JOURNEYMAN BLUESMAN BRUCE KATZ has lived music more than enough than can be covered in one interview, even as in-depth an interview as is customarily included in this magazine. From his stints playing with artists ranging from Big Mama Thornton and Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters to Gregg Allman and The Allman Brothers Band to his teaching at the prestigious Berklee College of Music to his extensive career as a solo artist, we did our best to cover Bruce’s bases as best we could. Shortly after enjoying a show featuring the phenomenal talent of Mr. Katz, together with his outstanding guitarist Chris Vitarello and drummer Ray Hangen, Red Hot Rock Magazine caught up with Bruce for a lengthy and warm conversation about his two current albums, Bruce Katz Band’s Get Your Groove! and Journeys To The Heart Of The Blues, a collaboration with Joe Louis Walker and Giles Robson. We also discussed his time backing up countless legends from the blues and rock world.
RED HOT ROCK MAGAZINE: Good afternoon, sir. How are you doing? BRUCE KATZ: I’m OK. How about yourself?
RHRM: I’m good. Right off the bat, I wanted to express how much we enjoyed your show the other night. Your playing and that of your guitarist, Chris, and Ray, your drummer, was very tasty stuff. BK: Well, good. Yeah, we were having fun.
RHRM: I need to ask you. Was all of that bass performed by you on organ and bass organ? Because it was a little difficult at times trying to figure out what was going on and who was playing. It felt as if there was a fourth musician that was hiding somewhere playing bass or that there may have been some recorded music that was triggered by one of you. Was that all you? Because it’s hard to believe that you can handle all of that bass work onstage as well as the type of busy keyboard playing that you do. BK: Yeah. That’s all me. I’m always playing bass. I’ve been doing it for a long time and it’s something that I always like doing. I kind of split my brain. I’m watching both instruments at the same time. And, you know, earlier in my career, I was a professional bass player. I don’t really do it anymore. But because of that, when I’m playing bass on the organ, I think it’s an advantage because I think like a bass player. I can think like a bass player whereas a lot of times, I think, when keyboard players are playing bass they’re just doing these generic things that they’re not really thinking like a real bass player. But I have that in my background. I think it helps me out so that I play interesting basslines and things. To me, it’s not a difficult thing to do, but I know a lot of people are kind of amazed that I’m doing all of that soloing and improv-ing and whatever and playing the basslines, ha ha. I mean, sometimes when I sit back and think about it, it’s like, “Wow, that is pretty weird that I can do that. Ha ha.
RHRM: There were times when you were playing fairly complex bass stuff at the same time that you were soloing. I know that you used to play bass guitar, but still, that should have had to have been a fourth person. Ha ha. BR: Yeah. Well, you know, it’s really fun doing that. And it also helps me really connect with the drums in a way like… I’m playing organ and bass at the same time, so I can sort of lead the band where we’re going and make direct connections with the other guys being that there’s one person less up there. But no, it’s really fun doing that. I like doing it. I used to have a bass player in the band. And it was Rod Carey. He was the bass player with Ronnie Earl when I was in Ronnie’s band. He’s such a great blues and, sort of, groove bass player that when he left and stopped playing, which he did, I just thought, well, any other bass player’s gonna be a step down, so I might as well just take over. Ha ha ha.
RHRM: You have a couple of new albums out there now, two very different records stylistically. Let’s first dive a little into Get Your Groove!, the most recent release from the Bruce Katz Band. As you are known for doing, this record is a wonderful blend of, and bridge between, the blues, tasty jazz, jam band music and Americana or whatever that stuff can be loosely labeled. There is no concession here to shallow, contemporary pop music parading itself as something that it’s not. This is the real deal for anyone who loves good music and listening to good musicians playing it. BK: I’m glad to hear you say that. When I started my band a long time ago… I’ve done a lot of things as a sideman and played with different people. I like doing that. And when you do that, you kind of see the world through their eyes and try to be creative within a certain framework of somebody that you’re working with, whether it’s Delbert McClinton or Gregg (Allman) or John Hammond or whatever. But I decided when I got to make my own record that I was really going to do whatever I wanted ‘cause it just made sense with my opportunity to do that. And I like a lot of different kinds of music. I mean, I don’t want to bounce around with insanely different styles so that nobody’s gonna get it. But I think all of those styles that you just mentioned, whether it’s jazz or soul or blues or improvisational rock, it’s all kind of under a broad spectrum of American music from the last hundred years, really. That’s definitely what I’m interested in. So I let myself freely associate, I guess, in those styles. I don’t really see the divisions that a lot of people put up. Like this is only going to be this kind of blues album and every tune’ll be narrowly defined in a certain style. I know the industry likes that. But I don’t like it.
