2020 has been a pivotal year for the Katalyst. The Inglewood based jazz band debut with “Nine Lives,” a free-spirited jazz album that truly catches the pulse of LA. We spoke via Zoom for an hour or so, and I was seized by the band’s musical knowledge. With route inspirations to John Coltrane, Maceo Parker, Wu-Tang Clan, D’Angelo, Earth Wind & Fire, and Charles Mingus; it is no coincidence that Katalyst’s jazz exploration show disregard for genre boundaries.
The Katalyst is a collective of talented musicians, composers, and producers that was established in 2014. We spoke on topics like how they became a band of nine members, cooking during a global pandemic, as well as their thoughts on how they arranged the music for the album.
The nine members are professional pianist Brandon Cordoba, professional pianist Brian Hargrove, saxophonist David Otis, multi-instrumentalist Corbin Jones, Grammy-award winning composer Jonah Levine, Grammy nominated trumpeter Emile Martinez, professional percussionist Ahmad DuBose-Dawson, professional bassist Marlon Spears, and professional percussionist and the band’s founder Greg Paul.
Los Angeles Sentinel (LAS): Where did Katalyst start, did all of you grow up together?
Greg Paul (Katalyst): No, we didn’t grow up together, I’m from Buffalo, New York. I moved out here in 2011 to go to USC for Jazz Studies. That’s when I met Brandon, he was the only Black kat in the Jazz Studies program. He had a group at the time called Ultrasound, and that included Marlon and Otis. I remember that they had a gig where the drummer couldn’t make it. So, I sat in, and immediately I was like ‘okay, these guys speak my musical language.’
Marlon Spears (Katalyst): I met Otis when we went to school together at Fullerton. We were both music majors and played in the same music in class. In one of the classes, we had to put a band together. So, I met Brandon earlier that year… We played like one gig, a church gig, so I decided to call him up. From there that was kind of the groundwork for Ultrasound to become the band we are today.
David Otis (Katalyst): Around that time, I was leaving Fullerton to go to Cal State Northridge. I had a couple friends who always played, and they would invite me to these jam sessions in Long Beach. The homie introduced me to Emile and Jonah, and from there I introduced Emile and Jonah to Greg and Corbin. Then we just became this big ol’ group of musicians.
LAS: Talk about the first gig, what was that like?
Greg Paul (K): I knew a guy named Jason who also went to USC. He threw these events called The Renaissance. He would always hit me up to put a band together to be the house band for the night. So, I would always call these guys. Then at one of the gigs in 2014, I said we should make this official and create our own lane outside of just playing with other artists.
LAS: How have all of you been handling the quarantine? Is everyone on lockdown?
David Otis (K): Yeah, I mean the gigs stopped. But I’ve actually been recording a lot more at home, more than I ever had before. If you didn’t have any time to practice before, now is definitely the time to take advantage of it. That’s kind of how it is for me…
Greg Paul (K): We’ve also been working on a quarantine project, and just kind of experimenting as a group. Corbin set up this cool little system where everybody uploads an idea, and if it fits somewhere, one kat will add to that idea each week. So, after 9 weeks, in theory we will have a rough track that everybody contributed to.
LAS: How did you come up with the title, “Nine Lives?” Could it be a play on words being that there are nine members in the band?
David Otis (K): For the longest time we were trying to figure out what to call the album. We had like 3 different ideas going on…
Greg Paul (K): “Out the Bag!” That was the working title, we hated it, but nothing else was sticking.
David Otis (K): At one point we were calling it “Kat Days.” But one night we were doing a show with Lonnie Liston Smith, and I remember Brandon saying “Nine Lives” as a joke. And everybody just kind of stopped and it was like that should be the name. So, that’s how we came up with the title, it was all from a joke.
Greg Paul (K): It’s an obvious choice, but we didn’t have that name until way later. Literally, like two weeks before we really solidified and submitted the album.
LAS: Who designed the artwork, and what inspired it?
Greg Paul (K): So, me and Marlon toured with a UK artist named Kamaal Williams, and this kat named Orden designed a lot of his artwork. So, it’s kind of the same situation searching for a name. We were just fishing, trying to find a look that really captivated who we are as a group. So yeah, I just reached out to him and gave him some of the old ideas we had, gave him the new album title, and what we were thinking as far as unity being the core of our existence. He gave me one or two drafts, and within those two—I was like, I think you’re onto something. So, I sent the artwork to these guys and they loved it.
LAS: Your music has publicly been described as “contemporary instrumentals,” does that mean the music is mostly improvisational?
Brandon Cordoba (K): I think we all feel like we’re not limited to the genre of Jazz per say. We can go in so many different directions. So, it’s like what do we call our music? It is instrumental of course, and the contemporary part is drawing from all types of influences past and future. So, it kind of gives us room to go in whatever direction we want without being held to a certain genre. I would say we would also make up songs on the spot. We would do that a lot at The Speak Easy. Like every week; you know, just try, and make up songs on the spot while making it sound like it was rehearsed.
Greg Paul (K): Yeah, The Speak Easy, that is a spot we used to play every Saturday before the virus was out. That was like a feeding ground for us man. That place helped us immensely and really cultivated our grooves as a band. That is where we would improv and develop a musical understanding.
LAS: For the most part, how was the album put together?
Greg Paul (K): For “Nine Lives” we scheduled a month where every Sunday we would get together and have writing sessions. From those writing sessions we would keep all the good stuff that we liked. And then take those ideas into a studio, and spend a whole day arranging and organizing these ideas into actual songs. That’s actually what “Nine Lives” is, it’s those jams from those writing sessions, all carved and flushed out into the album.
Marlon Spears (K): Yeah, we were telling each other that the album is unique to us because it almost sounds like a different band from what we sound like when we play live. If you see us at a live show, we’re most likely playing our older music, which was actually written out, but we still improvise over that. We never play it the same way it was written. Whereas the album was how we felt in the moment as we were creating it. It is like two completely different aspects, but I think that’s a testimony to the ability of the band. We can write but we can also improvise on the spot.
LAS: What do you think about when you are jamming??
Brandon Cordoba (K): We’ve been playing together for so long it’s just real comfortable playing with these guys. Mostly, I’m just thinking about having fun, also trying to create something that’s really spontaneous, and really feeding off the audiences energy.
Marlon Spears (K): I think everyone’s role in Katalyst is a little different. Especially, depending on the sections. So, for me as a bass player in the rhythm section, I have a lot of responsibility in terms of keeping everything together. I want to be locked in with the drums, you know what I’m saying? It should be creating that pocket, that groove but also kind of embellishing spots for where the pianos are playing. Are they playing those interesting chords? Then maybe, I should put a bass substitution here, little things that can change the feeling of a chord.
LAS: For those who haven’t heard of The Katalyst, why should they pick up “Nine Lives?”
Greg Paul (K): Because it’s new! Haha… Nah, it’s fresh, you know what I’m saying? I think it offers a fresh perspective on “genre,” and it’s a perfect blend of each of these nine lives. I think you will hear each individual voice throughout the album.
Marlon Spears (K): Yeah, there is a lot of things happening in the LA music scene right now, and we are a component of it. So, if you want to get a feel for the stuff that is going down right now, I think this is a great way to get introduced to it.