One striking quality of Otto's playing is the clarity of his ideas, it seems that everything he plays makes sense and is played for a reason. Matt started out early on more focused on the Avant-Garde, but as the years have past he's become more firmly rooted in the mainstream tradition. Hearing him play it's obvious that he has deeply studied the masters of classic Jazz. Many people haven't yet heard Matt Otto, but he's been doing more record dates lately that are certainly worth checking out. Here's my interview with Matt Otto:
DV: You've been in LA for several years now, why did you leave NYC? Has your musical concept changed at all since you've been there?
MO: I moved from NYC back to L.A. to do my Masters at Cal Arts, which turned out to be a great learning experience for me, getting to play and study with Charlie Haden, Wada Leo Smith, Larry Koonse, Vinny Golia, Paul Novros, David Roitstein, Darek Oles, James Tenney, the list goes on and on, a truly amazing school.
DV: How's the scene there, any particular players that you really like?
MO: The scene here in L.A. is good, there are many great players of all ages, and styles, and I'm definitely challenged and encouraged here. Some of the local tenor players have made a particularly stong impression on me, Ben Wendell, Walter Smith, Chuck Manning, and Bob Sheppard to name a few.
DCV: Do you ever miss NYC?
MO: I do miss New York, mainly the scene and the players. There are so many great players and composers there that one can become both inspired and overwhelmed. I felt quite driven at times living there, and had a strong urge to practice and write which has not left me since. I do however, enjoy the slower pace of Los Angeles, I've become a bit more reflective living here, and have slowly drifted toward the type of playing, improvising and music that moves me, which, as it turns out, is fairly mellow, unagressive and appropriately west coast.
DCV: I've known you for almost twenty years now and you have always seemed to be highly disciplined when it comes to your music. I remember once seeing that you had put Velcro on the body of your horn, when I asked you about it you told me that you put it there in order to hold down your keys, so that you wouldn't get tendonitis from practicing long tones. I assumed of course that you must have been doing a lot of long tones. What sort of practice routine did you have back then?
MO: As most of us do, I practiced very long hours, although I feel the quality of my practice is much better now. I also seem to recall you shedding a few doors down in the basement of the Hemingway dorms at Berklee. I always felt so far behind in a sense, both in terms of the development of my ear and my technique. You, Donny McCaslin, Doug Yates, Mark Turner, Josh Redman (who was at Harvard Med. At the time), Kenny Brooks (NEC) and Rob Shepps where all such a huge influence on me at the time, and still are. I remember meeting Doug Yates when we were both in high school, who was reminiscent of Phil Woods at the time, he was just playing such beautiful melodies with such an amazing sound and feel. It was than I realised that I hadn't a drop of talent and decided to make up for it with a strong work ethic. I kept a practice log and put in 6 hours a day pretty consistently for 2 years, and than moved up to 8 and 10 hours, which led to severe carparal tunnel syndrome, sending me on a forced hiatus for 4 months and an operation in my left hand. RSI is something I suffer from even today, however, after years of physical therapy, Alexander technique, light weight lifting and stretching I feel like I'm pretty much on top of it, at least the pain. The blessing of carparal tunnel (if there could be such a thing), was that it forced me to work on my ears and not my horn, which has become my primary way of practicing now. I sing over play along recordings or sequenced progressions and visualise the fingerings. It's truly transformed my playing and my hearing, plus I've really learned to enjoy it.
DV: Do you still do as much work with long tones these days?
MO: Certainly not as much as I used to, but I still tape my keys down with velcro and play on one note for along time (usually over a recorded drone to add interest and a pitch reference). I really enjoy long tones, after practicing them for a while I always feel both physically and mentally better than when I started. I had a really great experience with long tones last year, I stayed at my friends cabin up in the Feather River near Reno for a week and only did about 3 hours of long tones per day, no playing at all. When I got back, the first session I played was probably the funnest musical experiences I've had in ages, I felt really fresh, and could really improvise, hear new ideas and play them, plus everything seemed to come from my sound, all the ideas, it was really something, and I've been trying to get back to it, unfortunately, I think I would have to stop gigging to do it, but when I get a few days off, I try to get back to just doing long tones, and listening to sides.
DV: What sorts of other things are you working on lately?
MO: Well, as I said, mostly singing over standards or sequenced progressions of original material and visualizing the fingering. I've found that if I can't sing it (accurately and in tune) I can't really hear it, even if I can recognize by ear or play it physically. For me, once I can sing something as easily as Marry Had A Little Lamb, I know I really hear it, and what with 20th century harmony and melody (and rhythm), there's plenty I can't hear well enough to sing in tune, so there's plenty for me to work on. Also, I write quite a bit, I try to write a little each day, which I can maintain that for about a month before I just loose the discipline and then I have to recommit after taking some time off.
