Matt Otto interview- part II

Here is part two of the Matt Otto interview. This part has questions from some of Casa Valdez's regular readers for Otto.

DCV: What projects have you been working on these days?

MO: I've been recording with a few different groups:

Josh Welchez, a great trumpet player here in L.A. Did a recording with myself, Joe Bagg on piano, Mark Ferber on Drums, Ryan McGillicuddy on bass. It's mostly straight ahead originals and a few standards.

I recorded on a sextet album with Brian Swartz, another fantastic trumpet player here in L.A. This group includes Andy Langham on piano, J.P. Maramba on Bass, Martin Sullivan on Trombone, Jens Cuross on drums, and Robby Marshall on tenor sax as well.

I also just did a trio album of all original material with Jason Harnell on drums, and Ryan McGillicuddy on bass, we call the group 3-ish and we're hoping to get that recording out soon.

My most recent quartet album is also done, and I'm waiting on some funds to press that one as well. The recording is a tribute to the Paris Commune of 1871 and will be titled, "La Commune".

Question from Steve Neff: Matt, I’ve been struggling with tendinitis and varied pain in my hands and forearms over the last year and a half. It seems like you have overcome your problems in a great way. I'm struggling with the pain everyday and would love some tips

MO: Hand pain is something I've dealt with since 1990. I was playing nearly all day for a long time, without stretching or breaking and I finally got carpal tunnel syndrome and had an operation a few months later. After surgery, my hand doctor said that the inside of my left wrist looked like the hand of a 60 year old man. The surgery did help but I've had problems off and on ever since. After years of trying everything I could find here's the best I've come up with:

1. Lift light weights with your wrists... forward wrist curls, reverse wrist curls. This will increase the muscle mass in the injured area increasing blood flow/circulation thus increase the healing process. This is the best thing I've found, I think babying your hands will only decrease blood flow, decrease healing potential and increase injury potential.

2. Stretch everyday at least once, or up to 3x. The main stretches are reverse forearm stretch and forward forearm stretch. Videos of these stretches are linked to my website and below.

3. The rest of these solutions are optional and I've had varying results with them... Alexander Technique, study this with a private instructor if possible. It is a postural awareness art that will help you regain your natural healthy human posture, this will help the healing process and help your bones align themselves with gravity, so that your musculature does far less work and does not become locked in spasm.

4. Exercise as much as you can, cardio 30 minutes 3x per week, light weights for all major muscle groups. Just go to the gym and work out, don't worry about big results or goals... keep it simple, just go and keep going. If you can't afford it, take a 30-minute walk every day.

5. Eat better and live healthier, more veggies, more raw food, more water, less sugar, less meat, less alcohol, less smoke. You don't have to be perfect, just be better. Moderation really works.

6. Practice with a timer. Buy an egg timer... find out how long you can play (after stretching and light weight routine) before it hurts. Time it... once you know, set the timer for 5 minutes less and only practice that long before taking a break, walking around, stretching and drinking water, Always use the egg timer, develop some discipline, over time your good habits begin to out way your bad habits and your hands and wrists will start to heal.

7. Listen more then you practice...as you probably know, listening is great practicing. You could try this, practice for 15 minutes then break, stretch etc... then listen to music... anything you like, just a little more than 15 minutes worth. If possible, repeat this a few times each day.

8. Try to slow down... stay relaxed and try not to practice fast, if you find you're enamored with speed, you may be in music for the wrong reasons, try to play slow, use a metronome, develop some patience and discipline. Try doing all your practice at metronome 40 until you break your habit of practicing too fast. Once you break the habit, met. 60 will seem like plenty of freedom.

Here are some of Otto's stretching and weight lifting for carpal-tunnel videos:

Question from Tom Periera: I'd like to know about Otto's teaching approach. When I studied with Joe Allard we rarely played the instrument. It was an approach that was more about why than how. Matt has a philosophy that seems to combine both a physical approach and a deeply spiritual and philosophical approach. I'd like to understand that process better. The reason why I think this is important is I believe that it illuminates Matt's own approach to playing.

MO: My main approach is to sing over pedals, which I really enjoy and find it therapeutic as well as beneficial to my playing and hearing. It took me a while before this became my main way to practice. I started singing exercises while studying with David Baker at Indiana University back in 1986, but it was not until I got carpal tunnel that I really began working on it. Over time it has become my main way of practicing and now I do it almost exclusively.

I practice all sorts of things by singing over a drone. I often use a metronome too so I'll sing something in time over the drone slowly. Today, for instance, a sang over the drone in each key for about 5 minutes while the metronome clicked slow triplets, I just sang freely and thought of the fingerings of what I was playing, which tends to be some form of major minor or dominant, nothing ground breaking. This is the way a practice most days, just singing freely over the drone while thinking of the fingerings.