RHRM: When you sit down to write and then record any given composition, is there anything in particular that dictates to you whether you play organ or piano? Does the song come to you in your head as an organ tune or a piano tune? It is rewarding hearing you play both instruments. BK: Oh, yeah. Definitely. I know when I’ve started a tune whether it’s a piano or an organ tune, which of course does affect how I write the tune. ‘Cause they’re such different instruments, you know. They both have keyboards. But other than that, they’re so different. Which is why, I think, a lot of times, keyboard players are either organ players or piano players. There’s not a ton of people that equally play both. They’re different instruments. You play them very differently and you hear them very differently. So when I’m starting a tune, I always know if it’s a piano or an organ tune. But I often write on the piano even if it’s an organ tune. Then once I realize it’s an organ tune, I switch over. You know, I tend to write things… I often just kind of free associate playing and wait until something cool comes out. Once something cool comes out, then I say, “Oh, there’s a tune there.” Heh. Then I kind of explore the idea that comes out and let the tune kind of write itself a little bit.
RHRM: “River Blues” is a stunningly beautiful tune. Your playing on there is fantastic. That song really jumped out as one I really enjoyed on the album. BK: Well, thank you. That’s one that’s particularly meaningful to me. It’s very emotional. It has a lot of imagery of light and a river and just feeling… Sometimes, those are the kind of tunes that might get overlooked. So I’m glad to hear you say that ‘cause that one has a lot of meaning to me. It’s one of the favorite things I’ve written in a long time.
RHRM: That probably was my favorite one on the record. BK: Oh, wow. That’s great. That’s really cool.
RHRM: I tend to like those slower, more evocative pieces. BK: Yeah. Me, too. My favorite things are usually the slow ones. They tend to have a lot of emotion. The slow blues, or just slow tunes in general, darker, slow tunes appeal to me. Heh heh heh. Happy ones are OK, but they have to have some meat on ‘em.
RHRM: The piece “Freight Train” on Get Your Groove! features Jaimoe of The Allman Brothers Band on drums, as do a few other tracks on the record. You have played in Jaimoe’s band, as well as in The Allman Brothers for a time. This song is a tribute you wrote for the late Butch Trucks, the Allmans’ other drummer, whose band you also played in. “Freight Train” has a very strong Allmans feel to it, even quoting a little snippet of an Allman Brothers tune in there. BK: Yeah. I loved Butch. He was my friend and I admired him so much. I got to play with him when I did Allman Brothers shows and, of course, I was in both of Butch’s bands, Les Brers and The Freight Train Band. And he just meant a lot to me. It was amazingly sad and tragic that we lost him. I wanted to write something to honor him and to just… write something for him. But I didn’t want it to be like, “Oh, here’s a really sad song that I’m writing ‘cause I’m sad that Butch is gone.” I wanted to write something that Butch would have really enjoyed playing, like a tune that I had brought in and Butch would go, “Yeah, let’s do that, man!” So, I just really wrote something for Butch meaning that he would have loved to have played it. And I do believe that he would have loved that tune. And so, we had the tune all together and… You know, sometimes when I write a tune, it takes like four days to write or it takes two weeks to write or I start it and I come back to it a month later. That tune came out in like an hour and a half. One afternoon, I was inspired and I went down in my studio and an hour and a half later, it was done. And it’s a complex tune, too. It just kind of poured out of me. I came back upstairs and I said, “Wow. This is a special moment.” ‘Cause that doesn’t happen too often that it just comes out and it’s done. You know, this is a complete thing. So, we were getting ready to do it and I was just thinking, “Boy, you know, having Jaimoe on it would be so incredible.” Just to have a complete circle of the feeling of that tune. Plus, Jaimoe and Butch. I mean, they’re the most unique drum duo ever. And so perfect. I was so happy that Jaimoe was able to do it and he came all of the way down from Connecticut to New Jersey just to do it. And I was saying to Ray, my drummer, “You’re gonna stylistically play like Butch.” He and Jaimoe got along extremely well, both personally and musically. I just think it sounds really good. You know, heh heh, Butch just loved to jam. That was his thing. Like, I’d be playing with him and I’d take a solo. He’d look at me and go, “What are ya, done? Come on. Keep going.” So, I figured any tune that I was writing for Butch should be an extravaganza, kind of. So, that one, there’s like three separate parts to it. And we do, we quote “Elizabeth Reed” in the middle. And we change the groove around. Then the end of it is kind of my… It changes again at the end and it ends on this beautiful chord that I just think of as I’m saying goodbye to Butch on that last part of that tune. And it ends on this chord that I feel like Butch Trucks is at peace and this is the chord that… heh heh. I can’t describe it. But yeah, that tune came out very well, I think, and it came out like an Allman Brothery tune. Not ‘cause I was even thinking of that. Just because I was thinking, “I’m gonna write something for Butch, something that he would have loved to sit down and play.”
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