Bruce Katz and His Bands of Brothers
BF: Going back to the Allman Brothers, let’s talk about your back story with them. Was the first time you met Gregg actually when he wrote and recorded with Ronnie Earl in 1997?
BK: The funny thing about that is that I recorded with Gregg Allman in ’97 but never met him. It was one of those things where we did the tune and sent the master down to Gregg and he put his vocal on. We were never in the studio together. The first time I ever met Gregg was backstage at the Beacon Theater when Jay Collins said to him “This is Bruce Katz and I think he’d be good for the band” and Gregg said “Well, have him come up and he can play on ‘Stormy Monday.‘” That was when I met him, that first night, so the recording ten years earlier- we never met. That’s happened a few times with me with people [Site editor’s note: Although Katz did open for the Brothers during some amphitheatre dates with the Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters during the summer of 1997].
So, we did “Stormy Monday,” and then Susan came out and did a Little Milton tune, and Gregg really liked it and had me come back a couple of days later and I played a few more tunes. That worked out pretty well.
BF: You were asked to fill in on piano for the fall tour after Gregg hurt his hand, correct?
BK: Yeah. He was pushing his motorcycle up a ramp and hurt his shoulder, which twisted a nerve, so he had this numbness in a couple of fingers. He felt like he could play organ OK, but even that was a little of a struggle. He felt like he definitely couldn’t play the piano, which takes more pressure and it’s a different kind of touch.
They had Danny Louis play a couple of nights, and then Gregg called me up, and two days later I met the band in Knoxville. I got there and the tour manager, or “tour mystic” as he is called, Kirk West, came to my hotel room with the previous thirty-five gigs worth of CD’s that they had played all summer, so it was like sixty or seventy CD’s. And he said “We’ll bring a piano to your room. Learn everything on these CD’s.” (laughs) I mean, I knew some Allman Brothers tunes- I know them all now- but I didn’t know tons of them, and especially more contemporary things, some of Warren’s tunes. You know, tunes like “Black Hearted Woman,” where it has the part that’s in 7/4- all the little things that make these tunes great.
I basically woke up the next morning and there was a piano in my hotel room. I had one day, I didn’t leave my hotel room, and I spent 13 hours with headphones on at the piano and I learned every single tune that was on those CD’s. Then the next day, I got on stage in Knoxville and played. I was more nervous that first night than I had been since I was about fifteen years old. Playing in front of people was crazy man, ‘cause those guys don’t make the set list until right before the show. I just attacked my little stack of cheat sheets right before we went on waiting for Warren to make the setlist. He made it, and we did it, and it was all good!
That was pretty nuts, very exciting, really fun. They gave me tons of space, it was an amazing experience, and they all seemed to really like it. The more gigs we did, the more space I kept getting. When we started the first night, what they were doing was, like, Derek would skip his solo and nod to me. By the last night, I was playing on Elizabeth Reed and Mountain Jam and they were just giving me all this space! (laughs). I was sitting on the same bench as Gregg, so our backs are practically touching the whole time. We’d be playing a tune and Warren would look at Gregg like “OK, sing the next verse” and instead of singing the next verse, I’d feel Gregg’s elbow go into my back, like, “Go on man, take one.” It was…. a great experience… I really had an amazing time.
It was another one of those things where I wasn’t going to be reading the charts on stage, [but] the act of writing things down, sometimes even just the chord progressions, helps me assimilate 50 songs in one day.
BF: From your viewpoint as a keyboardist, it seems like you’re living in such a guitar-heavy culture right now.
BK: Yeah! (laughs)
BF: But if you were to take away Gregg, Chuck Leavell, and even Johnny Neel from the ABB sound, sometimes you wouldn’t recognize the tune, yet they often get overlooked. Are keyboardists the red-headed stepchildren of the realm?
BK: I guess it depends. You can be a boring guitar player and you can also be a boring keyboard player. I spent some time in the 1980’s playing with a band called Barrence Whitfield and the Savages- it was sort of a punk rhythm and blues band, which is the only way I know to describe it. I stood up and played piano and windmilled my arms around and played like Jerry Lee Lewis meets Sun Ra or something. So, to me, you can be just as extroverted playing the piano and I think people will relate to it.
It’s in the blues world where I find myself quite a bit, and you’ll have three days of a blues festival and there will be one keyboard leader out of three days in a row. The promoters think that if they have a second keyboard band out of twenty bands that that’s too many, and yet they’ll have nineteen guitar bands.
