Bruce Katz Band: Fostering ‘Connections’

Dean Budnick on July 5, 2023
Bruce Katz Band: Fostering ‘Connections’

While Bruce Katz is properly extolled as a preeminent blues artist, this characterization is simultaneously justifiable and limiting.

The keyboard player certainly merits approbation for his blues artistry. “He is a master of the Hammond B3 and a wizard as far as the keyboards go,” says God Street Wine guitarist/vocalist Aaron Lieberman, who began performing with Katz in 2019.

However, while the Bruce Katz Band’s new album is steeped in the blues, it references many additional textures and moods. The aptly named Connections also reflects Katz’s lifelong affinity for jazz, funk, boogie-woogie, the classic sounds of New Orleans and even the spirit of the Grateful Dead.

Lieberman adds, “He is willing to be raw in his playing but also very sophisticated. Bruce was a professor at the Berklee College of Music for 14 years. You might think something he’s written is a traditional blues, and then it takes a left turn. However, you still feel the foundations of where it all came from.”

As Katz notes, “When I formed my very first band after years of being a sideman, I decided that I would do what I wanted to do instead of trying to fit myself into this person’s vision or that person’s vision.”

Katz—who had performed with artists such as Big Mama Thornton, Barrence Whitfield & The Savages and Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters—kicked his solo career into gear following the release of his 1997 record, Mississippi Moon. He had issued two prior albums but this was the moment when he fully committed to his own group, stepping away from the Broadcasters. (His time with that quartet remains a creative apogee for the band.)

In the years that followed, Katz maintained a focus on his own pursuits, even as his command on the keys occasionally led him to join other artists on the road, including Delbert McClinton, Butch Trucks and Jaimoe.

In 2007, he became a member of Gregg Allman and Friends, which is one of the connections referenced in the title of his new record. Katz’s trio recorded the album at the storied Capricorn Studios in Macon, Ga., frequented by The Allman Brothers Band.

It all began in 2005, when the keyboardist moved from Boston to Woodstock, N.Y. Shortly afterward, Jerry Portnoy, who played harmonica in Pinetop Perkins’ band, invited Katz to attend their Midnight Ramble gig at Levon Helm’s Barn in case Perkins, who was feeling under the weather, proved unable to perform. Katz agreed and ultimately did take the stage, which led to an offer from Helm to become a steady presence at the Rambles. A couple of years later, Jay Collins, a fellow member of the Ramble band who also toured with Allman, informed Katz that Gregg was looking for a new keyboard player. Katz was invited to sit in during the Allman Brothers’ run at the Beacon Theatre.

“So I went down there, they let me in the back door and I was as nervous as I could possibly be,” Katz reveals. “Jay wasn’t even there because he wasn’t playing with them that night and he was busy. [Tour manager] Kirk West told me to stand on the side of the stage, and Gregg would call me over when he wanted me to play. So my audition for Gregg was in front of 3,000 people at the Beacon Theatre playing ‘Stormy Monday.’ It was nerve-wracking because I was playing piano, and the way that Gregg would set up was that he had the organ facing the crowd and the piano facing the band. There was only one organ bench so I had to squeeze onto the bench. I was sitting shoulder to shoulder with Gregg, trying not to elbow him accidentally while I was playing. It seemed to go well, though, and they called me back a few days later to play again.”

During Katz’s tenure in Allman’s group, he became friends with Gregg’s longtime aide-de-camp Chank Middleton, which led him to Macon for a memorial after Middleton passed away in July 2022. Katz recalls, “I heard that Capricorn had reopened, but I thought it was a museum or something, where you could walk in and see artifacts. I decided to go over there and the engineer recognized me. So he showed me around this magnificent, refurbished studio. I had been thinking for a few months: ‘Where am I going to record the next album?’ Well, I walked into that studio and within 10 seconds, I said to myself, ‘This is definitely it.’ So we ended up doing it there and it was fantastic. We all felt the vibe.”

Connections is Katz’s first recording to feature his current three-piece, which also includes Lieberman and drummer Liviu Pop.

When longtime Bruce Katz Band guitarist Chris Vitarello departed the group, Jay Collins was among the folks who recommended fellow Woodstock resident Lieberman.

“I didn’t really know much about God Street Wine,” Katz acknowledges. “I knew the name, but I had never seen them. It was definitely love at first sight with Aaron. As far as guitar playing goes, he and I are really tuned into very similar things, like the Grateful Dead—the concept of what they would do as improvisers, how they built solos and the aesthetic of that music. I also love his singing, which is very expressive. I’ve been in Gregg Allman’s band, John Hammond’s band and Delbert McClinton’s band so I’ve gotten spoiled by singers. But Aaron really gets me when he sings. There’s an emotional thing there—he has a beautiful instrument.”

