Tom & Bruce
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March 11, 2016
Lucille's - NYC
By: Tom Pragliola
Bruce Katz is one of the premier Hammond B-3 and piano players on the blues and jazz scene for the last thirty years. Between a Butch Trucks and The Freight Train Band tour of the East coast, and a week of rehearsals and two breakout shows with Les Brers, Bruce Katz got his own band out on the road in support of his new CD “Homecoming”. I made it out to see him on February 12 at The Acoustic in Bridgeport Ct., and again on March 11 at Lucille’s in the BB King Blues Club in New York City. I was able to get some great video at the shows, and Bruce sat down with me at Lucille’s for an interview. We discussed his fascinating career from playing with Blues legends, starting a Blues program at The Berklee College of Music, and his new instructional DVD “Breakthrough Piano”.
An Interview with Bruce Katz
March 11, 2016
RRB: Hey, we’re here with Bruce Katz, keyboard master extraordinaire. And we’re particularly happy to have you here on Rock Roots & Blues – Live since you’ve played with so many high profile roots, blues, and rock performers.
BK: I’ve been around.
RRB: We’re here at Lucille’s at the BB King Blues Club on 42nd Street in Times Square. The crossroads of the universe.
BK: I guess so.
RRB: Ha. So Bruce, I used to listen to these syndicated blues shows on public radio, like Harlem Hit Parade – I think that was on in the mid-80’s, and Blues Stage, and Beale St. Caravan. It was the only way I used to get to hear and get to know who was playing contemporary blues. I used to record the shows on my cassette deck and each broadcast was like a new album for me. And they would give you a little background on the artists, and sometimes they would include interviews with the artist. And that’s how I became familiar with a lot of artists at the time.
So one show I’m hearing this guy Mighty Sam McClain for the first time. I had no idea who he was. This must have been around 1990, I think, 1991? Something like that.
BK: Yeah, I think we made the first Mighty Sam record around ’92.
RRB: OK, there wouldn’t have been a live performance on the radio before then?
BK: Not before that. Not with me anyway.
RRB: Ok. No this was definitely with you.
BK: Yeah, Mighty Sam was one great singer.
RRB: So, wow, I’m hearing this high energy, amazing B-3 solo in the middle of the song and at the end of the solo, Sam’s is shouting “Bruce Katz! That’s Bruce Katz on the B-3!” And I’m saying to myself, “Bruce Katz. Wow. Who the hell is this guy Bruce Katz?” And that was the first time I heard you play. So can you tell me a little bit about your experience with Mighty Sam McClain?
BK: Mighty Sam, well, I had formed my own band around 1991, or 1990. And the drummer in my band, Lorne Entress, who actually currently plays with Ronnie Earl, he knew of Mighty Sam McClain, and at that time Mighty Sam was almost living on the street in New Orleans. Really down on his luck. And Lorne decided he was going to get in touch, he was so impressed with Mighty Sam and his singing. He found Mighty Sam and brought him to Connecticut. He put him up in his own house for about six months.
We got him a record deal with AudioQuest and my band, at the time, basically backed up Sam for his first album, which was called …. I can’t think of the name. [“Give It Up To Love”]
RRB: This was his first album?
BK: Well, no, no. It was his first album in a long time. He had albums in the late 60’s, early 70’s. He had minor hits. He had covered a Patsy Cline tune, and he was one of these soul singers in the early 70’s, and then he just kind of ---------- due to various misfortunes, his career went down, and this was the resurrection of Sam’s career. So we became his backup band and we recorded that first record with him, which is an amazing record, and I know the first time that Sam came to Boston and we met him, we were at a practice room at Berklee College of Music, and I sort of knew about Sam. But we’re in there, me and Kevin Barry and Lorne Entress, and Sam walks in and he starts singing and …. our mouths were just like, …. I mean, just an incredible singer. Amazing. So I was never really in Sam’s band very much. I did his first six records. When I say his first six, his six that he made after his comeback. And I did some shows with him. And, what a singer. I wrote a tune with him that I did on one of my albums, called “Hanging On The Cross”.
RRB: Which you’re still doing now.
BK: Which we’re still doing now.
RRB: It’s an awesome song.
