Webb Weaves a Career Full of Versatility : Jazz: The tenor saxophonist's musical perspectives are wide enough that he takes on--and enjoys--many types of projects. He performs at Balboa's Studio Cafe on Sunday.


These days, when tenor saxophonist Doug Webb goes to work, that job could be anything from playing a private party or a one-nighter with a duo at an Orange County hotel to making a midnight studio session for a rock 'n' roll band or recording a steaming solo on a TV soundtrack.

Fortunately for the versatile, in-demand Webb, his musical perspectives are wide enough so that he likes most of what he does.

"I enjoy going into the studio and making somebody's pop tune sound better, helping out," Webb said in a recent phone interview from his Hollywood home.

"I enjoy playing parties or weddings with good musicians. I like to play rock," said the Chicago-born musician who lived in Newport Beach and Huntington Beach from age 8 through high school.

But Webb, 31, also has a reputation as a riveting modern-jazz tenor soloist, a man capable of powerhouse, complex improvisations that have the hue and cry of his main influence, John Coltrane. To be sure, Webb can also play with delicacy and warmth.

In the jazz arena, he's performed with such notables as trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Sal Marquez, bassist Brian Bromberg, conga drummer Poncho Sanchez and drummers Alphonse Mouzon, Roy McCurdy and John Guerin.

The saxophonist, who's heard on Bromberg's new Nova Records release, "It's About Time: The Acoustic Project," plays more strictly "work" jobs than he does no-frills jazz. So when he plays a room such as the Studio Cafe in Balboa, as he does Sunday with his quartet, it's special.

"The Studio's a place to play straight-ahead jazz, and there aren't a lot of those left. It really fills a need," said Webb, who will be accompanied Sunday by pianist Rob Mullins, bassist Bob Harrison and drummer Joel Taylor. Taylor plays with many contemporary Los Angeles bands, including Mullins' popular trio. Harrison is another sought-after sort who has worked with everyone from the late Joe Farrell to Brazilians Airto Moreira and Flora Purim.

Webb has been playing at the Studio since the mid '80s, when he began sitting in there with pianist Frank Strazzeri's band. Though he performs this week with a quartet, Webb has, for three months, been working Tuesdays at the Studio with a bass-drums-sax trio. The engagement concluded last week. He says he's intrigued by both formats.

"With a quartet, you can have a greater variety of tunes because you have two chording instruments--piano and bass," explained Webb, a graduate of Edison High School in Huntington Beach who went on to earn his bachelor's in professional music in 1983 from Berklee College of Music in Boston.

"Certain tunes don't sound good without the chords of either a piano or a guitar, like some of saxophonist Wayne Shorter's tunes that we play. If a tune is harmonically dense, has a lot of chords, then you lose something without the piano," he said.

The trio setting, on the other hand, allows the saxophonist, as the spotlighted soloist, to make more of the musical decisions in a given performance.

"I have more say in the direction of the music. I can control where the music goes, because there's more freedom," he said. "I'm not limited to playing the chords the piano player is using. I can re-harmonize a standard, play a different set of chord progressions every chorus."

Besides his on-again, off-again appearances at the Studio, Webb has for five years performed with both bassist Bromberg's jazz-fusion band, and with trumpeter Marquez's mainstream quintet. He took part in Marquez's debut recording session last week, and recently played with Bromberg at Le Cafe in Sherman Oaks.

"Brian and Sal give me a chance to be heard creatively on songs that are good for jazz improvisation," Webb said.

Still, to make money--real money--Webb, like so many jazz players, looks to non-jazz gigs, particularly studio work.

"I got a call one night to go in at midnight and cut a solo," he said. "The gig took an hour and paid $300, while when I was performing at Le Cafe earlier in the evening, I made $26."

Webb used to chiefly work as a studio doubler, playing flutes and clarinets as well as saxes. But now he's mainly employed as a soloist, he says. He's recorded improvisations on such TV shows as "The Simpsons," "America's Most Wanted" and "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." And the calls are coming with greater frequency.

"Three years ago, I did maybe 10 sessions. This year I did close to 100," he said happily.

But, all that glistens is not gold, and while most calls are to his liking, "I do some dumb things," he admitted, without getting specific.

"It's not all like playing with McCoy Tyner," he adds, referring to the innovative pianist known for his artistry with Coltrane's early 1960s quartet.

Webb began his musical studies on piano at age 5, switching to clarinet at age 8 and saxophone at 15. His first clarinet and sax teacher, Orange County musician Don Hawkins, was inspirational.

"He was a real groove," Webb said. "He seemed to love his job, even seemed to love little kids that didn't practice. I thought a lot about him when I was making the decision to make music my career."

Jazz grabbed Webb's teen-age ear when his mother brought home two albums. One was Coltrane's "Alternate Takes," which featured such now-classic songs as "Giant Steps" and "Countdown." The youngster was mesmerized by Coltrane's improvisational splendor.

"To this day I still can't believe that album," he said. "There's so much concentration and focus. Every note was perfect."

Coltrane, who died in 1967, remains, along with Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker, one of the major forces behind Webb's music.

"Maybe his genius wasn't his chops, his facility, but his way of instilling emotion and love into the music," Webb said.

Graduating from high school a year early in 1977, Webb spent what would have been his senior year taking classes at both Golden West College in Huntington Beach, where he studied saxophone and theory with Tom Kubis, and at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, where he was guided by Charles (Doc) Rutherford. Webb got in a lot of playing time as well.

He then traveled to Boston to attend Berklee. It was a wonderful environment, he said.

"You played all the time," Webb recalled. "The best thing about it was that when you become a professional, everything you're doing is about working and making money. At Berklee, your only concern was about the music, without a thought to what might be commercial."

Webb returned to Orange County in 1984, playing with bassist John Patitucci, trombonist Mike Fahn and others. He also married and is the father of a son, Ryan, 4. Webb and Ryan's mother have divorced and have a joint-custody agreement that leaves Ryan with his father three days a week.

"It works out OK," he said. "He's a great kid--loves to play drums and piano."

Webb thinks he made a good choice when he opted for a musical career. "I still love music as much as ever, and that makes it all worthwhile."

Doug Webb and his quartet play Sunday from 2 to 6 p.m. at the Studio Cafe, 100 Main St., Balboa. Admission: free. Information: (714) 675-7760.

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