The Bruce Katz Band Gets Their ‘Groove’ On

by Brandon Findlay

There came a point, between conducting this interview and listening to the new Bruce Katz Band record to craft an honest review, that I came to wonder what the value of all of this really is. Because intellectually, emotionally, joyfully – I grasp and touch value. I frequently learn of others who do as well. This album and subsequent tours are as strong as any Bruce has mounted under his own name in the twenty-five-plus years since his first solo record. No writer can say what any artist is due, but the temptation is strong to say that this is the kind of band many would enjoy, if exposure could just be meaningful . . . and valuable.

Valuable art should, and will, make a person think meaningfully, and I had just spent around six hours over two nights enjoying this trio, right as they were playing this new song set for the first few times. I had the thought that Bruce is a lot like the late, lamented Danny Gatton – he has ample capability to go wherever and do whatever anyone could possibly ask, but he is his own man by many miles, and fiercely married to his own artistic impulsion and vision. And yet – for as personal as this record is, and as well as it expands his extant library, it’s listenable and accessible in ways most ears need for absorption. That the group, an organ/guitar/drums trio most often live, augments with friends on the recording also adds to the wider appeal, especially with Allman Brothers survivor Jai “Jaimoe” Johanson on board for some double drumming.

The interview that follows was entirely off-the-cuff at the end of a very long night, and features some of the most honest conversations I have had with Bruce and his band in the ten-plus-years I have been covering them. Guitarist/vocalist Chris Vitarello and drummer Ray Hangen followed their leader’s model and offer a candid look at the reality of life as artists on the open road – lives spent Getting Their Grooves.
Let’s start with the new record: Get Your Groove! features a beautiful tune written in the memory of the late Butch Trucks, called “Freight Train,” which manages to hit three Allmans-inspired themes. Parts 1 and 3 are that straight-ahead double-drumming groove; part 2 turns into this 6/8 esoteric exploration of different homages and motifs; and part 4 is this jubilee kind of feel, like a gospel homegoing ceremony.

What was it like to write that, and then have Jaimoe play on it?

BK: I thought it was very fitting to have Jaimoe come in and play on that tune in particular – that’s why we brought him in. He ended up overdubbing on [a second] tune and playing on another. [In writing the song] I was letting it lead me. I wanted to write something . . . Butch loved stuff where the groove changed, like time changed, so I knew I wanted to do something like that. And that’s why the middle thing morphs into what it does. It changes the feel – he was really into that. And the opening groove, that kind of complex shuffle, I just had Butch in mind.

The last part of it, the very last part of it, I felt was like the redemption, and Butch’s soul at peace, basically. It ends on these four chords, the final chord being this beautiful, gospel, simple chord that, to me, is – what it means to me is Butch at peace after his tumultuous life.

Ray, I don’t like saying songs written in tribute to drummers are rare – but they are. You’re sitting across from a legend, and you’re not replacing his friend, but kind of tagging in. What was it like to record this song that Bruce wrote very meaningfully, while you’re double-drumming with Jaimoe on your first record with the band?

RH: It was intimidating at first. Bruce just said, hey, I’m writing this song dedicated to Butch Trucks, so make sure you learn some Butch Trucks’ stuff! [all laugh]

BK: I said “Listen to some Butch Trucks, so you can play the groove the way Butch would have.” Because the whole point of this tune was . . . it wasn’t to write something that was dedicated to Butch; this is something he could’ve and would’ve wanted to play.

Ray, when you were studying Butch, what did you learn?
RH: When [Bruce] sent me the song, I did some research on Butch and found the exact thing I was looking for, which was his signature, triplet kind of “shuffley” thing that he does, which is pretty original, man. He basically plays a flam accent, which is drummer talk, but it’s a sticking pattern over a shuffle pattern that he’s playing on the bass drum. And it’s in triplet form so it kind of moves along the shuffle pattern, but it also accents here and there. It’s just really unique – it took me a while to figure out how to fit it into the song.

BK: You should tell him what Jaimoe said to you.

