In The Year of the Kat(z)
“Playing ‘bop’ is like playing Scrabble with all the vowels missing.”- Edward Kennedy Ellington
Sitting in Bruce’s living room on a beautiful mid-September Woodstock afternoon, it struck me that the greatest artists may be those who chose beauty over all other qualities. Katz has the certified chops to spell ‘craziness’ from our 12-tone alphabet, but only in the rarest of cases will he choose form over function, technique over taste, and the like.
One of his loves, jazz, has been overtaken by modernized technicians who fall into the picture that Duke paints. They create maelstroms of complexity and competition; but what’s the prize and where are they headed?
Something done for its own sake bears little fruit worth enjoying. Jambands are terribly guilty of this. Post- Blues for Allah, the Dead seemed to occasionally, and willingly, succumb to temptation and forsook the beauty and ingenuity that was their blessing, and wandered like the Moses folk who couldn’t enter the Promised Land. For a different example, take “You Enjoy Myself.” For every “YEM”, there are three dozen other tunes that are missing the elusive quality that transcends techniques, chord progressions, and whatever you call ‘hipness’, and turns a work of skill (or love) into a work of art.
That said, I’m not down on jambands, or modern jazz either. If sometimes the end results are not the most fulfilling, at least the pursuit is usually righteous and in good spirit.
That said, it’s not enough to let good intentions suffer from poor processes that yield irrelevant results. Example- who decided the disco hi-hat funk of way too many jams was A) back in style or B) worth exhumation? Go to any jamband festival in America, and you will hear this regurgitated polyester pastiche soon enough. Why? Is that the only beat the twirling masses can handle?
Back to Ellington, and back to Katz. Back to opera, even. Opera is a sidetrack here, but Italian is vowel-heavy, and sounds accordingly. Even operatic cliches draw heavily upon the immediate beauty of those drawn-out vowels; a good example where the vehicle is just as breathtaking as the message it cradles.
Working on the book, which looks at a century of American music, is an undertaking that is taking me back to what I loved about music in the first place. Being a musician now though, I can see the forest for the trees a bit better. Bruce illustrates how the complexity of music has ebbed and flowed, yet the beauty and creativity put into the art never suffered at the highest levels. Looking at this, I think of Derek Trucks, who can pour Qawwali melisma and a single blue note from the same delta into the same vase. Mr. Trucks is definitely ‘beyond category’.
Taking a break from one history channel and stepping into another, I was gifted the chance to attend and cover a Levon Helm Midnight Ramble. A gorgeous Catskills night in a beautiful barn with some of the best musicians around leaves an impression. Coltrane wrote a beautiful standard called “Impressions”. I didn’t hear it that night stuffed between “Ophelia” and “The Weight”, but it did come to mind. Across genres, talents, instruments, whatever; it is the beauty, sometimes aching, sometimes angry, sometimes another twenty things, that I remember three months later as I sit and write this.
The next day, which was also the next day after the fortieth anniversary of James Marshall Hendrix’s passing, Bruce and I hit 56 Parnassus Lane. It’s Big, it’s Pink, and yes, the vibe had a bit of beauty to it. Hendrix, so I have read, came to Woodstock for the same reason many artists settle here. Jimi wrote some of the most exciting music of his life in this area, and 56 Parnassus heard its fair share of beauty. Winding through the mountains as Mother Earth shed her summer coat, Bruce and I listened to the Sirius Dead station and talked about things that make a book worth reading. And life worth living, too.
“Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn’t want me to be too famous too young.”- Edward Kennedy Ellington
A short month later and Bruce, guitarist Chris Vitarello, and drummer Ralph Rosen were loading into my favorite dive for their last time. The international award-winning Blues On Grand was shuttering three days after Bruce and the boys finished. No grand re-openings, no big plans. Just done. Between a state-wide smoking ban in businesses, this so-called “Great Recession”, and the gutting of the national blues market, Fates seem not merciful nor kind.
This piece you’re reading was intended as a review of Bruce’s show there, but it just grew to be deeper than that. The crowd was good-sized, but considering the bar was on life support, and everyone knew it, that place should have been packed. Regardless, our trio de azure played like preachers, casting fire and brimstone through the chorus, and holding hearts with tender hands by the verse.
But something extraordinary occurred. I had asked Bruce if my wife could sing with them on that stage one last time, and he agreed with quick reply. Tina had sung Higginbotham & Demetrious’ “Mean and Evil” with the band a year ago, and it had gone over exceedingly well. The difference this time was that Bruce surprised me and asked if I would play a tune with them as well.
So, they tear through the first set, and three or four songs into the second set, they bring Tina to the stage. Our world responds well to symmetry, so when I suggested that Tina sing Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain” with them, it clicked for Bruce; one of his first big gigs was with Big Mama herself, right up to her very end. They used Big Brother’s arrangement, and Tina channeled a bit of Miss Janis as well, but it was real blues offered by real lovers of blues. At one point towards the end, Tina really leaned into it and Bruce tilted his head back and laughed. After 52 years of making music, the magic still happens.
Then he called me up and I started our arrangement of “Gimme Shelter.” Certainly inspired by the incredible Ashley Cleveland, Tina and I have done that song on a lot of stages- including opening stints for Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe and Eddie Money. Don’t laugh- the Money Man has still got it, and works a crowd like few entertainers left standing.
Bruce noted he never thought he’d play that song, but there we were. Though I don’t get nervous on stage too much anymore, I was sweating the distinct possibility of letting my friends and my wife down. I was standing in the same proportion that Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks, Jimmy Herring, Ronnie Earl, Duke Robillard, Gregg Allman, John Hammond, Jr. and many others have stood- there’s sanctified ground next to that keyboard stand.
Not to mention my friend Chris, who is one of the tastiest guitarists going right now, and a brother of the faith. We look at a lot of things the same way, and it was an honor to join his bandstand. Ralph, too- inventive, eccentric, brilliant, and an anchor. You can tell why he’s spent many years at Bruce’s side. I’m oddly satisfied to think of him as the percussive love child of Bud Powell and Syd Barrett; that’s one Technicolor Dance of The Infidels once he starts rolling- in more ways, and directions, than one.
In this next year, as Bruce helps Gregg Allman launch his new T-Bone Burnett-produced album [ Low Country Blues, due January 18th], continues to distinguish his own musical entities, and hopefully finishes this book, I find this last Ellington quote to be perfect and honorable. He has followed his own muse for too many years to change now, and it seems that the world at large is finally awakening to Katz’s wellspring. Jamband audiences are leading the way in that regard, as Bruce continues his work with Jaimoe’s Jasssz Band and adds classics from the Dead, Traffic, the ABB, Sly & The Family Stone and others to his oeuvre d’ BKB.
Maybe Fate is being kind indeed, with Ellington’s tongue planted firm in her cheek, but maybe such kindness will relent and allow the world to find the warmth of this other sun (to politely paraphrase Isabel Wilkerson). Reflecting back on this Year of the Kat, my fascination compels the sharing of this meaning- whatever it may mean to you, it means a world’s-worth to me.
_“All the world’s a stage, _
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts…”