BK: Yeah, it’s a great song. Yeah, Sam was something. [note: Mighty Sam McClain died on June 15, 2015]
RRB: Well, thanks to those old syndicated shows, I got to hear you for the first time, and I got to know who Mighty Sam McClain was. I had never, ever heard of this guy before. So the list of people you’ve played with is so long, so let me just ask you about a few of them.
RRB: But first, is it true that when you started out as a professional you played bass for Big Mama Thornton?
BK: I did play bass for Big Mama Thornton, yes. I grew up playing piano and also string bass in high school orchestras. Then I picked up electric bass. And when I was in rock bands I would double on piano and bass a lot of the times, and I love playing bass. And then I just concentrated on piano. Then around 1982 I got the opportunity to play with Big Mama Thornton. She needed a bass player and I dusted off my bass, and I did a few tours with her on the east coast.
RRB: What was that experience like?
BK: It was fabulous.
RRB: That’s a throwback to another era.
BK: Yeah, she was really soulful. She had her problems, and we would try to keep her sober. When she was sober, she was great. She was great even if she wasn’t, but sometimes things could go a little weird. Yeah, it was amazing and I loved playing bass with her. I love playing bass. I just never do it anymore.
RRB: Yeah, I’d like to hear you play bass.
BK: I was a good blues bass player.
RRB: You actually do play bass, but on the keyboard, while you’re doing all these other things.
BK: I mean, that’s a thing, I’m a real bass player. And so when I’m playing organ and I’m playing bass I understand bass, and I think like a bass player. I think a lot of times keyboard players that are doing bass, their approaching it in this weird kind of way. They don’t actually know what it’s like to play the bass.
So it has helped me quite a bit in my band now that I’m doing it as an organ trio and I’m doing bass on the organ.
RRB: Yeah, that’s awesome.
BK: I can think like you’re supposed to think. You know, it’s all about groove and simplicity.
RRB: I’m always amazed when I see you or any other B-3 player playing the bass while they’re carrying on this other – melodies and everything else going on. It must take some practice to get to do that.
BK: Yeah, I don’t know, just divide your brain up in a different kind of way, I guess.
RRB: So one of the other people I want to ask you about that you’ve played with is Ronnie Earl. I think you did six records with him. Can you tell me a little bit about the whole experience playing with Ronnie Earl?
BK: Ahh, well.
RRB: I think that was in the mid – 90’s?
BK: Early and mid-90’s. Six and a half years with Ronnie. And six albums. That was a great experience. I mean, I don’t know if there’s a better blues guitarist of that generation than Ronnie Earl. The excitement, and energy and intensity. He and I were well-suited for each other, I think. But I learned a lot about playing slow blues from Ronnie Earl, because he would play 17 minute slow blues and not even blink. But yeah, I learned a lot. I was already pretty much into playing blues, but with Ronnie it was just deeper and deeper. You know, I see these videos that are out online and I enjoy watching them. I’m a big fan of Ronnie Earl’s.
RRB: Yeah, I was just watching the Live in Germany video.
BK: Oh yeah, pretty good stuff.
RRB: Yeah, just off the charts.
BK: He just blew the roof off the place night after night. As you know, I play with a fair amount of energy, And Ronnie’s you know…… the two of us used to levitate buildings.
RRB: So why did you leave Ronnie Earl, to do your own thing?
BK: Yeah, kind of, it had gotten to that point. I had done two records or CD’s. I was doing my own gigs, between Ronnie gigs. Then I got the opportunity in 1997, to do my third CD, called “Mississippi Moan”, and I realized it was sort of now or never. Either I was going to start touring and doing my own thing or I was going to keep being Ronnie Earl’s piano player, which was a very good thing to be, but not have my own career, and it was time to do that, and I couldn’t do both. Because it wasn’t like with Ronnie – you’re not going to send a sub in – either you’re in that band or you’re not in that band.
RRB: By the way, I just saw him a couple of weeks ago here in BB Kings and he still sounds totally incredible. Very soulful and just amazing. So one of the other people I want to ask you about is Gregg Allman. You played with him, I think from 2007 to 2013.
BK: Yes, I did.
RRB: So can you tell us a little bit about that experience?
