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Call Fred Katz a visionary, an iconoclast, a far-out Zen guy. Here's a quote from Katz that gives some insight into the mind of the artist: "Tradition is a terrible tyrant. Memory, man. It's better to live in the moment. I am eating this sandwich. Know what I mean?"
Katz possesses a long, strange resume: the scoring of the Roger Corman films Little Shop of Horrors (1960) and Bucket of Blood (1959); a late-fifties stint as A&R man for Decca Records, where he conducted jazz arrangements for albums by Sidney Poitier and Harpo Marx; a career in academia teaching anthropology, Kabbalah, jazz, ethnomusicology and magic; and a teaching job in a Benedictine Monastery, providing the musical education for a bongo-playing nun and a sax-playing priest. But his greatest claim to jazz fame comes from his late-fifties job playing cello in drummer Chico Hamilton's ground-breaking chamber quintet.
However, the cello doesn't make its appearance on Folk Songs for Far Out Folk, a reissue of the 1959 Warner Brothers album. Katz, in true Zen fashion, doesn't play at all. He conducts, with this to say about it: "But conducting, who's the one who doesn't play? The conductor. But from him, all music flows. It's a Zen idea. He does nothing but does everything. Who's playing? Nobody! Very Zen."
The music flowing from Katz on Folk Songs for Far Out Folk comes from the African, Jewish and American traditions, featuring three separate bands. The disc opens with the African "Mate'ka," a tune full of ringing percussion that bubbles and pops beside a three-trumpet/three-trombone brass section, slipping back and forth across the line between muted restraint and brassy boldness. Also thrown in is a Dizzy Gillespie-like trumpet solo backed by Jack Constanza's very hot bongos.
The American folk tunes are introduced with "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child." The band here is closest to the standard jazz format, with vibes, guitar, piano, bass and drums, and a decided "chamber" vibe. The pianist is Johnny T. Williams, a musician who would later make a name for himself as John Williams, composer of the music for Hollywood films including Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977) and Schindler's List (1993).
For the two Hebrew folks songs, Katz brings in a couple of his band mates from the Chico Hamilton Quintet, Buddy Collette and Paul Horn on flutes and saxophones. These are the most classical-sounding tunes, with the inclusion of oboe, bassoon, bass clarinet and clarinet. These sounds give an indication of just how much influence Katz had on Hamilton's beautifully understated and cool but, sadly, somewhat overlooked chamber sound of the late fifties.
It's three bands and three traditions, but the musical Zen mind of Katz lends the album a surprising continuity, with doses of ghostly beauty mixed in with small interludes of ebulliently wacky percussion and cool, dreamy reed harmonies. A forgotten masterwork reissued.
Track Listing: Mate'ka; Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child; Been in the Pen So Long; Chili'lo (Lament); Rav's Nigun; Old Paint; Manthi-Ki; Baal Shem Tov; Foggy, Foggy Day.
Personnel: American Folk Tunes: Gene Estes: vibes; Johnny T. Williams: piano; Billy Bean: guitar; Mel Polen: bass; Jerry Williams: drums. Hebrew Folk Tunes: Paul Horn: flute and alto saxophone; Buddy Collette: flute; Jules Jacobs: oboe, clarinet; George Smith: clarinet; Mel Pollen: bass. African Folk Tunes: Pete Candoli: trumpet; Irving Goodman: trumpet; Don Fagerquist: trumpet; George Roberts: trombone; Harry Betts: trombone; Bob Endevoldsen: trombone; Larry Bunker: drums; Gene Estes: drums; Jack Constanzo: percussion; Carlos Mejia: percussion; Lou Singer: percussion.