Fred Katz: Freak Folk

Fred Katz image 0
Andrew Gilbert

Fred Katz

Given the title, one could be forgiven for dismissing Folk Songs for Far Out Folk as an Eisenhower-era goof. But Fred Katz, the first jazz cellist to explore the instrument’s potential for bowed improvisation, was utterly serious about the 1958 project, a brilliant orchestral manifesto in which he crafted three sets of arrangements for American, Chasidic and African folk tunes. Creating distinct instrumental settings for each musical world, Katz employed some of the West Coast’s finest jazz musicians, including Buddy Collette on flute, guitarist Billy Bean, trumpeter Don Fagerquist, trombonist Bob Enevoldsen, percussionist Larry Bunker, percussionist Jack Constanzo and pianist Johnny T. Williams (better known later as multi-Oscar-winning film composer John Williams). The strangely beautiful result was an album as naively sophisticated as Katz himself.

After languishing in obscurity for nearly half a century, the album was rescued from cult status by the Warner Bros. imprint Reboot Stereophonic and writer Josh Kun (who provides extensive, insightful, if sometimes off-key liner notes). In many ways, the album was a harbinger of jazz to come, expanding on Gunther Schuller’s embryonic Third Stream concept while anticipating the increasing interest in international musical sources. Loquacious and intellectually agile at 88, Katz was happy to talk about Folk Songs from his home in the Southern California suburb of Fullerton, where he’s lived since 1970.

“The big problem was finding the proper series of melodies that I could mess around with, to give them another dimension,” he said. “My favorite piece is ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.’ It’s exquisite melodically and Johnny Williams plays a beautiful improvisation. The first African piece, ‘Mate’ka,’ was a rain ceremony. I was interested in anthropological magic, where you do something that creates the feeling of rain. My dad talked about the mystical aspect of Judaism, so I was raised with that. Then I got a book from a student of mine, a compendium of 16th- and 17th-century Chasidic melodies. I still play them once a week, which leaves me in another level of experience. They seemed like a perfect vehicle for improvisation: to blow is to know.”

Katz is best remembered in jazz circles for his cello work with Chico Hamilton in the drummer’s popular mid-1950s chamber jazz “cello quintet” with Buddy Collette, Jim Hall and Carson Smith (though the group had several incarnations). A Brooklyn native, the conservatory-trained Katz had already spent time on the road as a pianist with Vic Damone and Lena Horne when he moved out west to work in Las Vegas accompanying vocalist Jana Moore, a gig that soon brought him to Los Angeles. Connected with Hamilton through Horne (“He was the greatest drummer I ever heard play behind a singer,” Katz said), he originally doubled in the quintet, though before long he moved exclusively to cello because the piano was interfering with Hall’s guitar lines. With Collette dividing his time between flute and alto sax, the band developed a singular sound that won a devoted following, particularly after its appearance in the classic 1957 film noir The Sweet Smell of Success, and its triumph at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival (a performance captured in the documentary Jazz On a Summer’s Day, though by that time the band featured Eric Dolphy and John Pisano.

“‘My Funny Valentine’ became my signature tune,” Katz said. “But Buddy’s piece, ‘One Fine Day,’ set the timbre of the quintet. We all started writing for the group, and my pieces were more on the classical side. Before you know it we had this incredible book. When we played Newport, we did a 12-tone melody called ‘Blue Sands’ and people went crazy. From that moment on we got all these gigs.”

Katz gained considerably visibility on his own when he wrote the arrangements for and conducted the 13-piece orchestra on Carmen McRae’s moody 1958 Decca album Carmen For Cool Ones. Around the same time, Hamilton put the quintet into Katz’s hands for the group’s fourth Pacific Jazz album, Zen: The Music of Fred Katz. Expanding the group’s instrumentation with a trombone choir and woodwind ensemble, Katz created experimental compositions blending jazz and classical forms, with some klezmer cadences thrown in for good measure, clearly anticipating his work on Folk Songs. The opportunity to record that album came about when Warner Bros. approached him about going to France for a project featuring a rising ingénue named Brigitte Bardot. He declined (Fred, what were you thinking?!) and parlayed the offer into Folk Songs, which was produced by pedal-steel pioneer and bandleader Alvino Rey. It was the perfect chance to combine a range of passions that might seem mutually exclusive, including anthropology, dialectical materialism and mysticism.

“I always thought of going to other cultures and making it a jazz improvisational experience,” Katz said. “There is no culture that doesn’t in some way practice improvisation. I was always interested in, How do other people live? What do they think? What’s their music, and what are their jokes? I was interested in everything. It all goes back to my childhood, with my father and our incredibly intellectually stimulating house. One day he told me he was thinking of writing a book on Jesus, Marx and Spinoza, the three great philosophers. It was inevitable that when I became a musician and composer that I would think in terms of synthesis.”