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Bruce Katz Band: Out from the Center
by George Graham
(Independent Release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 9/14/2016)
In the world of the blues, the guitar is usually the king. There are not a lot of keyboard players who carve out a career in the blues, at least in the rock era. But every so often an album will come along that reminds one of how good the blues can be when played on keyboards, either piano or the classic Hammond B3 organ. This week we have one of those recordings. It’s the latest by veteran keyboard player Bruce Katz, and his band, called Out from the Center.
Bruce Katz is one of those ubiquitous figures who has often been a supporting musician over the years, playing as part of Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters, as well as touring with Delbert McClinton, and John Hammond and being a member of the Gregg Allman Band.
Katz studied classical piano at length in his youth, but at age 10, he heard an old Bessie Smith recording which was accompanied by piano, and he was quickly drawn to the blues. He taught himself boogie-woogie and other blues related styles. Later, he studied at the Berklee College of Music during the 1970s, and would later return as a member of the faculty there for fourteen years. Later, after some years of extensive touring, he furthered his education and achieved a master’s degree in Jazz performance from the New England Conservatory of Music. While there, he began to form his own blues-oriented groups. In 1992, he met guitarist Ronnie Earl and they began a musical partnership in Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters. And that same year, Katz released his first album under his own name.
Katz continued to work as a supporting musician as well as a teacher and has released occasional albums under his own name. We featured his last record, Homecoming in 2014 on this review series. Now he is out with Out from the Center which highlights his various musical shades of the blues. He is featured on piano on some of the tracks and on organ on others. This album prominently features Chris Vitarello on guitar and vocals. He was an addition since Katz’ last album. The rest of the band on the new record includes Ralph Rosen on drums, who wrote some of the songs on the record, Peter Bennett on bass and Jimmy Bennett on guitar and lap steel.
Like his previous releases, Katz highlights various shades of the blues, from boogie woogie on piano to upbeat shuffles on organ to a slow blues to a funk tune. It’s all played with a degree of class, but with a decidedly human quality showing that the players were real people playing probably together in the studio, rather than being assembled from carefully overdubbed and computer-assembled parts. All the material is original music by Katz or his band-mates Chris Vitorello and Ralph Rosen. About half is vocal, with Katz being the most prominent soloist, though guitarist Vitarello also has his time in the spotlight.
The album commences with a classic-style piano boogie-woogie called Don’t Feel So Good Today, with Vitarello on the vocal. But the focus is clearly on Katz’ piano work. <<>>
That is followed by one of the more interesting instrumentals, Schnapps Man, written by drummer Ralph Rosen. It a kind of quirky funk tune with a great groove. Vitarello gets a chance to be featured on guitar. <<>>
No blues album would be complete without a slow blues. Out from the Center has one written by Vitarello called The Struggle Inside, which features a nice performance by all involved. <<>> Both Vitarello and Katz have opportunities for solos in this seven minute track. <<>>
It’s back to piano for Katz on a a laid-back original instrumental tune called Blues from High Point Mountain. It’s another lengthy track that provides room for both piano and guitar solos. <<>>
The title piece Out from the Center carries a subtitle Hippie Tune, and there is a bit of a vaguely psychedelic trance-like quality to this organ instrumental. It’s one of the high points on the album for its nice, subtle jam. <<>>
The funk tune on the album is called, appropriately, Dis-Funkshunal. The band takes it at more relaxed energy level than usual for an all-out funk tune, so James Brown it’s not. But the band makes it enjoyable anyway. <<>>
Katz puts in some great piano work on the track called Another Show by drummer Rosen, whose lyrics use a performer’s touring schedule as an analogy for life. <<>>
The album ends with You Got It an appealing easy-going shuffle in a kind of classic blues-organ style. <<>>
The Bruce Katz Band’s new album Out from the Center is an enjoyable, often danceable recording of vocal and instrumental blues, soul and funk that’s hard to not to tap your foot to. It’s a good follow up to Katz’ first rate 2014 record called Homecoming. This album marks a close collaboration with guitarist and vocalist Chris Vitarello, who is given prominent billing on the album. There’s hardly anything musically innovative here, but Katz and company don’t set out to blaze any new trails. They capture several shades of the blues and other related styles with a lot of class, but with an easy-going informal sound, which occasionally leaves in some little musical flaws to show that it’s all quite real.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A.” The mix is clean and unfettered by pointless studio effects, aiming for an authentic sound. My only quibble is that the acoustic piano sounds a little thin at times. The dynamic range, how well the span of loudness is captured, is decent for this style of music, with the amount of volume compression held in check.
Not all blues is guitar-centered. Although guitarist Chris Vitarello does get to spend some time in the spotlight, Bruce Katz’ piano and organ are clearly at the instrumental center of this album. The result is classy music, either for background listening or cranked up for taking in the groove.
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