People living anywhere other than southeastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, or New York in the '70s missed the Catalyst experience. A four-man jazz combo from Philadelphia, the band played a blend of avant-garde, contemporary bop, soul, and funk at the dawn of the big fusion explosion. The original members were Eddie Green (keyboards, vocals), Sherman Ferguson (drums, percussion, marimba), Odean Pope (sax, flute, oboe), and Al Johnson (bass). Tyrone Brown replaced Johnson after Catalyst's self-titled debut album on Cobblestone Records in 1972. Producer Skip Drinkwater discovered them playing at the Aqua Lounge in West Philly; this resulted in a contract with Cobblestone Records, with Drinkwater producing. Green was a disciple of the Bud Powell school of pianism, and was instructed on chord changes by Powell's brother, Richard. Pope was tutored by Ray Bryant, Benny Golson, and others; strains of John Coltrane are revealed when the aggressive sax player expands. Ferguson was a bop drummer whose effortless tempo changes and impeccable timing kept Catalyst tight. Johnson, who joined Weather Report after Catalyst's first album, was self-taught, but influenced by classical music.
They rehearsed hard and inspired one another to push farther into unknown territories where all the music they liked could be wrapped into a holistic sound. Jazz clubs in Philly were plentiful in the '70s, which may account for the group's lack of trips outside the region. The band's eponymous funk-jazz debut, Catalyst, is highly regarded as a fusion masterpiece; many regard the set as being superior to better-known recordings from the era by Weather Report and Return to Forever. Billy Hart, from Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi ensemble, accompanied Catalyst on this spacy, illuminating set. A second album, Perception, was issued in 1972 on Cobblestone as well. It featured some brilliant avant-garde work that won the hearts of jazz purists and increased their cult following. This was a creative period -- the recording deal was fresh, and they were eager to please and expand their already stimulating original material. In 1974, the band recorded Unity for Muse Records, which had acquired the Cobblestone label. A final album, 1975's A Tear and a Smile, also appeared on Muse, differing yet again from those that preceded it because it was steeped in funk. Stylistically, Catalyst never made the same album twice.
Four sterling efforts with no significant sales made the group leery of the recording business. They put a lot of time into their albums; they weren't jam sessions, but were carefully thought-out, well-rehearsed studio executions that Muse kept shelving as if they were contaminated. Disheartened and unable to get any lucrative gigs, the members of Catalyst parted ways in 1976. Green played with Pat Martino, and accompanied many of Philadelphia International Records' biggest acts, including Billy Paul, MFSB, and the Three Degrees live; he also taught music. Pope and Brown joined Max Roach for a time. Pope was also a founder and integral member of the acclaimed Saxophone Choir. Johnson left early to play with Weather Report, and Sherman Ferguson has bopped around with Pharoah Sanders, Kenny Burrell, Bud Shank, and others.
The acquisition of the Muse catalog by the late Joel Dorn's 32 Jazz venture and reissuing of Catalyst material on CD has rekindled interest and introduced the band to a new generation of hip-hop, dance music, soul-jazz, and funk fans. First out of the box was Groove Jammy: Rare Groove Classics from the Muse Catalog in 1998, a compilation CD that featured Catalyst and other Muse artists. The release created a spark and listeners demanded more of the quartet, resulting in The Funkiest Band You Never Heard in 1999, a two-disc CD containing all four Catalyst albums from the '70s. Their individual albums have since been re-released in the 21st century on LP by Scorpio Distribution's reissue department and their catalog was issued in two volumes from Porter Records on both CD and LP in 2011. ~ Andrew Hamilton & Thom Jurek