One simple exercise I give my students is to sing a Bird head over the pedal. You put the drone on concert F for example, and then sing Scrapple rubato over it, making sure every note is in tune, you'll most likely have to go very slow to get each pitch even remotely in tune, so that one pass through the first A section might take 2 ro3 minutes at first.... you can use solfege or just sing the notes, just make sure each note is in tune, that you're really going slow and hearing the intervals exactly over the drone, not just singing the rhythms and pitches that vaguely resemble the tune. While you're singing you visualize the appropriate fingering on your instrument. It is an easy thing to practice as long as you go slowly. You can hold note for as long as you'd like until it's comfortable and centered. This is basically what I do only improvising more or less.

I have drone machine which I really like, it's an electronic tompura or tambura that you can order from the Ali Akbar Kahn website. It plays drones in all keys. I do the singing at home and when I drive, and if I'm working on a new tune, I sing that over the drone. If I practice anything more, it's on the horn, long tones, tunes, and playing short intervallic ideas through keys while displacing the rhythms.

Question from Pere Soto: How is the LA jazz scene as far as the jazz music/composing energy?

MO: There are a lot of great composers and players in L.A. I believe it to be a great music town, although very spread out and decentralized. Chicago, New York and San Francisco are smaller; more localized, which puts all the musicians in a closer vicinity to one another, which I think, facilitates more comradery and collaboration. I feel fairly inspired to write and practice here, I just have to remember to get out and hear all the great players.

Pere Soto: Do you think that young people in LA are becoming more interested or less interested in Jazz music?

MO: There are a lot of young jazz musicians in LA... there are several strong schools producing many fine musicians every year, USC, UCLA, Cal State Northridge, Cal Arts, Cal State Long Beach to name a few. Many of these young players stay local, some move to New York and elsewhere. I think in general jazz is becoming more a music for musicians and not for the general public. Popular music, although it is sophisticated sonically and texturally, seems to have become harmonically simpler. The pop music written in the 30's and 40's is harmonically far more complex than the pop music of today and so is a bit more substantive to improvise over or through. Even the harmonies and melodies found on Beatles or Beach Boys albums are far more complicated than modern pop. As a result, I don't think jazz will become popular in the mainstream until music production for profit comes to an end, and culture is allowed to blossom freely without the profit motive influencing what the public hears.

Pere Soto: How do you think the Jazz musicians in LA feel about being so far from what's happening on the NYC Jazz scene? Is the LA Jazz scene vital enough to keep you from wishing that you were in big cities like New York or Chicago?

MO: I'm not sure how others feel about it. I miss the New York music community. The writing and improvising there is really inspiring. I like LA for other reasons, the pace of life, the weather, and the standard of living. I don't really lack personal motivation so I don't need to be in NYC to keep working on my craft, I was in NYC for 7 years, which isn't very long but I got a little taste of the city and the great musicians that live there. However, I'll probably go back one day.

Question from Adam Beach: To my ears, your playing presents a cross between Warne Marsh and Dewey Redman... (and I really dig it!) bringing what many consider to be 2 totally distinct forms of jazz into one. In one tune on your website I heard you go from the softest "inside" style of the former to the most energetic "outside" style of the latter. How do more Marsh oriented players and listeners react to that? How do more Albert Ayler oriented players and listeners react when you shift into Paul Desmond gear?

MO: I'm flattered to be mentioned in the same sentence as Warne and Dewey, they are two of my favorite players. I enjoy players who move me both emotionally and intellectually. I think Wayne Shorter is quite good at doing that.

When I listen to those plugged nickel recordings I hear him playing with lots of emotion and lots of interesting rhythmic, harmonic and melodic material. I strive play in a way that allows me to express the whole gambit of emotions I'm feeling although sometimes I become stifled or self-conscious. If I get frustrated by my playing or by busy comping I usually allow myself to respond honestly to that. I think music is an emotional art and at this point in history. It's ok to express your happiness, sadness or anger when improvising. All of that has become the tradition of the music and makes it more liberating and cathartic to improvise.

Adam Beach: I was taught that working on long tones strain and tighten your embouchure making you play sharp and your playing more strenuous, your sound more stuffy, etc. -- that you need to strive for the most relaxed and natural embouchure as you can (if that isn't a double bind!!) and long tones take you in the opposite direction. You obviously don't agree, and you have a phenomenal tenor sound, in my opinion. What's your philosophy on long tones?