RH: So when Jaimoe and I sat down, got all our drums set up and we’re sitting down, getting sounds – he goes “Hey, let me ask you something” – cause Bruce had sent him the song to learn, and he said “you’re not playing a shuffle in there, what the hell you playin’?” And I kinda laughed and I’m like “I stole this sticking pattern from Butch.” And he starts laughing and he goes “What, really? Show it to me.” So I start breaking it down and showing it to him and he’s like “Damn, I’ve been listening to that groove for forty years and I never knew what the hell he was doing . . . thank you!” and he just started laughing.

Bruce, Jaimoe told you “Freight Train” was like a trilogy, but this whole record feels like the final part of a trilogy, as the third record you’ve made for American Showplace Records. It feels like you’re codifying the BKB sound, of jazz, of jam, of blues. Have these been purposeful statements in that regard?

BK: Basically, on these three records, I decided each time that I would write whatever I felt like, and not try to do this, or try to do that. So that’s what’s been coming out. For a while, like ten years ago or something, I [felt like] “I should be writing this kind of tune,” and I would just write stuff I’d throw out because it didn’t feel authentic. So I’ve just been writing really what I felt like at any moment.

Do you feel like some of the jamband “freedom” ideal has empowered that process for you? That you can just say “I feel like writing this, so screw it!”

BK: Yeah – that’s basically what I’ve been doing. I think that’s the best way to go. I think what comes out will grab people because it’s authentic.

Bruce, your entrance into the Allman Brothers Band was quite a unique experience – didn’t you get dropped off at a hotel room with a keyboard and a stack of material?

BK: Yeah – a stack of CD’s. “Learn everything!” [laughs]. At that moment, I did not know all the Allman Brothers tunes to really play them, and the covers that they do, and the more contemporary Allman Brothers tunes.

Kirk West came back with a stack of twenty CDs and said “Learn Everything” – and I tried, ‘cause the next night I’m playing with the Allman Brothers! I was already in Gregg’s band, but I hadn’t played with the Allman Brothers except to sit-in here and there.

That experience opened a lot of doors for you, in the literal sense, but how did that experience change you as a musician?

BK: In some ways, it brought me back to my roots. As a listener, going to Grateful Dead shows when I was 17 years old, [this experience] kinda brought me back to that whole concept of “expanded time” and group improvisation, and just having all the time in the world to create statements and say what you want to say. And not be like put into a box as much, you know?

Everybody has their own preconceptions of artists like the Dead, or the Allman Brothers, but what was it like to “be human” with somebody like Butch Trucks, whom many considered a living legend?

BK: Hmm . . . Butch was just a guy, you know? A very talkative, opinionated guy – very opinionated, very talkative, very funny.

CV: He could hang too. We would just hang in the van and talk about stuff and laugh.

I think people saw he would often have this intense visage, but he wasn’t that guy all the time, right?

BK: He could be cranky, though – but like, the first few times I played with the Allman Brothers, like the first tour that I did, I was like terrified of Butch Trucks, like his reputation – cranky, lashing out at people, and I was like, okay, I’m not even going to talk to this guy. And then around the third or fourth gig I did with the Allman Brothers, after the gig I was walking around, and Butch Trucks comes up to me and says “Man, you were terrific!” And I’m like, Butch Trucks is saying this to me, like the crankiest human being in the world? [laughs] That was a revelation.

But he wasn’t really, you know, he was just . . . he took a lot of things seriously. He took music extremely seriously, in his way. It was very meaningful to him. He didn’t take shit about music – he didn’t take shit about anything, really. His drum said “Wake the fuck up.” On the bass drum – wake the fuck up! We’re playing in the Bible Belt – wake the fuck up! [all laughing]. He didn’t care, man. He was gonna say what he was gonna say.

Chris, being a guitar player in the band of Butch Trucks, and the lineage that comes with that, what was like for you?

CV: First of all, the first gig I ever did with Butch, we hung out in the green room and he didn’t even know I was in the band that night. He thought I was the club owner. But, after the gig we played, and I did fine the first night, and he pulled me aside and said “I need you to play longer solos.” [Laughing, then imitating Butch] “Chris, you sound great, but you gotta play longer!” And I’m not used to that. The jamming thing in our band is sort of [different].

