The title of keyboardist Bruce Katz’s new CD, Homecoming, could refer to the strong showing by ace Hudson Valley roots and blues players such as drummer Randy Ciarlante (the Levon Helm Band, CKS) and the ubiquitous regional blues guitarist/vocalist Chris Vitarello. Or the title might imply that Katz is returning to the fertile ground of the blues again after a hiatus. (This seems least likely, as Katz’s high-profile sideman work with Gregg Allman and Delbert McClinton, among others, has seldom taken him far from that bedrock.)
Finally, Homecoming could signify the return of Katz’s attentions to his own band and his own compositions after years of Odyssean tour work as an A-list Hammond specialist and a remarkably fluent and flexible poly-blues pianist, for while most of the tracks on Homecoming could you get you thinking that you were listening to standards (from far-flung eras and locales), these are all original tunes, in the timeless modes and mutations of the blues.
Katz and Company’s idiomatic command of the blues is so convincing and historically informed, it would almost seem pedantic: songs that shuffle and swing through blues history from New Orleans backline to the Delta, to Chicago, to the honky-tonk, to the jazz club and even out into the funky jam-blues field where the hippies spin, teaching the finer points and distinctions as they go. But the band is clearly having too much fun to be teaching anything; and while he is in fact a blues pedant, having taught the craft at Berklee and privately, Katz rescues the tunes from blues dogma with his elegant and inspired soloing and his crisp line-writing.
And he both is and isn’t a purist. His choices and voicings on piano and organ scream authenticity, but many of the songs commit acts of stylistic fusion that would leave purists feeling pretty violated: the soul-bop of “Time Flies,” the angular hippie funk of “Just an Expression,” the “Whipping Post”-like hard-luck…waltz of the album-closing “It’s a Bad Time.” Katz manages to express both a “Here’s how they did it in the old days” reverence for blues tradition and blues idiosyncrasy, as well as some playfulness and a light irreverence in the ways in which he and the boys dance across time and geography.
There seems to be a war over the blues – a war for its privileges, personae and legacies. On the one hand, we have the accredited modern blues player, of which Katz and his cast here are pretty select examples. The blues, the modern blues, loves to decorate its torchbearers as do few other genres, with preservation societies, regional and national Halls of Fame, steering committees, advancement leagues and a massive trophy case; and Katz is a gaudily and deservingly decorated…cat.
On the other side, we have the high-fashion indie kids who, maybe originally inspired by The White Stripes and the Black Keys, lay claim to the visceral primitivism and eccentricity of the old blues, the Delta blues, the Chess blues and its myth-fired cultural landscape. The modern blues crowd seeks to renew the relevance of the blues; the indie blues crowd seeks the exact opposite of relevance: something as hermetically retro, raw and otherworldly as Gregorian chant.
The point is not lost on Katz. In a move that is highly uncommon and maybe even discouraged in the modern blues milieu, Katz recreates not only an old blues sound, but also Old World production values on “Blues before Sunshine,” a slow and somber piano blues recorded with a dry and boxy, singer-in-the-same-room feel that provides both the most authentic and the most stylized moment on this really fine record.
The Bruce Katz Band celebrates the release of Homecoming with a show at the Bearsville Theater on Saturday, December 20 at 9 p.m. The ensemble for this show will include Katz, Randy Ciarlante on drums and vocals, Jimmy Bennett on guitar and vocals and Peter Bennett on bass. Bennett and Bennett are well -known to locals for their work in the Alexis P. Suter Band. Tickets cost $15 in advance and $20 at the door. For tickets or more information, call (845) 679-4406 or visit www.bearsvilletheater.com.
Bruce Katz Band, Saturday, December 20, 9 p.m., $20/$15, Bearsville Theater, 291 Tinker Street, Woodstock.