Fred Katz is best known to jazz fans as the cellist in Chico Hamilton’s late 50s quintets -- some of which featured future stars Jim Hall and Buddy Colette. He was also the leader of that smart, snappy combo you hear backing Ken Nordine on his ‘Word Jazz’ recordings. Yet the jazz world is, perhaps, a bit too confining for a man of Katz’ intellectual abilities and wide-ranging interests. A peace activist since the 60s and an accomplished pianist, Katz studied cello with Pablo Casals, scored films for Roger Corman, worked as an A&R man for Decca Records, arranged and conducted orchestras for Harpo Marx and Carmen McRae, taught jazz in a Benedictine monastery, and taught in the Anthropology Department at Cal State, Fullerton, for three decades. The sweep of Folk Songs for Far Out Folk is similarly broad; Katz draws upon Klezmer, African, and American traditional forms to create music that is both startlingly new and warmly familiar.
You won’t hear Katz’ cello or piano on ...Far Out Folk. Leaving the playing to a hand-picked crew of extraordinarily capable LA studio greats (among them, Johnny T. Williams, the future author of the ‘Star Wars’ soundtrack and conductor of the Boston Pops) Katz was free to concentrate his efforts on conducting the three ensembles, and on crafting the exceedingly artful arrangements.
Katz’ brassy, percussion-heavy arrangements of the African Folk Tunes evoke the contemporaneously popular exotica music of the late 50s and early 60s. Yet, Katz’ dense arrangements, and the skillful, jazzy improvisations throughout these pieces belie a higher artistic aim than prviding a classy background for one’s next patio party.
The jazziest pieces are the American Folk Tunes. "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child" and "Been in the Pen So Long" are dense whirlwinds of electric guitar, piano and vibraphone runs taken - surprisingly - at near breakneck tempos. Introduced by an evocative clokwork motif, "Old Paint" lopes along like its namesake, reveling in its dense harmonies and hard-swinging solos from Bunker, Bean, and Johnny T. Williams. Katz’ reworks "Foggy, Foggy Dew" as part dreamscape, part jazz ballad. Williams’ sparkling solo turn is an apt centerpiece.
The three Hebrew Folk Tunes, arranged for a woodwind quintet plus string bass, presage John Zorn’s efforts in a similar vein by two or three decades. Katz’ intricate, detailed arrangements have a chamber-jazz feel, illumined from the inside by jazzy improvisations from Horn and Collette. A puckish sense of humor is at work on "Rav’s Nigun," while "Baal Shem Tov" has a darker, more somber tone.
Despite the different musical sources and wildly different ensembles involved, Katz successfully achieved a rare sort of stylistic unity on Folk Songs.... that many musicians would have difficulty duplicating, even in today’s increasingly small world. One of 2007’s most eclectic and most essential CD reissues, Fred Katz’ Folk Songs for Far Out Folk is a cornucopia of late 50s-era jazz experimentation and multi-ethnic exploration that sounds as fresh and as exciting as the latest crop of releases from Tzadik, Hat Musics, or any number of the other small, forward-looking record labels that currently bless our scene.