’t play like someone who had learned from a book. Sometimes it seems like people expect great musicians to be savants, where they just pickup an instrument and go.

BK: Well, I didn’t learn from a book. I could play really well, and I was reading Beethoven and stuff, but when it came to blues and rock and roll, I was teaching myself, playing gigs and kind of being ‘in the dark’ ‘til in my 20’s, when I went to Berklee as a student. All of a sudden, things got a little clearer. So in many ways, I was schooled as a kid in classical music and reading music, but I sorta had to figure out how to play just like somebody that was self-taught, because when it came to improvising or understanding how to play blues I was listening to records and learning how to copy stuff.

When I first met Floyd, that first morning I was sitting at breakfast with him and he was telling me how he had looked me up and seen that I was a professor, and how he was thinking “Oh oh, this guy’s gonna be some schooled, boring, passion-less player”… but it’s not like that, you know? That’s a misconception that sort of irritates me- that if you do learn certain schooled aspects of music, that it’s going to “ruin” you or something like that.

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