MO: I actually do agree that long tones can potentially tighten your embouchure and restrict the vibration of the reed and your sound, and that a "loose as possible" embouchure is ideal for a full, rich, vibrant sound. I believe that you can do long tones in a way that can help open and loosen the embouchure. Kind of like yoga, you can use yoga to both strengthen and loosen the muscles. I like to use a method I adapted from George Garzone; you hold a note, say middle B and lip is down as flat as possible. You hold the note like that, maybe a minor third or so below the actual fingered note. After a few hours of this, go back to playing regularly, the results are amazing even after only a few hours. Another variation I use is while playing over a drone, I push the mouthpiece in as far as I can, and I lip the note down by ear, until it's in tune with the drone. This is good for very slow scales, at the gig, you put the mouthpiece back where it was and just play. I really like this practice for sound production.

Adam Beach: "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." -- could you elaborate on this?

MO: I recognize that quote from our last interview. I still agree with what I said there. What I was trying to get at, although I was perhaps a bit vague, was the idea of studying the great musicians of the past, all of the ones that inspire you and than trying to build further on their work in your own humble way, in hopes of flushing out and accentuating the specific aspects of musical culture that you value and believe in. If for instance you find the music Alban Berg, and Messiaen compelling and captivating, you may begin to study their music and allow their influence to take hold of you. If you enjoy the music of Phil Ochs or Woody Guthrie, you can inculcate a bit of their music or message into your musical message. So I believe that music is an art and a language and that the conversation is between the artist and the history itself, not so much the individuals within it, and not so much for purpose of entertainment, although some will be entertained along the way.

Adam Beach: You said you read Alan Watts. Are you aware of his "life as music" metaphysic? Does this weigh in on what your saying?

MO: I've read a lot of Alan Watts and have listed to his lectures or "stand up", having such a great sense of humor, as it were. I've always enjoyed Alan Watts, for on thing, he presents his ideas, or his knowledge about "emptiness" and eastern thought in general, without making grandiose claims or conclusions from them. In this way he stays close to eastern concepts like those found in Zen Buddhism, which is supposed to be beyond thought and description and therefore beyond or before conclusions and judgments.

Simply put, I think mediation helps in balancing and centering the individual that has become unbalanced due to living within an unbalanced competitive class based society. I believe that if class society could be overthrown, and a society that is based on true material equality could take it's place, mental states like those cultivated through meditation would be common place, not due to personal discipline but rather through the more harmonious structure of society. It seems that the greatest influence on the individual is not the individual him/herself but rather the social/political structure he/she finds himself within. It's like a fish swimming in polluted water, you can give him antibiotics and medicines to keep him alive, but changing the water produces the best results.

Adam Beach: I read your "Red Liner Notes" and noticed your link to "World Socialist Web Site" which indicates to me your politics (which I more-or-less share). What do you believe is a musician's, or an artist's, social role in changing the world for the better? How do you see music and art contributing to change?

MO: I think we all have a responsibility to fight for social change, whether musicians, artists or in another walk of life. I think the world must be won over by regular working people on the planet and run in a planned, organized and fiercely egalitarian way that puts everyone materialistically in the same class. Far from thinking this is idealistic, I think its only way a social system can work in the long run, for both the human race and the planet. The different forms of class-based society have always failed the majority of humans as well as trashing the environment. I believe what's idealistic today, is to believe that 5 to 10% of the humans on the planet can own all of the productive forces globally and own 90% of the wealth and that somehow this can lead to global peace... that's idealistic. I think It's more rational to believe that material equality (for all people) is a necessary precondition for peace both global/social and personal. I think there will be no real peace until we all can live equally; equality is the basis of peace. I believe that only then, will we begin to see, the true potential of human culture, music, art and the like.


Marx - Engles internet archive, many books written by Marx, Engles, Lenin, Trotsky...free.World

Socialist Web Site, covering current events.Red Theory Collective, present day marxists fighting for

social transformation.

Links to recent sound clips of CDs that Matt Otto has recorded recently:

Pastorian Fantasie from Brian Swartz Gnu Sextet Album

Lennie's Pennies from Josh Welchez Album Lost and Found
Family Matter from 3ish Album Baobab
Enigma from Matt Otto album La Commune


Adam said...

Brilliant!! Thanks David.

Alexa Weber Morales said...

Thank you and Matt Otto for this. Fascinating.

I've never heard of practicing to a drone, much less singing solos to it. What is the purpose? As a singer I sing all the time away from an instrument, sometimes practicing scales and intervals this way as well. Of course I practice "formally" with the piano but often I'm doing several other things at once due to family/business responsibilities. Occasionally I'll go to the piano if I'm singing a song I'm particularly concerned about to see if I've migrated keys. Is that the issue, staying in key or improving relative pitch?

Alexa Weber Morales said...

I didn't read the first installment of the interview, I guess -- the answer to my question is there. Sorry about that.