Lieberman admits, “When we first met, I was feeling a little bit insecure. I had some preconceptions as to what I was walking into. I don’t come from a blues purist place, and I don’t necessarily sound like Albert King. But I quickly realized that Bruce and I were on the same sort of wavelength. He encouraged me to play authentically and like myself.”

The guitarist adds, “We also had these amazing conversations about Grateful Dead shows from the early ‘70s. Then I realized he used to go see them during that time. He was a treasure trove of information for me.”

Katz affirms that he first saw the group in the fall of 1970 at the Stony Brook University Gym on Long Island. “It was the original band with Pigpen,” Katz notes. “All of a sudden, I was driving to Cleveland, Boston and all over the eastern half of the United States to see Grateful Dead shows. I saw them a lot between ‘70 and ‘73, then maybe a couple of times in ‘74. I didn’t see them at all for 13 years, then I went to see them at the Worcester Centrum in 1987, and I was pleasantly surprised. I enjoyed the show and I also enjoyed being with my people, if you know what I mean.”

The trio’s lineup is completed by Romanian-born drummer Liviu Pop, a 2018 Connecticut Blues Hall of Fame inductee who has performed with Lucky Peterson, Hubert Sumlin, Mighty Sam McClain and other luminaries.

“Liviu’s got all the chops,” Katz attests. “He has a background in jazz, rock and blues, and he prepares parts that are fantastically impeccable. But he’s also an improviser who’s not afraid to jump off the cliff. A drummer has to be a really good timekeeper, but I also like it when there’s spontaneous interplay between everybody. I don’t want a drummer just to set the groove, and Liviu adds some unpredictable excitement to the band. He’s also the best soloing drummer I’ve ever heard. I normally don’t care about that so much, but he plays these fantastic drum solos where I’m sitting there enthralled.”

The original Bruce Katz Band was a five-piece with a saxophone and bass player, however Katz, eventually, distilled it down to a trio, where he performs the bass parts himself. “It’s funny because, when I play gigs in front of people whose reference is rock[1]and-roll, they’ll compare me to Ray Manzarek. Now, his left hand was fantastic—the way he did the bass—but that’s not what led me to do it. I’m coming from Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Charles Earland and all those guys. It’s also really fun to be thinking like a rhythm section. When I teach, I tell people that rhythm is equally important as melody and harmony. It’s not all licks and chords. It’s where you put them.”

He also points to the Connections track “The Dream” and divulges, “Listen to my bass playing; I’m trying to channel Phil Lesh!”

The new record presents an amalgam of the three musicians’ interests and affinities. Lieberman contributes a couple songs, including a collaboration with Katz on “Nighttime Stroll.” “Bruce had written it years ago as an instrumental called ‘The Stroll,’” Lieberman explains. “Then, one day, while I was on my way to meet him at the studio, I was listening to it and started singing along—the words just began flying out. I had to pull over and write them all down. When I arrived at the studio, Bruce was warming up on the piano and I asked him to play ‘The Stroll.’ Then I showed him what I’d done, and we changed it to ‘Nighttime Stroll’ with the words.”

While only four of the 11 songs on Connections have vocals, in the live setting the ratio is closer to 50-50, which is a recent development for the Bruce Katz Band. “I’m very happy that I have a singer in the band these days,” the group’s namesake remarks. “I consider the vocal thing a different texture. I don’t want to play only instrumental music anymore, like I did once upon a time. I like the balance. Of course, I also feel that instrumental music has more responsibility in some ways. If you’re a great singer and you have a certain kind of rhythmic groove behind you, then you can take a few chords, write some great words and make it a vehicle for yourself. But if you have an instrumental song, it can’t be a shuffle with a mundane melody because that’s boring. So you have to think about melody and texture and really think about how to give meaning to this song without lyrics.”

As for the range of material that the Bruce Katz Band performs, Lieberman comments, “I think that sometimes people give audiences less credit than they deserve. So they pigeonhole things in a way that limits the possibilities. The pandemic really focused me and made me realize what’s important to me. What I want to do is be authentic—that’s my North Star with the music, just finding that ground where we’re communicating.”

Katz adds, “I don’t know many people who only listen to one kind of music and are so wrapped up in a narrow style. I look at this album and I think it goes to some different places, but it’s the same band and the same conception. It’s pretty cohesive in its own eclectic way.”