“I’ve done a million two-day records. Maybe on the gig we do long improvs, but (mostly) it’s written. We rehearse, and we know what we’re going to do when we go in there. The tunes are carefully planned. They always have been.”
Bruce Katz is an educated generalist. He’s played bass for Big Mama Thornton, B3 for Ronnie Earl, Chris O’Leary and Debbie Davies, piano for Gregg Allman, and channels the Grateful Dead’s “Dark Star” on “Up From The Center” on his latest CD, Get Your Groove! The album is half instrumental like “Freight Train” that clocks in at nine minutes and fifty-seven seconds long and half with vocals like “Sky’s The Limit.” At age 37 he earned a jazz performance degree from New England Conservatory degree, and he’s taught a blues course at Berklee School of Music.
“The tunes were carefully planned. They always have been. My first five albums were all instrumental. Now, we’ve gone half instrumental. I feel if you’re gonna tell a story with instrumental music, it needs to be really composed, man, like really written. Otherwise, what am I gonna do, play a shuffle?
“If there’s no singer singing melody and I think about my tunes the way a pop composer might think about it, I know what the grooves are gonna be, and we basically rehearse them. Then there’s the improv parts, and those of course are not composed, and those can go wherever people want them to go, but generally my albums are all about these tunes and this music, and there’s room for improv and that’s fun.
“I play a lot of B3 these days, and I’m really a piano player. When I was a kid, I would do classic lessons, but I was teaching myself jazz and blues of the ’20s and ’30s. I was really kind of a weirdo kid. My friends were listening to the Dave Clark 5, and I was deep into Fletcher Henderson and Bessie Smith and the earliest Meade Lux Lewis. So, I loved playing that real acoustic blues (on 2018’s Journeys to The Heart of The Blues with Joe Louis Walker). So, that was cool. That was fun.
“I was like 12, and I was going, ‘Wow, these names I saw on the records like Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson, and I’m gonna follow these guys.’ Then, I got exposed to some boogie-woogie. I don’t know if I thought of it as blues or jazz. It was just this music that I really loved, and contrary from a lot of people who heard electric blues from England, and then went back and found acoustic blues just not by any design, just be the way it was, I just chronologically worked my way through the music, ’20s, ’30s, ’40s and then of course I heard John Mayall and all of those guys, but by that time I was really aware of this other music. So, yeah, to me, it wasn’t crossing over. It was all blues, and I don’t know, early jazz and blues leading me in certain directions if that makes any sense.”
Katz spent 30-some years playing music in Boston where, among other gigs, he played bass for Big Mama Thornton, a vocalist who was often recorded with subpar bands early in her career, but not in Beantown.
“Actually, she had regional bands, and believe it or not, I was her bass player in that band. I’m a bass player as well as a keyboardist even though I don’t play anymore really.
But she had a killer band in Boston: (unintelligible) on piano, Frank Blandino on guitar, and Michael Carey on drums. The guys were really deep into the music, and were the best guys in Boston pretty much. I think it depended. She would go to whatever. She would go to somewhere else, and have a band that didn’t know shit about blues. You know. When she’d come to the east coast with us, we knew how to play the stuff, and it was fantastic.”
Her best recordings were made in the ’60s at the Lippmann Rau bleus festivals in England with Buddy Guy on guitar.
“Yeah, absolutely incredible. By the time I was playing with her, some nights she sounded unbelievably great. Some nights not so great. It depended on trying to keep her in line a little bit which was hard to do because no one was gonna tell Mama what to do.
“One of the shows I did with her, and I think this was probably ’82, was a double bill at Jonathan Swift’s in Harvard Square with Buddy and Junior, and Big Mama Thornton. Imagine that show for eight bucks. We were going on first with Big Mama Thornton, and all day long we were waiting for Buddy Guy to show up and apparently there was this feud going on, and Big Mama Thornton was pissed at Buddy Guy for doing something to her. I think it involved liquor of some sort, and everybody was freaking all day long.
“What’s gonna happen when Buddy Guy shows up? Big Mama is gonna try to deck him. It turned out that it didn’t happen even though all day long she’s walking around going, “Mother Fucker Buddy Guy.” But it ended up being this great show, and it was like this little basement club in Harvard Square. Buddy Guy, Junior, and Big Mama Thornton were all together. It was real cool, but yeah, I think they had it in for each other.”
Katz was a member of the Gregg Allman Band from 2007-2013. “I would talk to Butch Trucks or Gregg Allman. Gregg’s last record that he did, he was patting himself on the back and said, ‘Man, we did it in only three weeks.’ Three weeks? Holy crap, man. I didn’t make my records in three weeks.
