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Matthew Von Doran wears wife-beater tanks, has a pool in his back yard, and drives a midnight-blue Jag—a pretty phat ride for a mere musician. He rarely looks you in the eye when he's talking, and he generally doesn't say much, except when he's haranguing his custom-made, chambered, semisolid-body electric guitar in front of audiences, trying to coerce it into doing his bidding. When he's in the groove, he silences onlookers with his inventive harmonies and shreddy, eardrum-buzzing notes—notes that sound like a zillion melodic screams.
It's flat-out amazing what the guy can do with a six-string; Von Doran plays with the fury of Mike Stern and the finesse and squawk of John Scofield. His guitar sound lies somewhere between the two—dirty but not distorted, with splashes of chorus and reverb, so that his midi-processed notes have more sustain and his lead lines have a fluid legato feel akin to a horn player's. Even when he's playing a jazz standard like "Autumn Leaves," the Costa Mesan keeps his volume hot.
In his band, a power threesome called the New Trio of Doom (also featuring cat-daddy Osama Afifi—who can funk anything up on electric and upright bass—and heavy hitter Matt Johnson on drums), Von Doran shows just what a mean-grinding mother he can be. The trio is about jazz-funk and fusion, everything from bebop to Hendrix and beyond. Their tunes range from "Stella by Starlight" to "Little Wing," always highlighted by harmonic jazz niches and a heavy groove running underneath so that no single number gets too "polite."
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The trio allows Von Doran to be the raw, in-your-face performer he is, somehow maintaining a rock-star guitar presence. His karmic solos are wildly emblazoned with unexpected screeches and wails, weighty notes that resonate in your memory.
Once, while performing with the trio on the patio of the Alcatraz Brewing Company at the Block, Van Doren's playing actually stopped people in their tracks. I knew that some of them had no idea what fusion was, but they listened intently just the same because there's something universal and gut-wrenching in Von Doran's playing that crosses the barriers and ridiculous labels we impose on music.
Von Doran calls himself a "hired gun" and can't remember the last time he had a "real" job. For nine years, he has earned a steady paycheck playing with the Don Miller Orchestra, a 17-piece big band featured Monday nights at Birroporetti's in South Coast Plaza. The orchestra was also the live-audience warm-up band during the final season of Seinfeld, as well as throughout the TV lifespan of The Nanny. He's also a sideman for blues artist Tim Moyer and singer Kerry Getz, both of whom play OC regularly. As if this hasn't been enough to juggle, Von Doran is also a full-time member of Southern California faves the Scott Wilkie Band; their recent CD, Boundless, and the exposure that followed gave him a chance to record with such huge jazz names as John Patitucci and Russ Freeman.
Because Wilkie is the only signed artist of the bunch, that's the band that has become a priority for him. "All of the other bands I work with understand that as a professional sideman, I have to go with what's most beneficial to my career. I certainly hope that all the bands I'm in get signed—I wouldn't be in these bands if didn't believe in them. But, ultimately, you can't be in five or six signed bands and do your job," says Von Doran, who realizes that he can only spread his in-demand talents so far. "Hopefully, for the extent of my career, I can be in a number of different projects to satisfy my different tastes."
The 39-year-old began playing guitar around 1976, at first weaning himself on a variety of classic-rock teats, from Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin to Peter Frampton and Elton John. But as a music major in college, Von Doran set off on a quest to know everything he possibly could about the guitar. He began listening to over-the-top fusion paragons like John McLaughlin and Al DiMiola, searching the masters for daunting secrets.
A defining moment for Von Doran came when he saw a then-unknown Emit Chapman playing his guitar/ sitar/lap-steel-like invention (called a Chapman Stick) in concert. It didn't make Von Doran want to play a Stick, but one song Chapman performed that night was from McLaughlin's Intermounting Flame album, and it "piqued my curiosity, so I went out and got the record," Von Doran says. "And being able to hear rock mixed with the more sophisticated jazz harmonies, I really took to that."
Other influences for Von Doran came from West Coast fusion artists like Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour, but the East Coast guitar sounds of Stern, Scofield and effects-wizard guitar guru Pat Metheny had the most influence on him.
"I appreciated the harder edge to [the East Coast sound], the more aggressive, darker stuff," says Von Doran, who's developed an angrier, not-so-breezy style of his own that helps separate him from the pick-jacks on the cool coast.