DV: Are you happy with the sound that you have now, if not do you ever consider changing your setup to get more of what you're hearing?
MO: I'm not happy with my sound most of the time, I think mostly due to over blowing, I really don't like playing loud, and frankly, I can't do it without loosing nearly all of my limited technique. Usually, If I'm playing in a good acoustic environment, with some wood or reflective surfaces, and I'm not forced to play to loud, I can get what I'm hearing, which is kind of an hallow howl inside the core of the tone. One problem is when I can reproduce my ideal sound, my pitch gets bad (laughs), Oh well.
DV: How much do you work on your reeds?
MO: During the 90's, I went through a long period of using Larry Guys single reed maintenance approach which Jay Collins turned me on to... I recommend it to any woodwind player, in my opinion, it's one of the best ways to maintain a set of playable reeds (and therefore increase your chance of having a workable sound). That said, I ran out of the patience to maintain it, it's a "dry" reed approach and takes 10 days to prepare and seal each read (as you probably know). Now I've gone to the other extreme, I keep my reeds in a jar of hydrogen peroxide, tucked into my bell. I'm also playing on really soft reeds now... I've gone from Rico Royal 5's down to Vandoren blue box 2's for practice and perform on 2's. I found this keeps my embouchure loose more reeds seem to work as a result. DV: Who are you listening to lately? MO: I love all the normal guys I guess, and since all my music is on my hard drive, I have a really nice random play. In the car I've been listening to Theo Bleckman's Origami album a lot recently, I'm a big fan of his voice, his music and Ben Monder (Guitar), who plays with him. Like most sax players, I can't really get away from Lester, Hawkins, Bird, Rollins, Marsh, Konitz, Henderson, Dexter, Trane, Wayne, Garzone, Lovano...I'm also a big Paul Desmond fan, and have all his solos cut out as mp3s from, I think, every album he ever did. It sounds to me like Paul loved space, simplicity, and melody and could actually play that way. I share his aesthetic and yet have the most difficult time producing a sound that reflects that fact... I really like a lot of the "younger" players too, you, Yates, McCaslin, Blake, Cheek, Turner, McHenry, Brooks, there's so many I can't begin to name them all, what with MySpace, I'm meeting new cats every week whom I've never heard of whose tracks sounds amazing.
DV: You've always struck me as a player who is very much grounded in the Jazz traditional, yet you also sound very modern and even Avant-Garde. What are you thoughts about following the tradition as opposed to trying to innovate a new way of playing?
MO: That's a great question... I considered myself an Avant-Garde player for a long time. You and I both studied with Garzone, and you know how he teaches... We'd play free for an hour and he'd say things like, "play a tree" or "play in circle", he really seemed focused on the creartive untangalble aspects of the music. At that time I was into Albert Ayler, Ornette, late Trane, all the really emotive free players. After leaving Berklee, I realized that I couldn't work with my skill set, so economic compulsions lead me, in the beginning, to play standards, bebop, and how to play singable melodies through chords. Well, I truly began to enjoy playing melody, and for the first time in my life I actually began to hear very specific note by note melodies in my head. Before that, I heard more in terms of shapes, phrases and rhythms, not so much note specific. Now I'm really trying to combine the two, I think both ways of playing (although I'm sure there are many ways) have a deep tradition, and have been proven to be historically valid. Don Cherry always fascinated me, because of his ability to play both using shapes and rhythms (where the note to note content didn't seem to be his main priority) and then turn around and play improvised folk melodies that even my mom would like.
DV: Do you think that one can do both or do you have to sacrifice one in order to do the other?
MO: Well, I'm not really an aggressive hard bob player for instance, so in a sense, I've sacrificed one aspect of the tradition for another. Also, I don't just play free jazz anymore... another sacrifice. I don't see that as being bad, I end up playing with like minded musicians who appreciate similar aspects of the music and the process.
DV: What do your imagine your playing to be like in twenty years from now? What types of musical situations would you like to be in at that point in your career?
MO: In 20 years I hope I've really ironed out the state of mind I play from, I'd really like to perfect the art of listening to and fallowing the melody (note by note) that I hear in my head, without making mistakes in the translation to the saxophone. I think if I learn to do just that with some integrity, I'll have reached one of my main musical goals in life. Of course, I'd love to have the chance to play with all or any of my idols, if they're still around in 20 years, but than again, who wouldn't. I've never been a real hustler, and admittedly, know very little about promoting my so called "career" or cultivating new playing opportunities. Again, I'd really just like to perfect that singing state when I play the horn. I find that to be very gratifying and honest, and a very clear break with the idea of thinking about chords when I play.
DV: You've done quite a lot of composing during your career, how has that changed the way that you play the saxophone and are you still writing a lot?