BK: Well, you know, I’ve had these experiences with playing with these legendary type people, and, you know, that voice, you know, playing some of those songs with Gregg singing, I don’t know what to say about it, it was a very cool experience. Gregg’s a great guy and the band – Jerry Jemmott was the bass player, the guy that was with King Curtis and Aretha. It was a different kind of experience. I mean, getting into the whole Allman Brothers thing. My audition for Gregg was just walking onstage at The Beacon Theater and sitting in with The Allman Brothers, unannounced, unprepared on everything. “Just come down to The Beacon and you’ll sit in with us and I’ll hear ya.” And so I sat down and played right there.
RRB: Sounds crazy to me that they did things like that because I know that’s how Scott Sharrard, the guitarist, auditioned for Gregg. It just sounds wild.
BK: Well, Gregg takes things as they go. I mean the worst thing that could happen would be that I sucked and they had a bad moment. But yeah, he’s kind of casual in that way.
RRB: It’s kind of cool. So you taught at Berklee College of Music for quite a number of years also. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
BK: Yeah, I went there in the late 70’s as a student. And then I wasn’t involved with Berklee for about 18 years. And then I came back and taught, and I really loved teaching there. There’s an amazing amount of talented people. It’s a very intense place. I taught harmony and private lessons and a Hammond organ ensemble and a Blues History course I created for the school, and you know, I learned from the students quite a bit, you know, interacting with that many extremely talented twenty year olds. I loved that gig, but I moved to the Catskills. I just wanted to move there. And for five years I commuted to Boston from Woodstock and I just couldn’t keep that commute going. I was traveling on the road all the time playing, and then when I wasn’t traveling on the road I’d be running to Boston doing my classes. It was too much.
RRB: Were they doing anything with the blues before you started doing stuff there?
BK: Not really, no. It’s roots are a jazz school, but it’s expanded. They do music therapy and film scoring and production and engineering and stuff, but yeah, blues would get the short end of the stick there. A lot of people, they don’t understand it, they think it’s this simple form that’s beneath them or something, and I wouldn’t hire them for a gig, because they don’t know how to play the music. There are only a handful of people there – myself, Dave Limina, who currently plays with Ronnie Earl, Mike Williams – just a handful of people. I had to fight to create this Blues History class. Their attitude was like, well, how can you have a whole course on blues history, it’s like 3 chords or something. So yeah, it’s better now, but it’s still the vast majority are either jazz, or sort of industry type people there.
RRB: But you did something innovative there.
BK: Yeah, you know the students that were interested in roots, in Hammond and blues, would come to me or a few other teachers there. We had to fight for respect.
RRB: Alright. So I want to mention a few other people I know you occasionally play with – Delbert McClinton?
BK: I played regularly with Delbert McClinton for about 3 years and I love Delbert.
RRB: I saw he’s playing here sometime soon. Are you still playing with him?
BK: Not really, just very occasionally subbing. For a few years I was a regular member of his band. His whole band are Nashville people and he’s in Nashville. He really liked me so for a few years, after his regular guy who had been with him for 15 years left, he flew me around and I would meet up with them in the bus and do tours. His regular guy, who had been with him for 15 years, came back, and he’s in Nashville, so I’m just an occasional sub.
RRB: OK. You occasionally play with John Hammond.
BK: John Hammond, yeah, who I’ve known for about 15 years or so. I’m on his last CD that he did with a band and he’s on my new CD, and we do occasional gigs. I’m headlining with him in July as a duo at the North Atlantic Blues Festival in Maine, July 16.
RRB: Great. Fantastic.
BK: Yeah, John, he’s about – he’s just so deep. I love John. As a person, and as a musician. He’s just incredible.
RRB: A few other people I wanted to mention – you still play with Jaimoe’s Jasssz Band?
BK: Once in a while. I’m playing a lot with Butch Trucks.
RRB: Well, I’m going to get to Butch. Occasionally you play with the CKS Band.
BK: Which is on hiatus. We’re officially on hiatus because we’re all really busy and our orbits are not intersecting very well. Scott’s playing with Gregg. Randy Chiarlante has his band called The Weight, which is all ex-Levon people doing kind of a Levon/The Band tribute, and myself, and so we just don’t ….. we haven’t done a gig in about a year and we’re officially putting it on the shelf until some day. That’s a great band, and I love those guys, but we don’t want to do a gig every six months, and not rehearse.
RRB: OK. So you have just recently been touring with Butch Trucks and The Freight Train Band.
