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Keys to the Kingdom: Bruce Katz by Peter Aaron

At the tender age of 10, Bruce Katz’s future as a classical pianist was already over.

“I’d been taking classical lessons since I was five, but one day I was looking through my parents’ LPs and I came across a Bessie Smith album,” he recollects. “Pretty much all my folks listened to was show tunes, light classical, and Jewish music, so it was weird to find this lone blues record. But I put it on and it just completely killed me. And through that, I discovered Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, and the other early jazz guys. By the time I was 12, I was taking swing and boogie woogie lessons.” Thus, at an age when most boys are building models, the Long Island-raised Katz was already building his career as one of today’s leading keyboardists, a first-call piano and organ player who performs around the globe and has worked with such legends as the Allman Brothers, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Levon Helm, Little Milton, Jimmy Witherspoon, David “Fathead” Newman, and others.

Jazz, soul, gospel, R&B, rock ’n’ roll—they all come from the blues, of course. And Katz does what too few other players convincingly do: He plays the blues and all of their rich variants in a way that never feels like he’s “slumming” in any of them. Instead, Katz stirs the stew, reeling these tributaries back together and reacquainting them with each other before serving them all back up—with a huge helping of his own secret, spicy mojo.

Katz moved to Boston in 1974 to study at Berklee College of Music, and immersed himself in the city’s thriving blues and rock scenes. In addition to his childhood piano lessons Katz had also studied bass, which further diversified his opportunities and led to his touring with the great Big Mama Thornton. Besides his getting to play with some of his heroes, Katz’s early Boston years held another milestone. “I got a job at a recording studio, and there was this Hammond B-3 [organ] there,” he recalls. “I’d never really played one but I’d always loved the sound, the powerful textures you can get. So that’s where I started to play organ.”

During the ’80s Katz played with garage R&B outfit Barrence Whitfield and the Savages before deciding to enroll at the New England Conservatory of Music. After graduating he was invited join ex-Roomful of Blues guitarist Ronnie Earl’s white-hot band, the Broadcasters. Katz played with Earl for five years, touring the world and recording six albums. Between gigs with Earl, he released three discs by the Bruce Katz Band, finally leaving the Broadcasters in 1997 to concentrate on a solo career and a teaching position at Berklee. (Katz would later work with another ex-Roomful guitarist, Duke Robillard.)

After the release of his band’s acclaimed fourth outing, A Deeper Blue (2004, Severn Records), Katz moved to the Catskills, drawn to the area by its natural beauty and teeming musical community. Foremost among the latter is, of course, Levon Helm, with whom Katz has played, both as a member of the ex-Band man’s group and as an opener at his famed Midnight Rambles.

It was Jay Collins, Helm’s saxophonist and son-in-law, who introduced Katz to Collins’s other boss, Gregg Allman. “Gregg was looking for a second keyboardist for his own band and also for the Allman Brothers,” says Katz. “He had me sit in with them during one of their Beacon Theater gigs. It was freaky for me, to say the least, because I'm such a huge Allmans fan. But he dug it and I got the gig.”

In 2006 folk blues great John Hammond featured Katz on Push Comes to Shove (Blue Note Records). “Bruce is probably the greatest piano player I’ve ever worked with,” says Hammond. “The first time I saw him play I thought, ‘Who is this guy?’”

Along with the Bruce Katz Band, in which the leader plays both piano and organ, Katz also heads the locally popular Organiks, a foursome that—as the name foretells—focuses on the latter instrument. Both bands share guitarist Chris Vitarello, but the Organiks also feature Collins on sax and vocals and Randy Ciarlante on drums and vocals. Katz’s most recent endeavor, however, is the band he co-leads with saxophonist Joel Frahm on Project A (2009, Anzic Records), a richly rewarding set of tunes associated with Aretha Franklin. “Bruce has the kind of blues and soul and grit in his playing that can only come from years of gigs and recordings with the very heaviest musicians in R&B and jazz,” writes Frahm in the CD’s liner notes.

But all of this praise by critics and fellow musicians begs the question: If Katz had to choose one, which would he take—piano or organ? “They’re such totally different instruments, I really couldn’t pick one over the other,” says Katz. “I’m happiest when I’m in situations where I get to play either one.”

Bruce Katz will be with Matt Finck (guitar) and Randy Ciarlante (drums) at Keegan Ales, 20 James St. November 1, 7 PM

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