BK: They like to jam. With the Allman Brothers, too – I’d get a look, like, this is your solo, and I’d take my solo and I’d be done and look up, like okay, and they wouldn’t even be looking at me, like they’d be expecting me to play like three times longer, like, “What are you doing? You’re stopping now?” And I’d be like “I’m done . . .”

CV: We get it now, now that we’ve been doing it. We did it with Butch, I get it now. I didn’t get it back then, but now I get what he was saying.

BK: It’s a very different concept, because you just have all the time in the world to build your thing. Instead of a short amount of time to say what you’re gonna say, you can make a statement and just let it hang in the air for ten seconds and remake it and let it hang in the air. It’s a conceptual [thing], slowly build up a thing, to where, under normal conditions, I’ve got two choruses and I’ve gotta say what I’m gonna say.

How long as this line-up been together?

BK: I would say a little more than a year and a half. Of course, Chris [has been in the band] almost 13 years now.

GYG! is Ray’s first album with the group. Ray, you’ve recorded a lot in your career so far.

RH: Yeah, I’ve been pretty fortunate.

The late Sean Costello seems at risk of being forgotten. What was your time like with Sean? [Author’s note: Costello was a burgeoning solo start and former guitarist with Susan Tedeschi among others, including lead guitarist on Just Won’t Burn, Tedeshi’s breakout, who suffered from bipolar disorder and accidently overdosed in April 2008 at age 28]

RH: Sean . . . that was a great learning experience. That was probably my first real “Wow – this guy is really something” [experience]. He [was] the real-deal kind of thing. He was just so deep, he had so much knowledge of music. He lived and breathed it, for real. And you just learn from those guys, being on stage with them, night after night. And they don’t really have to say anything to you. If you’re listening and you’re watching, they kind of just lead you, and you end up being a better player.

And now you find yourself playing with these guys every night who are very much the same way.

RH: Exactly – this is very similar playing with Bruce, just constantly learning. It’s just on that next level. The gigs are rare to find that are on that level. To be in an organ trio – I love the organ stuff. Organ is my favorite instrument to play with.

As a true organ trio, was has Ray brought to the band, and what has it changed?

CV: He talks too much! [laughs]

BK: He never shuts up, Ray Hangen. [all continue to laugh]. Well . . . there’s an energy and an interplay that I don’t think we had going on before, actually – that’s really good, because there’s only three of us, so the interplay can be a really essential thing, for dynamics as well as energy. And I feel there’s a lot more of that because of Ray.

CV: He’s got solid time, too.

BK: Oh yes –solidness is just, that’s a whole different thing. I’m playing bass on the organ so I can lean on him, which is great, without worrying that the tempo is getting weird or anything.

CV: Definitely what Bruce said, with the interplay – it’s way more happening now. And we’re jamming, like – the jam aspect has kind of like, flourished in this band.

Do each of you feel like you’re driving the band at different times? Watching the band, it seems clear that each of you leads at times – is this something you all talk about? Is it unspoken?

BK: We don’t talk about it, but it is unspoken. I look for that. Sometimes, because I’m the organ and bass player, I’m leading, but I really look to these guys. If they take the lead, I’m following. In fact, I’m more comfortable following than I am leading a lot of the times. But I think we all step into that spot, and that’s the way it should be, really.

The three of you have played a lot of music over the years, with a diverse range of artists. What does the idea of jamming, of improvisation, mean to each of you?

CV: It’s like a conversation we’re having with each other, within a song. That’s really how I see it – we’re talking in music.

BK: I would say it’s the ability to allow yourself to go anywhere, and not have a lot of preconceptions . . .

Is that scary at times for you, especially since you’re playing bass and organ?

BK: No . . . It’s easier in some ways because I am the bass and the organ. Like, if I decide to go in a certain direction, I can go there and they gotta follow me, because I’m the bass player too. Which is kinda cool, because in a normal band, you have two different people having to like, hear what each other is doing, but I’m the same person. But I think it’s a matter of just allowing the freedom to like do anything.