“I’ve done countless two-day recordings. If you have two days to record, you can’t fix anything, and so I’ve just gotten into the habit. These guys were used to the golden era rock stars where you’d go in the studio for two months and just write the tunes there. You know, you’d have all the time in the world. I never experienced that.
“I was playing in Gregg’s band, but Gregg’s band was sort of reacting to the Allman Brothers. Gregg didn’t want long run solos because he did that with the Allman Brothers, but then they would hire me occasionally to play tours with the Alllman Brothers, and be like the piano player in addition to Gregg playing the organ and when I was playing with them, I would get a solo, and I would play for a while, and then I’d look up and say, ‘I’m done’ and like Warren (Haynes) or Dereck (Trucks) or Butch (Trucks) would look at me like ‘Wha’d ya mean you’re done? You just started.’ Butch was like, ‘You’re jamming, man.’
“‘Freight Train’ is a tune near and dear to my heart, and when I wrote that tune, I was thinking it was my homage to Butch, but I was thinking of it more like this would have been a tune I would have brought in to Butch to play. I’m not gonna write something sad like I’m so sad about losing Butch. If I wrote something like this, it would have been a tune where Butch would have gone, ‘Yeah! Let’s play this one.’ So, that’s kinda how I wrote that one thinking of that, and we got Jaimoe to come down and play double drums. So, that song’s especially good to do that.
“Jaimoe is full of surprises, man. On the one hand, he lives on Planet Jaimoe ’cause in some ways he is. In other ways he remembers every single thing that ever happened. In 1996 I was in Ronnie Earl’s band, and we did an album I forget. I guess it was Color of Love, and Jaimoe was a guest on a couple of tunes, and I met him there. I’d never seen him before, and then 11 years later I got to audition for Gregg’s band by going down to the Beacon Theater and sitting in with the Allman Brothers. That was a nerve-racking audition. It’s like, ‘Oh, why don’t you tell him he can come down to the Beacon Theatre. He can sit in with the Brothers, and I’ll check him out.’
“So, I’m standing onstage nervous as shit getting ready to go on and sit in with the Allman Brothers, and I hear behind me this voice going ‘Meow, meow, meow,’ and I turned around, and Jaimoe crawled down behind me. I mean my name being Katz, right? He remembered me from 11 years ago from half a recording session. He remembered my name and was meowing me behind my back while I was waiting to go on and play.”
Perhaps, the most unusual band Katz ever played in was Barrence Whitfield and The Savages. Whitfield is a Little Richard-like screamer with original throwback songs. I remember seeing him open for Tom Petty around 1980 and never forgot it. “That was like a powerhouse band. That was insanity on stages. I mean that was an era. We were essentially playing souped up, amped up rhythm and blues. We were opening for the Ramones then.
“We were playing rock clubs, and rock festivals in addition to blues, and it as that era where some of the bands like The Blasters, Los Lobos, X and bands like that were playing blues, rhythm’n’blues but were crossing over into the rock thing with kind of a roots rock thing, but yeah, that was a really fun band.
“I toured the world extensively with that band for four years and it actually gave me a lot of sensibility that I got from doing that high energy thing. You know Barrence is out there doing his thing again, right? And actually, he has the original, original band, and they made two or three albums, and they’ve been touring Europe and actually doing some stuff, and I did one reunion gig with them about five years ago, and he hasn’t lost one thing on his voice. He can still sing. He can still scream like you cannot believe. He has the heaviest scream I ever heard. But, yeah, that was fine.”
Katz was an Associate Professor at the Berklee College of Music from 1996 to 2010, teaching harmony, Hammond organ labs, private instruction, and Blues History. “When I first suggested the History of Blues course, they were looking at me like how could you have a whole course about blues? I think a lot of the students signed up for my course thinking we were going to talk about Stevie Ray Vaughan. Instead, we were talking about the Alan and John Lomax recordings and the fife and drum music, the earliest of country blues.
“I got the chair of the Harmony Department to back me up, and we wrote out all the stuff and got them to approve it. So, that was that, and what I wanted (students) to get out of it was to really understand the music in a deeply American way. So, I mean, I started out it was like a 15-week course which was unfortunate because I never got past 1958 or ’59 by the end of the semester. Maybe I was up to ’61 or ’62 because by midterms I was still in the 1950s.
“It was like pre-war acoustic, Chicago blues because there was so much stuff that I wanted to impart, and what was interesting is there are a lot of foreign students at Berklee. So, they don’t even know about American history, and of course the American students didn’t know very much about it either. So, I started out basically in reconstruction explaining socio-political history of the United States. The main book that I had them read at the first half was Deep Blues by Robert Palmer.
“The very first week of that course I had them read the first 47 pages of it, and the next section also because he gets so deeply into the African roots and the nature of the plantation system, and to understand the music that’s what you really have to understand. So, I wanted to impart deep understanding. By the fourth week of a 15-week semester we were still talking about Son House and stuff.
