Keyboardist, singer, and songwriter Bruce Katz — appearing on Saturday, April 11, at the Record Collector in Bordentown — has been one of the most in-demand keyboard players on the road or in the recording studio.
Gregg Allman of Allman Brothers fame, himself a veteran Hammond B-3 organist and keyboardist, insisted he have Katz play piano with his touring band. For much of the 1990s Katz toured with Boston guitar great Ronnie Earl in his various backing bands. In the studio he has recorded with Delbert McClinton, Duke Robillard, Allman Brothers longtime drummer Jaimoe [Jai Johanny Johanson], Mighty Sam McClain, Kenny Neal, Joe Louis Walker, Debbie Davies, Bryan Lee, Little Milton Campbell, John Hammond, and Barrence Whitfield and the Savages, among dozens of others, primarily in the world of contemporary blues and blues-rock.
Late last year Katz released what may well be his best album to date, and what’s more, it was recorded in Dover’s Showplace Music Studios. His originals — “Homecoming,” “No Brainer,” “Just an Expression,” and “Won’t Last ‘Til Tuesday” — all sparkle. He injects a master composer’s sensibility into blues covers like Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Santa Fe Blues” and LeRoy Carr’s “Blues Before Sunrise.”
Showplace Studios owner Ben Elliott, who has recorded everyone from Les Paul and Bucky Pizzarelli to Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones at his facility in Dover, New Jersey, served as co-producer of the album. “He’s got great ears, and his studio is truly incredible. It’s one of the best studios I’ve ever been in,” Katz says by phone from his home just west of Woodstock, New York.
When he arrives at the Record Collector, a true listening room, Katz will be accompanied by his longtime drummer Ralph Rosen and longtime guitarist Chris Vitarello. As a Hammond B-3 organist, Katz, who studied acoustic bass in high school and college, will play bass on his organ, in the tradition of other great organists like Jimmy McGriff and Jimmy Smith. The realities of making decent money touring these days makes it much easier to go on the road as a trio as opposed to a five-piece band, Katz points out.
Guests on Katz’s “Homecoming” include Jersey City-based John Paul Hammond, the acoustic blues guitarist and singer, Barnegat-based brothers Jimmy and Peter Bennett, and bassist Marty Ballou.
Bordentown is a distance from home for Katz, who was born in Brooklyn but raised in Valley Stream, Long Island. He is the son of a housewife and garment district business owner. Although neither was musical, they had a piano. Because of his interest and seeming aptitude for music while he was a toddler, Katz began with classical piano lessons as a five-year-old. His parents had classical, opera, and pop tunes in their album collection, and one album from a pioneering blues vocalist. “They had one Bessie Smith record, and I found it when I was 10. It just sort of changed my life. They weren’t really encouraging about anything except playing classical piano. When I started playing blues, they were like ‘Oh God, what have we done?’ “
“For some reason that I’m not quite sure of, Italian and Jewish kids seem to fall into playing blues, and many say they grew up with the blues,” he says, citing examples like late Chicago guitarist Michael Bloomfield, Jimmy and Jerry Vivino from New Jersey, and even their brother Floyd, a.k.a. Uncle Floyd, who often dazzles crowds at his comedy shows with his boogie-woogie piano chops.
Trumpeter and American international ambassador of goodwill Louis Armstrong was on that Bessie Smith record, so recordings by Armstrong led Katz to other early boogie-woogie and blues piano players from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Then in high school, he played bass and piano with the school orchestra, but his head was into the classic blues of Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, and others. “That’s the stuff I was into when my friends were into the Dave Clarke Five and rock ‘n’ roll. I got caught up with psychedelic rock later, but I remember hearing John Mayall and Paul Butterfield. That led me to hear some of their inspirations as well,” he says.
Katz says that his first paid professional gigs did not happen until he went to college, attending John Hopkins in Baltimore to please his parents. He played in a few rock bands and then left school. “After I dropped out of Hopkins, in my parents’ view, I was floundering, playing rock ‘n’ roll gigs, and not knowing what to do. So I went to Berklee [the music school in Boston]. After touring my brains out for a lot of years with Barrence Whitfield and the Savages, I decided to take a breath and get my master’s (from New England Conservatory). I got it when I was 40. It was a great time to get back into some musical exploration and getting the master’s did allow me to get back into teaching,” he says.
Katz taught at Berklee College of Music for 14 years, and because he was such an in-demand keyboardist, he found he couldn’t give up lucrative gigs touring with Gregg Allman. Something had to give, so he gave up the four-hour each way commute from the Hudson Valley to Boston each week, when he would leave on a Tuesday morning and come back on Wednesday nights.
Katz’s wife, Victoria, works in legal aid for working poor people. “She’s not a social worker, but she’s worked in the legal services field for most of her life,” Katz says. “She works with everyone from battered wives to poor people living on the street. I really don’t know how she does it.” The couple has a 30-year-old daughter and a two-year-old grand-daughter.
Aside from “Homecoming,” Katz’ other solo album projects include “Live at the Firefly” for VizzTone Records, “A Deeper Blue” for Severn Records, and four critically acclaimed discs — some actually originally issued on vinyl — for the West Coast AudioQuest label: “Crescent Crawl” in 1992, “Transformation” in 1994, “Mississippi Moan” in 1997, and “Three Feet Off The Ground” in 2001.
This spring and summer Katz will be touring under his own name with his own trio and also accompanying drummer Gabe Butterfield, son of legendary harmonica player Paul Butterfield, on some festival tours.
Asked what an audience unfamiliar with his music might expect at the Record Collector on April 11, Katz says a lot of his music can be heard on his website. “With the revamped website, there are clips from every song off every album I ever did as a leader, as well as some video. Sometimes people get the wrong impression that my band is a jazz thing, but the basic element I’ve always gone for with my band, is, at the core, it’s coming from the blues,” Katz says. “Even though there might be some sounds that take you on a journey away from straight-ahead Chicago blues, my music is blues music at its core.”
Bruce Katz Band, Record Collector, 358 Farnsworth Avenue, Bordentown. Saturday, April 11, 8 p.m. $18 advance, $22 at door. 609-324-0880 or www.the-record-collector.com.