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Music Review: Fred Katz Folk Songs For Far Out Folk

In his liner notes to the original 1959 release of Folk Songs For Far Out Folk Fred Katz wrote the following: "If we accept Jazz as a modern culture, then we must accept all the obligations and soul-searching and experimentation that all the other arts are subject to." He then went on to say that this meant Jazz had an obligation to broaden its horizons and look beyond the borders of popular music for its inspiration. (He cited "Tin Pan Alley" specifically, which was a term given to designate the mass production of popular songs by writers ensconced in an area of New York City where the majority of popular music performed at that time was being written)

He said that anywhere people made music, that those doing the performing shared the common denominator of an eternal soul that unites all human kind. It was his hope, at the time, that Folk Songs For Far Out Folk would be a first step in the direction needed to take Jazz down that path towards a place of unification. On the album Mr. Katz conducts three different bands in interpreting folk songs from three distinct traditions: American, Hebrew, and African.

As an attempt to underline his point Katz enlisted one of the Beat poets, Lawrence Lipton, to write a poem for each of the folk songs. Each of the poems is a manifestation of the same idea that Fred was trying to express with the music. Lipton's poems expresses either a theme that evokes the particular culture it is describing, or tells a story that provides insight into it.
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Reboot Stereophonic, a non-profit label who are committed to recovering the lost music and the stories connected to them, will be re-issuing the classic Fred Katz composition Folk Songs For Far Out Folk on July 10th. As part of the package they've included an extensive interview with Fred, who is currently 86 years old and a professor emeritus at the State University of California in Orange County where he has been a teacher of cultural anthropology since 1970.

The interview, accompanying pictures, and biographical notes contained in the booklet go a long way towards helping those uninitiated into the intricacies of Jazz to appreciate the recording. Most Americans will probably be familiar with at least one of the American folk songs represented on the album but will also, most likely, have a difficult time recognizing it as the song they know. I assume the same conundrum of knowing a title but struggling with the songs identity otherwise, would apply to representatives of the two other cultures as well.

For me, that was the case with the version of "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child" on the recording. Here's a song that I thought I knew well enough that the tune would always be familiar, but during the whole time the song was being performed there was only one or two instances where I'd hear anything of what I'd expected. So what's the point of performing these songs if they can't be recognized?

The point is that they are being played in celebration of what they stand for not what they are. If we accept Katz's belief that for Jazz to grow it had to push beyond the boundaries of popular song so that it could tap into the universal experience that artists in other mediums strive to recreate. Then we also have to expect that the folk songs of various cultures he uses as his point of departure for that place of common ground will not be recognizable to us in a manner we are familiar with.

Instead he wants us to listen to all the songs on the recording as a whole instead of in their individual components as familiar tunes. If he is to be successful we should have moments of recognition on an emotional level as well as the intellectual that allows us to say "I know that tune".

The collection of sounds that made up the pattern we understood have been redistributed seemingly at random and bear no relationship to anything we think we know. But if Jazz's goal is to look beyond the traditional framework of a popular song, than the audience has to be prepared to make the same effort and accept a new definition of musical appreciation.
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It makes sense that Katz chose Folk songs as the material to experiment with. They tell the stories of a people; they are mythology, history, and a tool for instruction all rolled into one and probably speak stronger of cultural identity than any other type of music..

Katz early training was as a classical cellist, and grew up in a house filled with the music of his Eastern European/Jewish heritage. He would not only be familiar with the power of folk music but would know how many classical composers had used folk music to form the basis of their compositions.

Béla Bartók the great Hungarian composer was renowned for incorporating gypsy and other folk music of his country into his compositions so as to mark them as distinctly Hungarian. As the spirit of nationalism swept through the countries of Eastern Europe in the mid to late 19th century this became common practice among composers wishing to show their support for their country's claim to statehood.

Katz's motivations might have been different than those composers, but it didn't mean he couldn't use the idea of orchestrating folk music for his own purposes. Instead of using the cultural identity inherent in the songs for nationalist flag waving, he would break them down to their bare bones to find the common elements they all shared

I would think that the biggest danger wouldn't be people not recognising the music, but that in a quest to find common ground all the character would be stripped form the music leaving behind a bland stew of ingredients that said nothing at all. Fortunately that's not the case with the music on Folk Songs For Far Out Fokl

You see it's Jazz itself that becomes the common denominator instead of the material. By converting each culture's music from its original form into the same medium and allowing their thematic essence to remain intact Katz performs the tricky balancing act of medium and content without sacrificing anything.

The form absorbs enough of the content that it becomes the universally identifiable medium of storyteller, so that even if we don't recognise the story per se, we know to listen for emotional clues as to what the story could possibly be about. When I was listening to Folk Songs For Far Our Folk the first time through there was something about it that kept sounding familiar.

It wasn't until it was almost completed that I realized that it reminded me of Sergei Prokofiev's Peter And The Wolf because it sounded so much like musical instruments telling a story. That to me proved that Katz's attempt had worked. I found something that enabled me to identify with the whole as a unit independent of the original source material.

I recognized the common element of storytelling and found from within my own experience an equivalent that allowed me to identify with it. It does't matter that I don't know the majority of the songs, or that the one I do know I could barely recognise, because I didn't need that information to be familiar with what the music was about on a primal, universal level.

Fred Katz is one of the true artistic giants of the twentieth century and yet he probably doesn't receive near the recognition he deserves for his contributions to music in general and Jazz in specific. While the music on Folk Songs For Far Out Folk may sound pretty tame compared to people like The Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Katz was fortunate to have it produced at all it was considered so extreme.

Warner Brothers, the original label, had wanted him to do an album with Bridget Bardot; instead they were delivered this far less commercial product and took a chance on releasing it. Today we owe a big vote of thanks to them for doing so, as well as to the people at Reboot Stereophonic for re-releasing it and not letting the world forget about Fred Katz.

I would say there are two very good reasons for buying this disc; one is the music, which at the end of the day is highly entertaining and incredibly well played, and the second is the opportunity to learn about the man behind the project – the amazing Fred Katz.

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