Fred Katz - "Mate'ka" (Folk Songs for Far Out Folk)
If Dusted readers know the name Fred Katz, it’s possible that it’s because of the two loving tributes Chicago cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm has recorded for Atavistic in recent years. The 88-year-old Californian who is the dedicatee of those albums was one of the first to popularize cello in a jazz context, and is also an ace arranger as well as an eclectic genre synthesizer whose experiments fall midway between Shelley Manne’s Steps from the Desert, Gil Evans, and early Sun Ra. You could connect Katz, via a number of musical lipstick traces, to any number of seminal developments in music since the 1950s. In addition to his pioneering instrumental work with the Chico Hamilton Quartet, Katz – a student of the great Pablo Casals – also scored a bunch of Roger Corman and Sidney Poitier films, taught jazz to Benedictine monks, and was a professor of anthropology, to boot. Rock on, Fred.
Decades before the East Village hipsterati discovered klezmer, Balkan folk, and the old weird America, Katz – on this 1958 session – rearranged and adapted American, Hebrew, and African traditional musics, using a different small group for each idiom. If you check out the lineups, you’ll see a laundry list of top drawer West Coast session jazzers: there’s Pete Candoli on trumpet, Buddy Collette on flutes, Billy Bean on guitar, Larry Bunker on percussion, and even Johnny T. Williams (you know him better as that ubiquitous film composer, John Williams) on piano. The results are rich and often bracing.
Tight brass counterpoint opens “Mate’ka” – as swinging and propulsive as any Dizzy Gillespie Afro-Cuban arrangement but with a quirkier instrumentation (those tympanis! those marimbas!) and more space. The tightly grouped brass (these tunes are just for trumpets, trombones, and percussion) gives the stuff some harmonic flavor and complexity, too. The American songs use the most conventional instrumentation – a heavily chordal quintet, with vibes, piano, and guitar, swinging like crazy on “Been in the Pen So Long” – but the spacious, often creepy arrangements of tunes like “Motherless Child” are distinct (featuring Katz’s feel for pacing and space, the things that endeared him to directors, along with his keen ear for feel and mood). The Hebrew folk tunes have a different flavor all together, all reeds, double-reeds, and bass, managing to sound piquant and vibrant despite the seemingly somber instrumentation. “Baal Shem Tov” is particularly juicy, with exquisite flute lyricism from Collette. Rich and vibrant in its imagination, emphatic in its execution, this disc is a welcome missive from the past.