Saxophonist John Doheny was born in Seattle Washington in 1953 but has spent much of his adult life in Canada, primarily in Vancouver and Toronto. After early experiences accompanying strippers in bars and cabarets he became a professional R&B sideman in the late 1970s, touring and recording with artists both prominent and obscure. In 1991 he returned to Vancouver and began a program of intense musical study, both in academe (Vancouver Community College, the University of British Columbia) and in the more informal area of performance. He asserts that "all human intercourse is either an opportunity to learn or to teach. Everything that I know about jazz performance (to the extent that I know anything at all) I owe to those players, teachers and students who have suffered to share the bandstand and the teaching studio with me." Since 2003, Mr. Doheny has been a permanent resident of New Orleans, Louisiana, but makes every effort to spend summers in Canada because "it's too damn hot down here then."

Monday, November 05, 2012

Hard at Work/State of the Tenor Address.

Yes, I know, it's been awhile. I'm finding that the quickening pace of events, gig-wise, creates it's own momentum and tends to block out any interests beyong gigging, practising, and pursuing additional work. It's all-consuming, in other words.

I'm now up to four days a week steady at the Maison Bourbon with Dwayne Burns and his New Orleans Band, specifically tuesday and wednesday nights from 7:30p.m. to 12:15a.m., and friday and saturday afternoons from 3:30p.m. to 8:15p.m. That shakes out to five forty-five minute sets per gig; long hours and short pay, but the up side is that it's steady and covers my basic bills, and the early hits on weekends leaves me the option for subsequent gigs later in the evening. Case in point, this past saturday's "second line" brass band gig at a wedding.

I should probably point out for the benefit of non-New-Orleanians that "second-lining" a bunch of well heeled white wedding guests up Canal Street to the Monteleone hotel bears almost no relationship whatsoever to a real Social Aid and Pleasure Club parade back up in the neighborhood. One is a community function growing out of centuries old tradition, the other is, well...a wedding gig. But there is certainly something to be said for stepping through the streets of New Orleans, police escort to the fore, playing brass band repertoire and watching well dressed white people trying to get funky.

And that brings me to the really big upside of all these gigs, learning new music, which is always a good thing. At the Maison Bourbon, "traditional jazz" is a pretty broad rubric. When I first started playing that gig in November with Jamil Sharif's band, he called a lot of tunes I didn't know and had to catch on to fast. Tin Roof Blues, Sugar Blues, That's A-Plenty, Royal Garden Blues, Tiger Rag, South, Steppin On the Gas, Old Spinning Wheel, Milneburg Joys, Jazz Me Blues...Some of these I'd actually played, many years ago. Others I'd heard and could fake. But a few were things I'd never heard of in my life, and it was a steep learning curve for me on that bandstand. But I was also pleased to find that the current "trad" repertoire contains a lot of stuff I was very familiar with; Chris Kenner's R&B chestnut "Sick and Tired." Professor Longhair's "Go To The Mardi Grass." On Dwayne Burn's gig he'll often call things like "The Way You Look Tonight" and "In A Mellow Tone," tunes I associate more with the swing era, but the customers seem happy with them. He also likes to throw in stuff like "Mardi Gras Mambo" and "They All Asked For You."

Many of the musicians on these gigs are cats of my vintage who cut their teeth on be-bop and funk, but learned the trad repertoire because that's where the work is in New Orleans. Thus many nights become an internal band dialogue in secret bop-code, with quotes from "Night In Tunisia" and "Ornithology" (morphing recently into Petula Clarke's "Call Me.") floating through the solos on "St. Louis Blues" and "Ain't Misbehavin." This is in marked contrast to the new breed of young, white "trad" players coming to town the last few years, many of whom have no interest in straight-ahead jazz and would never dream of incorporating its vocabulary into their solos.

On the brass-band/street parade side, there is also a "traditional" and "modern" repertoire, and it behooves one (if one wishes to work in this area) to be conversant in both. The trad repertoire shares many tunes with the club-trad stuff, but with a slightly different approach. On a tune like "Bourbon Street Parade," for example in a club with a quintet, I'll divide my time fairly evenly in the ensemble statements of the head between playing a harmony line with the trumpet and "tailgating" (filling in the holes with improvised lines) in the out-chorus for extra excitement. On the street, because there are no chording instruments like piano to fill out the harmonic texture, it's necessary to be improvising lines behind trumpet melodies pretty much all the time, which can be tiring even on short parades, since you're walking at the same time, often in extreme heat and humidity. Because I'm still very much the newbie on these gigs, I try to keep my ears wide open at all times for cues. Why does this happen here? Who makes it happen, with a musical cue or hand gesture? It's a whole new etiquette, just like straight ahead jazz.

All of this musical activity is a big part of what makes New Orleans such a great place to live for a musician. The bread may be slim, but there's a lot of work in a wide variety of styles. I honestly can't think of anywhere else I could live right now that offers me the quantity and variety of work I can get here, often in a single day. The GPD (gigs per day) ratio can get pretty high, but I'm finding it tops out for me at about three, and then only if one of those gigs is a shorty. I was leaving the Maison Bourbon the other night after finishing my five sets with Dwayne, when my cel rang. It was Jamil Sharif, asking if I could come in as a last minuute sub for Brent Rose, who had caught a last minute hit at Preservation Hall right around the corner on St. Peter. So, by the end of the night, I'd played ten back to back 45 minute sets in a row, and felt like I'd been hit by a train.

Surprisingly, my feet hurt more than my chops after that, which brings us to the "State of the Tenor" portion of the post. I've recently switched from a neckstrap to a harness, after a couple of years of steadily worsening back and neck issues (and grief from my chiropractor). I'm finding that, although the damn thing really screws up the drape of my dress shirts and ties, it allows me the comfort to play almost indefinitely. And that's a good thing, because in addition to all this gigging, I've resolved to use this period in my life to reinstitute a serious practise schedule in an effort to clean up a lot of stuff about my playing I don't like. Most of this has to do with technical issues related to not being as secure about fundementals as I'd like, so to that end, I'm (among other things) sloooowly and deliberately going through the first sixty pages of "Patterns For Jazz," concentrating on triads and simple chord arpeggiations moving in whole steps, half steps, minor thirds, and cycle-of-fifths. And I'm taking my own oft-proferred advice to my students...Don't rush. Take your time. And then take some more time. Everybody (including me) wants to 'get good' as fast as possible, but this is really counterproductive, because rushing through fundementals in order to get to the hip stuff just means everything you're playing is rooted in quicksand. Yet it's hard hard hard to just stick with really simple stuff until you've totally absorbed it.

I'm also looking down the barrel of another overhaul on the tenor. Complete makeover...all new pads, corks, felts etc. Has to be done every ten years or so, but it's a major expense (around $600) and takes at least a couple of days. I'm so busy I may have to play a few gigs on alto while it's being done.