“The course never got past the early 1960s, and what was irritating to me was Berklee saying, ‘Well, how can you have the whole semester about blues,’ and in reality, I couldn’t have done justice to it in two semesters, let alone one semester. I found myself rushing through shit. Like ok, I’m going to do all New Orleans rhythm’n’blues in one two-hour class.
“Students that would take that course understood American history. They understood the roots and the country blues pretty deeply, I think. What was kinda cool, if I can say so myself like this was a college, right? So, we’re listening to Charlie Patton for instance, and we’re listening to “Pony Blues,” and I would ask them to analyze the music and I mean analyze it on a college level analysis.
“I mean like breaking down form and discussing the guitar playing on a college level of analysis because why not? We’re all hearing this music and how deep it is and all this stuff, but you can also analyze why is it 136 bars, and how’s that working, and why is it working? And so, it was kind of cool. I got them to write their own country blues tunes and tunes in the style of T Bone Walker and analyze Ruth Brown tunes.
“A lot of the students told me it was their favorite course at Berklee, and actually I guess it’s sort of floundering since I left which is unfortunate, but I guess it sort of went out when I went out, but anyway, there’s a handful of good blues people there since I left. Dave Lavina teaches there. He’s currently playing keyboard with Ronnie (Earl) and Mike Williams who was in my band for a while. He’s a guitar player. He plays a lot with Darrell Nulisch. He used to play with Dave Maxwell a lot. He used to play with James Cotton, too. He’s there.”
Katz’s playing on the song “King of Decator” from Get Your Groove! reminds me of Bill Payne of Little Feat.
“I like Bill Payne a lot, I don’t know that I’m copying Bill Payne. I think it’s more like me and Bill Payne are listening to the same New Orleans players. I think we’re copying some of the great Professor Longhair things.”
“Little Feat was so way ahead of their time in so many ways, it’s actually mind boggling. At the time I didn’t realize exactly where things were coming from. They were doing shit that was way hipper than the rest of us. But, yeah, I haven’t really studied Bill Payne, but I have studied the people that he’s studied. For instance, I’ve listened to a lot of Otis Spann, and I’ve copied a lot of Otis Spann, but I haven’t necessarily copied another contemporary pianist who’s also listened to Otis Spann.
“I got to play a few times with Robert Lockwood, Jr., and those recordings he made with Otis Spann are the Bible of blues piano to me. So, the first time I met him, I was playing with Ronnie Earl. We were in Cleveland, and he came down and sat in after the show. He seemed to like my playing a lot, and I went over to him. ‘You know, Robert, my favorite recordings in the whole world are those recordings you did with Otis Spann,’ thinking he’s going to go, ‘Oh, yeah. Otis Spann. I love Otis Spann.’
“So, I go, ‘These are my favorite blues piano recordings,’ and he looks at me like I’ve just said the worst thing in the world to him. He goes, ‘Otis Spann, you like Otis Spann? That mother fucker just overplayed all day long, played all over my lines.’ He just screamed at me like I’m stupid enough to like Otis Spann. But with him you never know whether he was just saying that to fuck with you.
“I’m just standing there sort of freaking out, and he’s like yelling at me when just before he was telling Ronnie Earl, ‘That piano player is great. Don’t ever lose that piano player,’ and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, I can’t believe he’s saying that about me,’ and then I open my mouth about Otis Spann, and he’s screaming at me. But anyway, he was a cranky guy. When he was complimenting me to Ronnie Earl, I’m thinking, ‘Wow this is about as good as it’s going to get for me.’”
Katz is recording a solo piano album at the end of March for American Showplace. “This is something I’ve wanted to do forever, and you know I don’t know if it’ll get beyond piano players. I don’t know what will happen with it commercially or anything, but I think it’s gonna be a really cool record, and it’s gonna be classical piano ’cause there won’t be anything else on it. So, that’s going to be very exciting to me actually.
“Anyway, I’m doing that, and I think Giles Robson, the harmonica player on that Joe Louis Walker trio record (Journey to The Heart of The Blues) that I did, he is going to be recording an album for American Show Place in May, and we’re going to do that. I’ve got a couple of other things coming along, too. We’re doing a couple of recordings. Hurricane Roots from Memphis is going to do something. We’re going to put a band together and do an album with her.
At age 66, Katz says he’s still a kid.
“I know how to play any style of jazz there is. I choose not to play it. (Chuckle) I choose to play blues ’cause that’s what I love, and it’s emotionally satisfying to me. But there are little elements I know about that creep into my blues playing that I think is kind of cool and fun.”
Visit Bruce’s website at: www.brucekatzband.com.