RH: And not have the fear.

BK: And some people don’t have that freedom, they think they’ve got to be in this box, in a certain box, and they can have freedom within that box. But I like to go let it be anything.

Ray, speaking of this idea of a box, as the drummer, there are certain responsibilities expected of you. For instance, the new song “Freight Train,” there’s a lot going on, and when it goes “esoteric,” you’re the one setting the esoteric nature of it –

RH: Yeah, kind of opening it up . . .

Right – so what does “freedom” mean to you as a drummer? The whole idea of a timekeeper sometimes means locking in . . .

RH: It’s definitely hard to make that break, to open it up, but it’s like Chris said, [it’s] listening. ‘Cause we’re all kind of falling off that cliff right at the same time, you know what I mean? And it’s gonna be in a different place, in a different way every night, which is cool. And I’m sure we’ll fall into some steady little licks or something, that we’re comfortable doing . . .

Like little signals?

RH: Yeah, you know, phrases or . . .

CV: Dirty looks . . . [laughs]

BK: You know, especially when you record something, sometimes the recording becomes in your head so much that you have to be careful not to fall into certain patterns. Because the idea is definitely to let it …

CV: We definitely never do that – we never duplicate a song, even our own songs.

BK: We try not to, anyway.

What makes it still worth it to get in the van and hit the road?

BK: As Randy Ciarlante (The Band) says, “We’re ‘hundredaires,’ man!” [all laughing] You know, it’s a weird thing but what makes it all worthwhile is if you have, like, 40 seconds of something you never did before. You know . . . forty seconds. That’s what it comes down to, a lot of times. Just a moment of something. I’ve been playing keyboards for sixty years, so that’s a long time. Professionally for forty-five years. And if I play something that’s like one-minute worth of music that I’ve never played, then I get into a space and I’ll remember that for a month. That’s what it’s all about, really [chuckling]. I mean, I try to be fresh all the time, but to play something I’ve never really played before . . . I’m just looking for a minute here or there.

CV: Playing music is like being a shitty golfer. So you show up and you hit 80% shanks to the right, but when you hit that one, that’s right on, it makes you want to go back and spend the $90 for the next game!

BK: That’s exactly right. That’ll keep me going – that whole gig’ll boil down to the one moment [where] something happened that never happened before. Just one moment.

I think that’s also what a lot of jamband audiences are also looking for – that one moment where it all crystallizes, and everyone goes “Ah . . .” Ray, what about you?

RH: Being the drummer, I just want to support the songs, support what’s going on onstage. For me, there’s nothing like stepping on stage and hitting that groove with the guys who are on that stage. There’s nothing that can compare, as cliché as that sounds.
And if there’s anything the Dead and the Allman Brothers and all the great, true legendary institutional bands, any quality that they shared, it was authenticity. Speaking of authenticity, the three of you play very authentically to who you are as people. Chris, talk about your influences for a minute.

BK: AC/DC! [laughs] And I’m not kidding!

CV: I love the soul-jazz stuff. I love the organ trio stuff, that’s some of my favorite stuff to play. I want to be a jazz player – I desperately want to be known as a jazz player [laughing]. ‘Cause I’ve studied it and I’ve listened to it.

Why don’t you consider yourself a jazz player right now?

CV: I guess it’s because I don’t do straight-ahead gigs – [the BKB] does gigs that embraces all this kind of stuff. Chicago blues, jamband stuff, even some rock and some bebop. Like, that’s how we write, that’s how we play. So, I’m forced to do it all, but I do love it all. Like, I love Cannonball [Adderly, legendary alto saxophonist], I love Coltrane, I love Grant Green, Wes [Montgomery], George Benson, but I love Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray [Vaughan], Angus Young, and some of the metal guys [too], Randy Rhoads . . .

BK: Yngwie Malmsteen

CV: Yeah, I love Yngwie too, man. Those guys are great players – Zakk Wylde, you know. But I like being able to . . . I don’t like being “a blues guy.” I wouldn’t want to be just be a “blues guy” or just be a “jazz guy” – I like doing this, what we’re doing.

What are you looking forward to most in releasing the new record?