The Allman Brothers without the B3 would certainly not sound like the Allman Brothers. I saw the Allman Brothers, by the way, a couple of times when Duane was alive, so I kind of go all the way back with them. I saw them in this little 300-seat venue on Long Island just before the Live at the Fillmore album came out.
BF: In his blues documentary Piano Blues, Clint Eastwood says, to paraphrase, that the piano is the most important instrument in the history of the blues. Do you agree?
BK: Yeah, I don’t think I agree with that (laughs)! I mean, I hate to say it, but I think the guitar is probably the most important instrument in the development of the blues. I guess it depends what blues you’re looking at. The classic blues of the 1920’s “Bessie Smith”-type blues- that was about the singers and the horn players really, [though] the piano was there. The country blues artists, that was certainly all about the guitar and occasionally the harmonica. I think piano’s really important, but I don’t think that’s really a true statement, as much as I’d like it to be.
BF: I think a valid argument is that Robert Johnson’s greatest strides on the guitar were things he translated from the piano to the guitar, making them more guitaristic, in a way.
BK: That’s true. He’s the first guy, incredibly enough, that went “dun duh DUN duh, dun duh DUN duh” on the guitar, which is definitely a left-hand piano thing, that he probably picked up in Mississippi and Texas and wherever he was traveling hearing those piano players. And not to mention all those turnarounds he did. I hadn’t thought about it that specifically; he’s doing a lot of things that are piano-like on the guitar, and it must have been from hearing some of the whore-house piano players there, you know?
The funny thing about Robert Johnson is that he had a lot more influence twenty-five years after he died then he had [during his life], so I have read and been told. But at the time, in the 30’s and 40’s, like Tampa Red and some of those people were much more influential than Robert Johnson, and then he got rediscovered, or almost discovered for the first time really. But yeah, I think Robert Johnson was definitely interpreting some piano, not mention [guys like] Chuck Berry, and I think it went both ways with T-Bone Walker.
But the piano, in many kinds of music, it’s like it’s all there. 88 keys, and bass lines, and everything. I do think that’s true about Robert Johnson, but on the other hand, I don’t think that Bukka White and Charley Patton and Son House were really interpreting the piano on the guitar, but that’s probably one of the things that makes Robert Johnson so incredible on the guitar- the intricacies of what he was doing on the guitar were being done by piano players, but not by guitar players.
BF: As a multi-instrumentalist working with great guitar bands, what are some bass-centered things or guitar-centered things that you translate into a uniquely keyboard style?
BK: Well, that’s a good question. You know, I’m as into great guitar solos as anybody, and I think when I was first listening to electric blues, I was trying to copy some of the guitar kinds of lead lines that I would hear, into my right hand, and play some improv ideas and melodies; like when they would bend strings, I would slide. I know a lot of my phrasing ideas, especially early on, were influenced a lot by guitar players, ‘cause that’s what you’d hear more of. Even today, I teach a Hammond blues class at Berklee, and I tell them there’s not a whole lot of stuff to really listen to, historically, that’s Hammond organ and really blues. There’s obviously all the jazz guys playing bluesy stuff, but I mean real blues- like the equivalent of Otis Rush or something on the organ.
As far as bass goes, especially on the organ, I think the fact that I literally played bass in rock bands and blues bands has given me, conceptually, [an idea of] what bass is about- what to do, what not to do, what to play. With organ stuff, when I’m playing bass on the organ, I have the advantage of being an actual bass player. So it’s not only the lines, but how to support the foundation of everything.
When I was 18 years old, [I was] totally enamored with Phil Lesh and Jack Cassady and those kind of guys, and I was more “freely associating” on the bass. Now, I feel like bass players are there to lay down a certain groove, [except] when you do “it” really well- Phil Lesh was, and is, a genius.
Actually, the BKB is doing a lot of gigs as a three-piece these days. [BKB bassist] Rod Carey really hurt his back, and he’s still recovering and can’t really play right now. I just put the piano on top of the organ. I’m not sure, ultimately, what we’re gonna do; I was working so much with Gregg that we weren’t doing a whole lot of BKB stuff. But we’ve really been enjoying the organ trio- there’s something about it; like when I’m playing harmony, melody, and bass, and I’m playing with Ralph, who I’ve been playing with in my band now for 12 years or something, we find that the music’s been going some real interesting places because there’s that much more telepathy. If me and Ralph hook up in some way, we can anywhere at any time, so that’s been kind of interesting lately.