BK: Right, and Les Brers, also.
RRB: Les Brers, that’s something that’s coming up at the end of this month? You’re playing in Macon?
BK: In a few weeks we’re getting together to rehearse for four days, which will be great because we never rehearsed, and we’ll do two shows at The Cox Theater in Macon, and that’s kind of The Allman Brothers Band, you know – Oteil, Marc, Jaimoe, and Butch and Jack Pearson and Pat Bergeson and myself, and Lamar Williams, Jr. That’s a strong band. And we’re gonna do Wanee and The Peach also. And The Freight Train Band is doing a lot of tours. We just finished a couple of tours. We’re going to do a three week tour in April. Then we’re going back out in July. That’s a really fun band, with Damon Fowler and Vaylor Trucks and Berry Oakley, Jr., and myself, and Heather Gillis. It’s a great ……….. . It’s a great vibe and it’s really fun. Great material.
RRB: I’ve seen a few of the shows.
BK: Yeah, it’s fun.
RRB: So let’s talk about The Bruce Katz Band.
BK: Hey, that’s a good idea.
Well, I’ve been plugging away for 24 years with that band. The first album came out in 1992. And we have seven albums. Actually, I was just at the record company today discussing …. We’re recording a new one at the end of May. I think it’s a great band. We do mostly my own stuff. It used to be all instrumental but now it’s about half and half – vocal and instrumental. And you know, it’s a band that takes a broad view of the universe. We incorporate a lot of styles into one broadly called blues. You call it blues, but there’s a lot of different stuff going on.
RRB: Pretty much every style.
BK: Yeah, a lot of styles.
RRB: And you mix ‘em up.
BK: Well I am who I am and I like what I like, and I don’t really see that things have to be so stylized or pure the way the music business wants. You know back in the day when there used to be record stores – does it go in the blues or does it go in the jazz, or does it go in the rock? You confuse people sometimes if you you’re mixing genres, but my goal with that band was definitely a blues feeling throughout, but it can go anywhere from avant-garde to anything, you know.
But I’m always looking for the essential inner blues feeling in everything that we do. And so to me that’s always there and that’s what I want to be there. And then I’ll let my influences and my ideas run.
RRB: The latest CD is called “Homecoming”?
BK: It’s called “Homecoming”, yeah.
RRB: You mentioned John Hammond is on a couple of cuts.
BK: Yeah, and Jimmy Bennett and Peter Bennett from Alexis P. Suter’s band, and my old buddy, Marty Ballou, who was on my first album and who, these days, plays with Peter Wolf among other people. And my usual players - Ralph Rosen on drums and Chris Vitarello on guitar and vocals.
RRB: So last thing, let me just ask you, I know you just came out with an instructional DVD called Breakthrough Blues Piano?
BK: Yes, it’s something I always wanted to do and I was approached by Steve Nixon who has this company, and I went to Chicago and did it, and I was really happy with the way it came out. I didn’t know what it would be like, but he can really produce this stuff. I mean most of it is - I’m talking and you can see my hands. Except there’s graphics while I’m talking through all this stuff and there’s transcriptions.
RRB: Did you draw upon any of your teachings at Berklee?
BK: Oh yeah, very much. It’s a lot of ideas I have about playing blues piano. And I think I could make a 12 hour DVD. This is a two hour DVD and I decided I would get a certain program going and gear it in certain ways. I touch down on a lot of things and things that I think are important. I think it’s about the sounds and the rhythms, and the feel is what makes the blues sound like blues. Other stuff is great you know. I would teach at Berklee and I would have these students sit down and play super complex Keith Jarrett or McCoy Tyner, or classical music that would have monster chops. They couldn’t swing or shuffle a blues. And I would ignore all the chops and just go for the feeling of it. Try to get them to feel that. Then go back to all the hot licks and stuff. But yeah, the DVD, I’m happy.
RRB: So where can people find out how to get that? At your website?
BK: Yeah, there’s a link on my website, but I think the website is freejazzlessons.com, that’s the website of the company. There are some free jazz lessons, but obviously there are non-free jazz lessons.
RRB: Alright. Listen, Bruce, thanks for sitting down and talking to me. I’m looking forward to the set tonight here in Lucille’s.
BK: Thanks, Tom.
Video of Bruce Katz: