For Rob Frayne, his instrument is, and always will be, the tenor sax.

But this Friday will be the first time he's played the sax in a concert in almost a decade, after a long period of recovery and readjustment. He'll be at GigSpace, performing with long-time friends, and his tenor sax will add to the strong Dizzy Gillespie-influenced groove in the music he's written for the show.

Rob Frayne is back with a sax, and he's playing it at a GigSpace concert this Friday  ©2014 Brett Delmage
Rob Frayne is back with a sax, and he's playing it at a GigSpace concert this Friday ©2014 Brett Delmage
For well over two decades, Frayne has been a powerhouse in Ottawa's jazz scene: as a composer, arranger, teacher, and instrumentalist. He led groups like the groundbreaking Chelsea Bridge, co-founded the JazzWorks jazz camp, and played with everyone from Kenny Wheeler to the Gil Evans Orchestra to the Shuffle Demons. More recently, his Dream Band, featuring some of the best jazz musicians in Canada, filled the NAC Fourth Stage for two nights in 2012 and was one of the bands playing tribute to Jacques Émond on the closing night of the 2013 Ottawa Jazz Festival.

Ten years ago (November, 2004), Frayne's car was hit by a truck, and he was badly injured. The left side of his throat is still paralyzed, and he has reduced lung capacity – which makes it harder to play the tenor.

The GigSpace concert is the first time Frayne will actually publicly play his saxophone in a group, “which is kind of neat, because I didn't quite think I'd be able to. I realized over the last few months that after I changed everything – like my reed, my mouthpiece, my horn, the way I breathe, my neck strap – everything – that I could play a bit of music on it.”

As soon as he was able after the collision, Frayne was playing bass and piano: “I was trying to find some way of playing, something. And then I realized, after about five or six years, that I liked the saxophone the most.”

He laughs, a bit ruefully. “I should have been able to guess that, but you'd think, let's adapt, let's move on. It turns out, I'm going back to the sax. And now I feel a lot like a teenager, or even someone at university in a practice room, trying to play two notes or one note...”

Although he'd been working on relearning the sax for the last decade, with “a concerted few months every so often”, he said, it was in the last year that he decided to divide up the components he needed to play, and fix them each one by one.

With the assistance of local saxophonist Richard Page, who not only sells instruments at a local music store but who also has owned and played a huge variety of saxes himself, Frayne tried out many tenors before narrowing the choice to three which he tried out seriously. He finally picked the Taiwanese-built P. Mauriat XT.

Frayne's return to the saxophone also involved self-training, he said, using biofeedback over several years to allow him to get “enough air, enough open throat, enough fingers”, to play to his satisfaction. He also had to use “a smaller set-up, a smaller mouthpiece, so there would be less air, and then somehow I'm getting around the throat thing.”

There was no easy solution. “It's a combination of the air and what the air's going into and how that works. It's one of these things that probably no one really gets. No one understands it, how this whole thing works, still. But there's hints here and there, and I got some tips this summer from [saxophonists] Rémi Bolduc and Frank Lozano at [the JazzWorks] camp, when I was playing a bit there. They were quite helpful.”

These days, “I just have to practice everything. Like I used to practice: three times. Practice until I had it, and then get it three times right, and then play it three times, and then I'd be OK and I could move on. It's a lot like classical music in a way: it's like learning the discipline.”

He's back to playing eighth-notes on the sax, although he is still playing longer lines than he used to. “But I'm missing the virtuosic stuff, I'm missing quick sixteenth-note licks and technical bits. So it's going to be slightly slower. But I don't just have to hold long notes, I can actually play rhythms.”

What helped him play faster, he said, was getting together a few times a week with Ottawa guitarist Garry Elliott. “Since jamming with Garry, I'm playing some actual regular figures that I would not have played before.”

For their jams in the last few months, Elliott has shifted to a new instrument, the djembe (or jimbe), a rope-tuned skin-covered small drum played with bare hands. That came out of Elliott's studies in New York City with pianist Mike Longo, who teaches rhythms using the djembe.

“Mike played with Dizzy Gillespie, so Garry's assimilating the beautiful rhythms of Dizzy Gillespie, who was interested in Afro-Cuban music.”

And that jamming with Elliott inspired Friday's concert, Frayne said. Besides Elliott on djembe, the show will also include Roddy Ellias on guitar, and percussionist Alvaro de Minaya playing bass marimba on percussion triggers and congas. It will be a “groovy, drummy thing”, with percussion much more up-front than in his Dream Band shows, which both Ellias and de Minaya also played in.

Ellias will be covering both melody and rhythm: “he'll be all over it. I'm counting on him as the fast guy because he can play quick licks, and I'm still regrouping on the horn. So I'll be playing slow tenor and Roddy will be playing fast guitar.”

As a percussionist, de Minaya is “super-sensitive; he'll follow Garry and we'll all follow each other. So no matter where we go, it's a group journey that way. It's tricky to get that.”

Despite wanting to keep the show simple, Frayne got inspired to write new music for it. The new tunes include a song dedicated to his daughter Marielle, and a parody of a song by Ellias. “Roddy once wrote a song called 'One Shoe Off', and I couldn't help myself – I had to write 'Two Shoes On'. It's in the same vibe. But again a chance to get into that Dizzy Gillespie, African jazzy groove. I'm digging that.”

He's also pulling out some songs which are so old that many listeners not have heard them before: “I have some old chestnuts which are actually from 1992, or even earlier.” They'll also be playing an African-inspired tune called Cameroon, “which I wrote in 1989 dedicated to the soccer team which came from nowhere and then won the World Cup.”

For his Dream Band concerts, Frayne prepared full charts for the entire large ensemble. For this show, he'll have charts as well, “so that we're not just totally winging it in a free way, which we could do. But this is more like a little bit of structure and then it will be loose in the blowing and the intros and extros.”

“I think it will be more popular, more appealing jazz because of the groove factor, which often jazz lacks. And here we'll have always a groove.”

The show at GigSpace will be a one-time event – Frayne has no plans so far for a repeat.

“We'll just have some fun and make some music.”

    – Alayne McGregor

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