BK: The songwriting, I think, the compositions themselves. A lot of instrumental compositions, there’s several vocals, but, as I’ve always done, the instrumental compositions really need to have a lot of depth to them and meaning to them. It’s not like an excuse to solo – solos are almost secondary on a lot of tunes. I don’t think we cared a lot about [the solos], really – we care about the tunes.

Do you think as you’ve grown, that composition has become more important to you?

BK: Well, I started my career with the Bruce Katz Band 26 years ago, and it’s always been about the composition, actually.

That’s why you formed the band right – to feature your songs?

BK: I formed the band – I’d play with jazz guys, and they’d yell at me for being too bluesy, and I’d play with blues guys and they’d yell at me for being too jazzy. I was playing a lot with Lorne Entress [longtime Boston-area drummer, including with Katz in the Ronnie Earl Band] and he said “You should start your own band, man.” And I figured it was the opportunity to do whatever I wanted to do. And that was another thing – we made this demo tape and sent it out to sixty record companies, just out of a book. We duplicated 60 cassettes, and mailed them all out. We got a list from Jazz Times Magazine or something, mailed them all out, and got signed to Audio Quest.

And the concept was definitely . . . our demo tape was “Crescent Crawl,” “Contrition,” and this totally weird, “out” shuffle that I never ended up recording on any album that we called “The Space Shuffle” that was just [a] totally fucked-up tune. That was our demo!
It needs to come back! [all laugh]

CV: Yes!

BK: I know! It’s really good actually. I still remember it. You know, the concept there was: we’re trying to create a band that’s gonna get signed to a record label, but I’m not gonna do anything to make that happen except do exactly what I feel like doing. And that’s what we did on the demo. [And] it worked – I was flabbergasted. I thought we were just gonna mail sixty cassettes in the wind and never hear anything.

But it did work, and the guy that signed us for Audio Quest, he was blown away.

But it’s always been about the compositions more than the improvisation, even though I love to improvise. The first four albums, except for Mississippi Moan, which had Sam McClain on a couple tunes – but they were all instrumental. And it was always about the compositions. Instrumentals can be so boring so easily, so I treat the instrumental compositions as if they’re pop tunes, ‘cause that’s the way I’ve always felt. Crafting them, arranging them, thinking about them in that way, and not just some jazz tune that everyone’s gonna blow on.

RH: It’s cool that I was able to put my own drum parts down. So now I’m playing these songs and don’t have to learn someone else’s drum part[s], so it’s cool in that respect. And now it’s this trio . . .

Very much a part of the family now.

RH: Yes.

CV: I’m excited about some of the vocal original stuff that I’ve been doing, that I kind of bring [Bruce] an idea that he turns into something good.

BK: His vocals have grown so fantastically

CV: I’ve never considered myself a singer – ever – until, like, a month ago. I’ve just been a guitar player and I’ve had to sing in this band, and now I actually like it! I never did like it, ‘cause I never thought I was any good. But now I’m feeling . . . “okay” about it!

As our blues and rock heroes continue to pass, in some ways, perhaps it’s up to bands like yours, who have the connections, have been inside those institutions, to keep those spirits alive. Do you feel that spirit, or that weight, when you take the stage sometimes?

BK: That’s a tricky one, man . . . am I carrying on some tradition of those people . . .

I was influenced positively by my experiences with those guys. I still feel like I’m expressing my own ideas about music. It’s been affected by my experience with the Brothers and the offshoots, as far as how you can express ideas in a slightly different way . . . improvisationally in particular. I don’t know that compositionally I’m being that affected by my experience with some of those guys, but improvisationally taking your time to create these levels of energy, kind of, where you just let it go on your own, has affected me.

After playing with those guys, especially Butch, ‘cause when I played with Gregg, he was reacting against the jamming with the Allman Brothers. He wanted tunes, with solos that were short, you know, like a regular band. And then going back with Butch was like, “No man, every tune should be like 17 minutes long – let yourself just search and don’t worry about anything.” So, kind of incorporating some of that in the new record, a little bit more than I have in the past, I think, if that makes sense.

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