MO: I'd say harmonically, composition has influenced my improvising a fair amount. The things I've begun to hear melodically from working with chords at the piano have changed my line playing dramatically. I think without composition my ear would have grown even slower than it has. Composition for me is a way of slowing the process way down, to give you ear a chance to notice and hear new pathways and sounds. I've recently become fond of writing out, memorizing and singing solos over progressions in hopes of integrating the new harmonic concepts into my "vocabulary" of heard ideas. I read that Lennie Tristano had his students do that, and it does seem to help me.
DV: If I remember correctly you were pretty serious about your Zen practice, is that correct? Do you think that meditation if helpful for improvisers? If so why?
MO: I don't talk much about it, partially because I think it's been widely misunderstood, and misrepresented, and, I don't claim to be an expert on the topic. I started to meditate in my late teens when my Dad got cancer and started doing it himself (he is completely fine now). I read quite a bit of the popular literature about it (Alan Watts, D.T. Sasuki, Dogen, ect.), and came to the conclusion that Zen was not so much about reading and grasping at philosophy but mostly about sitting quietly with your back straight, and not thinking about anything. So my practice today is much the same as it's always been, except now, after 20 years, the not thinking part is much easier. I've never believed that sitting Zen could change the problems of the world but rather that it helps me maintain some semblance of humanity and balance within a troubled world. I think the practice is healthy and simple like exercise and a good diet, and I recommend anyone give it a try.
DV: How does Zen affect how you approach music?
MO: Integrating Zen with music is quite a difficult feat, and I've tried for years to play from a simple empty state of mind, as it turns out, the music of our generation may not be simple enough for me to do this effectively; it seems that unless I'm playing over a standard a hear thoroughly I have to use a little thinking to navigate melodically through the harmonically difficult passages(and difficult odd meters, or poly-rhythms are equally challenging) . I hope to one day have a good enough ear (as so many of the great improvisers do) to get through most material without a peep from my theoretical mind. Maybe it's idealistic, but I think to the extent that you can choose what structures you improvise over, you can maintain a fairly quite mind and still improvise by ear both in and out of the changes.
DV: How do you think about the audience when you play, meaning are you consciously trying to relate to them in any particular way?
MO: Often times I am part of the audience, I go to a lot of shows and listen to the music. I think an audience should be as active listening as possible, giving themselves over to the sound of the music, as completely as they can. If the audience and the players do this, great things can happen, it's as if the awareness of the moment increases in the room to the point where time almost slows down and players reach subtle sounds they may not have been able to reach on their own. Jazz has evolved quite rapidly in the last 100 years and not too many people can clearly hear the modern harmony, rhythm, melody and form that is being used today, and depending on whom I'm playing with, I would include myself in that category. Although the history of jazz has taken many paths, I've always considered improvisation to be a type of art, not so much a form of entertainment. I feel the artist should (to whatever extent he or she can financially afford) peruse the art, not with the intent of entertaining the general public, but rather contributing to the cultural advance of music.
DV: Amen. Tell me about your Joeless Shoe project?
MO: The band has been together offically for a few years, but we've all been playing together since the 90's in one configuaration or another. I met Jamie through Mark and Alan Ferber, and Jason through Joe Bagg (who the band is esentially named after). I really enjoy playing with these guys, they both challenge and encourage me. Jamie has really wonderful ears, harmonically, rythmically, and melodically, he really has a specific thing in mind and seems to get to it easily. He's a very unique guitar player, rarely showing off his technique, and always looking for an interesting musical path without relying on flash. Jason is one of those drummers who has really checked out the tradition and a more modern use of polyrythms, metric overlay and groupings. He plays some very heady stuff with an earthy and organic feel, never letting his heavy rhythmic intellect get in the way of the other players, and maintaining what I consider to be a feel based approach on the drums. The CD came about after playing for a few years, and the tune selection was just a matter of picking a few of the original songs we'd been playing most recently. We recorded for 2 days, and although I didn't feel particularly good about my playing on the date, I really ended up enjoying the end result, the band sound. If you want to check these guys out a little more, here's their urls:
DCV: Would would you like to see happen with the new CD?
MO: I think we all just want people to hear the music, hopefully buy a track or two, and enjoy it. Of course we're hoping to make back our collective investment, but honestly, I've not yet done that with any project in my life.
DV: CD sales are so low these days, do you think that it's still worth the trouble and expense to print CDs?
MO: As far as CDs go, I believe that they are on the way out, but at this specific point in history, they're still being used world wide. I think a few of us still like having a the physical work in our hands, however, I'd imagine this desire will fade away with the take over of the all digtal medium. We'll put our music up on itunes and Sno Cap, Nimbit and the like, just make it available. Last year I think I cleared abound $3.80 from iTunes, maybe this year will be a little better.
Joeless Shoe Project
Matt otto's web page
Here are some videos of Matt performing in his Brooklyn apartment that I shot in 1999:
Forces and Relations