Monday, November 16, 2009

Matt Otto: The Plastic Sax Interview

The arrival of Matt Otto on the Kansas City jazz scene is one of the most encouraging developments of 2009. The exciting and accomplished saxophonist has already injected fresh ideas into the sometimes insular jazz community.

Those who have yet to catch him at an area venue are encouraged to take in his gorgeous solo here and his more aggressive solo here. Otto clearly has enormous stylistic range.

Curious about what brought him to Kansas City and what he hopes to accomplish here, I conducted this email interview with Otto last week.

Plastic Sax: When did you move to Kansas City? What brings you here? Do you plan on staying?

Matt Otto: I moved here toward the end of July this year, my wife got a job as a professor at William Jewell so we'll be here for a while.

PS: Your recordings, at least the ones I've heard, definitely lean toward the outside edge of jazz. Is that the style you most prefer?

MO: I love improvising, whether it's free or over standards. I do have one album of completely free music, Q Trio Vol 1. which is all improvised with no agenda or structure. Most other albums I've lead or collaborated on are what I would consider to be fairly “inside” in that they deal with functional harmony and melody, and improving over a structured form.

PS: How have audiences in Kansas City reacted to your music? Do you expect to find sympathetic venues for that sound in Kansas City?

MO: I've only had two gigs of my own since I came to town, both were very well received, in general, I find the audiences to be good, intelligent listeners.

PS: What are your favorite aspects of the Kansas City jazz scene today? What do you wish was different?

MO: The pace of life here is relaxed, which I like. Both NYC and LA are generally very crowded, loud and intense. It's nice to have some space, calm and a pace that allows time for reflection.

PS: I just listened to the new Jan Garbarek album. His approach reminds me of yours. Is he one of your influences? Who are your musical inspirations?

MO: I really love the recordings he did with Keith Jarrett. One thing I like most about Jan is that he is original and doesn't sound like anyone else. My influences on sax aren't original be any means, I listen to all the players that are considered to be great... Bird, Lester, Hawkins, Desmond, Trane, Stitt, Rollins, Getz, Ornette, Lockjaw, Jug, Konitz, Marsh, really, hundreds of players over the years, some more than others. I feel it's an obligation, as a creative improvising musician, to listen to as much music as possible before you're done.

I know you've collaborated with Loren Pickford, the Sons of Brazil and Dave Stephens since you've been in Kansas City. That's a pretty diverse mix. Who else have you been working with?

MO: I've been rehearsing and working a bit with my quartet which includes Mike Warren on drums, Jeff Harshbarger or Ben Leifer on bass, and Gerald Dunn on alto sax. I did a nice gig at Jardine's with Roger Wilder, Brandon Draper and Ben Leifer. I've been playing the Saturday late night set at the Mutual Musicians Foundation each week with Chris Clark, Mike Warren and Tyrone Clark. I've been playing off and on with Brad Cox and the Peoples Liberation Big Band which I'm currently trying to write a piece for. Who else?... Mark Southerland, Sam Wisman, Matt Hopper, Hermon Mehari, Brian Stever, Brad Williams, Gerald Spaits, Rod Fleeman, Angela Hagenbach, Stan Kessler and many others.

PS: Do you see yourself as a leader, a sideman or both?

MO: Definitely both, I write a lot of music and practice a lot of standards.

PS: What went into your decision to make some of your albums available as free downloads?

MO: I just wanted people to be able hear and enjoy the music, without as many economic hurtles to jump over, I knew I'd never make a lot of money playing jazz, it comes with the art form. I get a lot of positive feedback and encouragement and even some donations, all of which help keep me inspired and fed so I can do what I do. I'd rather the music was out in the word than in a box in the back of my closet. I've recently put some Google ads on my blog so that a few cents trickle in every time someone clicks on one they find inciting enough... lol.

PS: Which of your recordings is your favorite?

MO: I like them all for different reasons, if I had to pick one I'd say the Baobab album from the band 3-ish.

PS: It seems that everyone is eager to discuss the state of jazz in 2009. What's your assessment?

MO: I think jazz has never been so strong. Not necessarily from an economic point of view, but due to the sheer number of jazz musicians on the planet that increases year after year. That means better players, more players, more music, more influences and a bigger audience of educated listeners. Of course, without food, water and shelter none of that can happen, so economics is, in a sense, working against art and culture; more artists, less work.

PS: Are you a full-time musician? Is jazz your sole gig? If not, what else do you do?

MO: Just music, I teach private lessons out of my house, other than that it's practice, write, rehearse and gig. (Editorial note: Otto's YouTube channel dedicated to teaching is here.)

PS: You suffer from repetitive strain injurty/carpal tunnel problems. How has that affected your playing? Is it still an issue?

MO: RSI/Carpal Tunnel is a big problem for me, everyday I stretch, exercise, and have to constantly refrain from practicing too much. The technique in my left hand has been dramatically impaired over the years, especially my ring finger. (Editorial note: see Otto's fascinating YouTube channel dedicated to the subject here.)

(Original image of Matt Otto by Plastic Sax.)


Patchchord said...

Very encouraging indeed!

Jeremy said...

I like seeing interviews on here. You should do more!

Happy In Bag said...

Thanks, guys. I'd like to conduct more interviews as well. I encourage musicians, club owners and managers, educators and rabid jazz fans to reach out to me.

Anonymous said...

Agree, really fine interview. Matt is a great musician and genuinely nice guy. We are playing together at the 2nd Residency of the Black House Improvisers' Collective - first rehearsal was last week, concert Jan 15th in KCMO.

Peace, Cb

Unknown said...

I really enjoyed this interview with Matt Otto, whose career I have followed for years. You posed some interesting questions on diverse topics which made it just that more interesting.

mascio capouya said...

Matt Otto is one of the "monsters" of our time. The man is quite simply a consummate musician.

Happy In Bag said...

Since this interview was conducted, my admiration for Otto has grown considerably. Thanks, Cb, Christine and Mascio, for your contributions.

I like what I hear at your MySpace account, Mascio. Let me know if you ever make it to KC.