BF: Looking at power trios like the original Gov’t Mule and Cream, they are able to do a more powerhouse type of improvisation that you can’t do with seven people on stage, or even sometimes four. Do you think you may take the plunge and tailor your setlist towards that audience?
BK: Succinctly, yes! I’m coming from that going way back, so it’s almost like a full-circle. For me, to have played with Levon and Gregg- when I was seventeen years old, I was listening to Levon and Gregg. I joke with my manager, Steve Langbein, he’s got to get me in Phil and Friends so that I can complete the triumvirate of being at Watkins Glen, seeing the Allman Brothers, the Band, and the Grateful Dead!
We had a great gig the other night in the Hudson Valley, and at the end we were talking and we all realized that we had gone to some places we hadn’t gone before, and we were attributing that to the trio aspect. Playing organ, bass, and being in sync with Ralph and Chris, we are catching some left turns that are different than what we’ve done before. And I’m interested in presenting that to some different audiences outside the blues realm.
BF: Let’s talk about some of the heavyweights you’re working with. You were doing the Midnight Rambles with Levon Helm, correct?
BK: I haven’t actually played with Levon for over a year. I find myself doing opening slots with different people every few months it seems, with Alexis P. Suter, Chris Bergson, the Organiks, the BKB. His keyboard player doesn’t seem to be missing anything ever!
The Jaimoe thing- I sort of knew, but didn’t realize until I was playing with him in his group, just how much of a jazz drummer he is. His touch and his conception- in the Allman Brothers he’s kind of the colorist, I guess. But he’s so intuitive, and he’s so willing to try crazy things.
We did a few gigs last fall, and one gig, the day before we got an email from Junior Mack, the musical director. He said, “Jaimoe wants to combine ‘Ain’t Wasting Time No More’ with John Coltrane’s ‘Africa’ tomorrow. So, get ready, ‘cause we’re going to put the two tunes together.” And we did it onstage. We just sort of talked about it. We didn’t have a chance to rehearse it. He’s just literally willing to jump off a cliff, in the tradition of the great improvisers, right in front of the audience. “Let’s try this for the first time ever tonight, live!”
He has some really cool ideas- anything can happen, at any moment. I just play and watch him the whole time, because the whole band will stop on a dime and spin in another direction depending on where he’s kind of leading.
The thing with Gregg- just to say- he’s possibly the greatest singer in the world (laughs)! He can sing a phrase that will practically knock you over and it’s just an afterthought to him. He is amazing. I have so much respect for that guy. His sense of time and musicality is at such a high level. The band’s time varies one millionth of a degree, and no one’s noticing it, but he’s like “There was a shaky thing there in the middle, and we slowed down just a hair.” Then we go back to the recording, and yeah, this absolutely miniscule change happened, and he’s so sensitive to that stuff, his pitch and stuff are at a really high level. I guess you can’t sing like that if it’s not, really.
BF: Will either of those bands will end up releasing projects?
BK: There’s going to be a new Gregg Allman Band album coming out in June. T-Bone Burnett produced it. There was this weird situation, and everyone was cool with it. T-Bone does a certain thing, in certain studios, with his list of players. The players are great- Doyle Bramhall, other great players. Dr. John isn’t really too much of a slouch. (laughs) It’s T-Bone Burnett’s concept, but it’s definitely filtered through Gregg’s phrasing and vocals, and he plays organ on it.
Gregg had never done an album without his working band being on it. He wasn’t really too happy about this, but we all talked about it with his management. His management was saying “T-Bone Burnett, Grammy after Grammy, platinum album after platinum album.” So, the band was happy to do that.
Surprisingly, it’s like a blues album. Gregg doing Muddy Waters, Magic Sam, Skip James, a couple of his own tunes, country blues… very interestingly. This album is going to be wildly successful, I suspect. At the same time, we are going to be doing a live album sometime in the next year that will be the band playing live.
The Jaimoe band, we are definitely going to be doing an album. We were going to do one this fall, then he hurt his shoulder. He had an operation, and now he’s fine, and in fact, he’s better than he’s been in years. And so, some time in 2010, the Jaimoe band will be making an album. We have a bunch of original tunes, everyone’s contributing. Not sure when we’re going to do it, but it will be a live-in-the-studio thing, though.
BF: Gregg’s touring?
BK: Starting in the summer, it will probably be a month on and a month off. Gregg will be busier than he’s been for quite a while, especially ‘cause the Brothers are laying low.