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Down and Dirty

Keeping funky jazz alive with Johnny SketchBetta Listen

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When you grow up playing classical music, you learn to play clean. It's all about precision -- you try not to miss any notes. But when you take that training to New Orleans and bust out into funky jazz, the notes get a little scuffed up. "At the beginning of the band, we were all playing instruments that we hadn't really studied," says Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes percussionist Andre Bohren, who went from classical piano to drums. "We were making lots of mistakes, but rather than call it mistakes, we called 'em dirty notes." Classically trained in piano, Bohren says he always heard if you play a wrong note three or four times, it becomes jazz. "Dirty notes are sort of those wrong notes, in theory."

As the band has been playing more, there've been fewer dirty notes, but it's still funky. It might seem an odd career choice for Bohren, son of folk/blues cult figure Spencer Bohren. Although born in Wyoming, after a long night's conversation with Dr. John after a gig, Bohren Sr. spent a decade in New Orleans playing rootsy, funky, country blues flecked with folky influences. "I guess career-wise, I'm sort of kind of following him as far as we're struggling, touring musicians," Junior says.

But Junior got the benefit of his parents' 35 years experience in the biz -- his mom was his dad's booking agent. "One of the things that my dad said was he didn't make his first record till he was 32 years old," says Bohren. "He was smoking pot every day and drifting off, so we got ahead of the curve on that." At 27, Bohren is completing his fourth record with the band.

Even though he listened to the voice of experience, he had to learn his own lesson the hard way, showing up drunk for a gig early in the band's career after a little too much Mardi Gras. But that once was enough. "Studying music and really wanting to do it and understanding how hard that road is that we've chosen or has been chosen for us, it's not something that you can take lightly."

Despite their brassiness and seemingly informal look and approach, it's not acceptable for the Dirty Notes to be sloppy on stage. "We try to channel our energy without the sloppiness," Bohren says. "We're playing pretty complex arrangements on some of our stuff, and it doesn't really afford room to show up drunk."

The sound is similar to a funkier version of The Dirty Dozen, New Orleans reigning jazz/funk/R&B ensemble for decades. Fishbone and Tower of Power comparisons have also been tossed around. The Fishbone reference comes from the energy of the show, which Bohren says is relentless from the downbeat. "So many bands out there right now rely too much on their light guy to put on a show," the drummer says. "We don't have a light guy, so it's all on us to entertain everybody." And as for the Tower of Power comparison, even though the Dirty Notes are outnumbered horn-wise, they still deliver plenty of honking bombast.

On their latest, Live at the Spleaf, recorded at New Orleans Maple Leaf club, there's plenty of funk in the honk as well. "Big Blow" sounds like the JB's. "Saucy Jack" is a mix of WAR, the Dirty Dozen and Tower of Power.

And even though the sound and feel of New Orleans permeates the band's music, the members, most of whom once called the town home, now have to work it from the outside. "We start our tours in New Orleans," Bohren says, but most everybody flies in from wherever they're staying. "A lot of us have been sort of floating since the storm." That includes Bohren, who has been staying with his folks down there since rent skyrocketed because of Katrina.

Even though they're temporarily transplants, the spirit of New Orleans still comes through. The pull was so strong it knocked Bohren off his piano stool. "I was pretty much strictly doing classical piano," he says. "Then I moved back down to New Orleans, and the drum thing was unavoidable." Take that rhythm, add some serious theory and you've got a bunch of Dirty Notes straddling the down and dirty ditch between jazz and funk.

"We've got horn players who went more the jazz route, but we all studied the same music theory classes and we've all learned a lot about music," Bohren says. "It's definitely not your average band."

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