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Katz Band: Homecoming
by George Graham
(American Showplace Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/17/2014)
In rock and blues, the guitar is king – the public instrumental face of the music. And there are many bands that lack keyboard players. But keyboards have always been part of both the blues and rock. There were some great piano players who were part of the early blues scene, and in rock, Chuck Berry was never without his pianist, and of course, there’s Jerry Lee Lewis as a pioneer in rock. Over the years, there have been some keyboard players who have made their mark, such as Booker T. Jones of Booker T and the MGs. In the rock world, the era of Art Rock brought to prominence keyboard men like Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman. This week, we have a new album by a veteran blues keyboard man, Bruce Katz, who has been part of many albums since the 1980s and has been heading his own band since 1997. His latest release as the Bruce Katz Band is called Homecoming.
Like many pianists, Bruce Katz started with classical training, but at age 10, heard a recording with blues pioneer Bessie Smith, who was usually accompanied by a pianist, and that set him on a path toward blues and jazz, which was underscored when he started listening to boogie-woogie and swing piano styles.
His academic path included attending the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he would later become part of the faculty. He started gaining notice as an able sideman for many blues and roots performers such as John Hammond, Delbert McClinton, Jimmy Witherspoon, Maria Muldaur, and Joe Louis Walker, appearing on over 70 albums. He was a member of Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters for five years in the mid 1990s, attracting attention from his prominent role in the group. More recently Katz was a member of the Gregg Allman Band from 2007 to 2013, and in 2009 did a great, blues and jazz record with jazz saxophonist Joel Frahm.
Homecoming is Katz’s seventh album as a leader or with the Bruce Katz Band, and it’s just the sort of thing you would expect – classy blues based on keyboards, with a number of guests, including John Hammond. The material is about half instrumental and is also divided between acoustic piano and Katz’ Hammond B3 organ. There are four old blues songs from the likes of Lightnin’ Hopkins, but most of the music is original, ranging in style from swampy to swinging to blues shuffles to a boogaloo. Most of it has a great infectious groove that makes it hard to sit still while listening.
It’s a generous 63 minute, 13 track album that flows well from one style to the next. It starts with its soul-infused instrumental title track Homecoming. One of the frequent guests on the album is guitarist Jimmy Bennett, who is heard on lap steel guitar. Katz is heard on both the Hammond organ and a Rhodes electric piano. <<>>
The leads into the first of the vocal tracks, King of Decatur, which gets into a New Orleans groove. The vocalist is also the guest drummer, Randy Ciarlante. <<>>
Two of the best tracks are the ones featuring John Hammond on vocal. The first is Sante Fe Blues. Katz takes an old-time approach with the acoustic piano and a vaguely swinging beat on this tune by Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Katz also shows off one his stylistic trademarks, the easy-going but very infectious shuffle blues played on the organ. The tune is called No Brainer, and the guitarist and co-composer is Chris Vitarello. <<>>
Another of the old-time blues songs covered on the album is Elmore James’ Wild About You Baby. The vocalist is Jimmy Bennett who also plays the lead slide guitar. Despite the very electric sound of the tune, Katz plays it on acoustic piano. <<>>
Katz gets a bit jazzy on another of his instrumental tracks, The Czar with its shuffle beat but interesting musical touches. Katz and guitarist Jimmy Bennett get a chance to stretch out in solos. <<>>
The other tune with John Hammond, who also plays guitar on the track, is Blues Before Sunrise by Leroy Carr. It’s done all acoustically down to the acoustic bass of Boston bassist Marty Ballou. <<>>
And Katz and company go in for an interesting tune with a funky boogaloo beat, on a track called Just an Expression. It’s a kind of classic “chitlin’ curcuit” organ combo tune, and it’s another highlight of the album. <<>>
Homecoming the new release by the veteran keyboard man Bruce Katz and his band is another fine bluesy album that maintains a great rhythmic groove throughout. The band, including bassist Chris Vitarello and drummer Ralph Rosen, who are joined by several guests, covers musically familiar ground, but manages to keep it fresh and engaging. It’s little wonder that this style of music has lasted as long as it has in the hands of musicians who always manage to get it right. One might be tempted to call this music retro, but it’s really timeless.
Our grade for sound quality is about a “B+.” Things are generally sonically clean for the most part, but a couple of the vocal tracks have needless effects or distortion on the vocals, and the dynamic range is crummy. Typical mindless volume compression made the sound loud but bland and one-dimensional.
Guitarists tend to get the glory in rock and blues, but keyboard men like Bruce Katz can really bring the music to life.
(c) Copyright 2014 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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