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Jazz musician Brian Katz thrives on improvization

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Brian Katz got into klezmer music professionally in the late 1980s

Nothing thrills Toronto jazz musician Brian Katz more than getting on a concert stage and making something up.

Katz, 57, loves to improvise, and he often feels the urge to create new melodies at his shows and in the studio. He recently finished his first solo album of jazz recordings, Leaves Will Speak, and had planned to stick to the strict compositions he had written. However, that plan was short-lived. Of the 18 tracks on the album, he improvised six.

“My soul just needed to create new things,” Katz tells The CJN. “It was really a little shocking to myself. This wasn’t starting off to be a free improv record, but now it’s a marriage of my pieces and free improvisations.”

It took Katz a long time to finally get to this premiere solo effort. He spent more than 20 years collaborating with internationally renowned Jewish artists like Yiddish musician Lenka Lichtenberg, author Dan Yashinsky and the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band.

Katz got into klezmer music professionally in the late 1980s. He credits this to growing up in a “music friendly household” where his parents often played Yiddishkeit, klezmer music, as well as jazz and classical arrangements.

He began playing guitar at eight, later took up the piano and then developed a taste for classical guitar as a young adult. When Katz began to perform professionally, he blended the musical influences he listened to as a child into his recordings – and later, his improvisations.

“That was just a natural thing for me to do, to bring Jewish music influences into jazz,” Katz says. “I can’t get away from my Jewish influence… nor do I want to.”

One of the most vibrant tracks on Leaves Will Speak, called Mezzonia, features an eclectic mix of musical styles, including klezmer, Bulgarian, East Indian and blues, showing off his taste for mixing genres. Katz wrote another melody, In the Olive Grove, in Jerusalem and he says he often travels to Israel.

He also dedicates Leaves Will Speak to his father, Bernie, who died last year. In the album’s liner notes, Katz calls his dad “my first jamming partner, who infused me with a deep love of music.”

Bernie was an amateur harmonica player who had a big love of music, Katz says. “He took me to the symphony when I was very young. He was an opera buff. We played music from the time I was a very young age.”

When he is not performing or in the studio, Katz leads a busy life as a music teacher around Toronto. In addition to leading a klezmer ensemble at York University, Katz teaches improvisation, jazz and classical music there. He is also a professor of music education and Delcroze Eurhythmics at the University of Toronto.

“I like living on the edge,” he chuckles. “However, I balance that by still maintaining practice in classical music. I do enough stuff that is preordained.”

Delcroze Eurhythmics is a highly experiential approach to music, named after a Swiss music teacher, which sees the body as the first instrument. Katz teaches people rhythm through the body and emphasizes that his students should learn to move on each note they make.

“Delcroze said that for every sound, there’s a gesture. For every gesture, a sound,” Katz says. He even invented an offshoot of the Eurhythmics foundation called Yidrhythmics, which focuses on movement enhanced through chassidic tunes.

Katz is also busy working on the We Are One Jazz Project, designed for students aged eight to 13 who live in disadvantaged areas. He will spend the next three months rehearsing with kids living in and near Toronto’s Jane and Finch neighbourhood, teaching them jazz and the blues, as well as improvisation.

Alongside instructors like jazz pianist Howard Rees and legendary musician Barry Harris, Katz will prepare the grade-schoolers to perform for a concert in February at the Toronto Centre for the Arts.

“It’s amazing how kids from Grade 3 can learn [jazz and] all those syncopated rhythms,” Katz says. “But, in fact, kids have such fast nervous systems. Kids totally get that. They live in that universe of really fast rhythms.”

Katz says that being a teacher has made him a more confident performer. The improvisation he includes in a classroom setting rubs off on him.

Although he keeps his time full with teaching and performing, Katz says he now wants to focus on songwriting and perhaps do a solo guitar record of jazz standards.

He would love to tour across Canada, once again performing without a net, not knowing what each new improvised performance will bring. “There’s nothing more exciting than that,” he says.

Leaves Will Speak is available in various Toronto stores including Israel’s Judiaca and worldwide via the Internet. Visit briankatz.com for details.

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