Further conversations with Matt Otto

DCV: You seem to have had a wide range influences over the years, some that I hear are Ornette, Trane, Garzone, Getz, Warne Marsh, and Sonny Rollins. How have you thought about the effect these players have had on your playing? I mean have you consciously tried to integrate their styles into your own music, or do you strive not to sound too much like them? Do you see what I'm getting at?

In my own case I've gone through phases of trying to sound like a particular player and phases when I've fought against sounding like a particularly strong influence of mine. Some teachers tell their students to absorb everything they can about a great player and then focus on a different one. I feel a bit mixed about this way of learning. How do balance that with striving to be original?

MO: I'm really into all the players you mentioned and have transcribed and played solos and lines from all of them. When I was younger I transcribed Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Trane, Dexter, Rollins, Stitt, Ammons, Bird, Desmond, Lester, Chet, Clifford Brown and others. Usually I would only transcribe the parts of the solos that I really connected with, or found myself humming along too... just a few phrases or lines. I did learn a few entire solos from Bird, Dexter, Hank Mobley and Paul Desmond but again, mostly just lines and phrases.

Sometimes when you spend a lot of time with friends or musicians that have a certain way of talking or diction you may find that you begin to talk a bit like them, maybe only subtly. This is similar to how I view influences in Jazz. For example, you may listen to Lester Young a lot and as a result start playing and phrasing a bit like him. Some times you may start deliberately using one of his ideas that you've taken the liberty to transcribe, sometimes you may start hearing and using his vibrato or a rhythm he plays a lot.

Depending on your practice approach, and how you learn in general, the way you are influenced by a given player will be different. I believe transcribing and memorizing material yields a slightly different result from singing along with solos or just listening intently. The differences may be subtle or profound depending on how well you can hear the material and than play what you hear.

Most of my playing in my early years was pretty unstructured and unfocused. I don't consider myself a gifted musician, and my ears developed really late, and I am still developing them now. Like many of us, I would learn the first part of a solo and be really inspired and than just improvise after that for a few hours.

Doug Yates had a big influence on me, and used to tell me to improvise within one harmony for a long time. I used to play one altered scale over a pedal or drone for hours, and slowly work that through the keys. I guess I was mostly playing harmonically, and not melodically at that point. It wasn't till much later that I really started hearing specific melodic ideas within a given harmony, and that process is still continuing today.

When I got a little older, in my 20's, I started to cycle ideas through keys in a more mainstream sort of way. This began the long journey of creating and refining a sort of musical vocabulary which is part of what I still practice now, 20 years later. Today, I really get a lot out of taking a small idea and singing it over a drone than moving it slowly through all the keys while I think of the fingerings. Originally I began this type of practice to stay of my hands, due to carpal tunnel syndrome, now I think it's become the best way to develop my ear and musicality.

DCV: Tell me about the LA Jazz collective. How did it start and what's your involvement been in it?

MO: I started the collective with Gary Fukushima, a great piano player and friend whom I met at Cal Arts while doing my masters. We loosely modeled our collective after the Brooklyn Jazz Underground and just changed the structure a bit to try and suit the LA area. We have 13 band leaders/composers as core members (who take on the most of the financial and bureaucratic responsibilities) and an open general membership that anyone can apply for.

We're hoping to contribute to the LA jazz scene in a positive way, one way or another, supporting musicians who write original material and bringing new music to the community.

As of now, we have about 25 members that have joined. We've put out a compilation CD and have had two small jazz festivals and started a Record Label (Jazz Collective Records). We are organizing our next 3-day Jazz Festival in November as well as having just sponsored the Angel City Festival on September 1st, which was a great success. For more information visit: Lajazzcollective.com

DCV: What do you tell your students when they ask about going into music as a career? Say you had a kid that wanted to be a Jazz musician, what you tell him?

MO: I always tell my students to keep there overhead low if they want to be an artist. I think by lessening economic compulsion (which is always there), you can go along way towards freeing up the mental and emotional space needed to stay with your craft for the long haul. I encourage students to take the plunge, because I don't know of any "career" that is as gratifying as playing music. I also enjoy teaching, so without that, I have to move to Berlin. Recently I've been fortunate enough to teach a 25-piece saxophone choir for the Arts Center of Los Angeles.

I've written some simple music for them and have been rehearsing for a performance at the Grand Avenue Festival. I recorded the pieces so the ensemble could hear them. Here are two of the pieces in truncated form:

Cellar Door
Risks on Gravity

It's this sort of teaching as well as teaching privately that I find inspiring and challenging. I enjoy it nearly as much as playing.

DCV: Do you have suggestions for ways to focus and calm the mind when preparing to play?

MO: I think that preparation promotes calmness. When I'm on my way to a gig where I'll be calling all the tunes, playing old standards that I've know for a while, I'm usually able to remain fairly calm because I know that at this moment I'm as prepared as I can be. It seems the less prepared I am, the less familiar with the material, the more nervous I can potentially become. Paul Bley, whom I heard isn't a big fan of rehearsals, might disagree, but it seems the more I've practiced the material, the better I'm able to focus on things that matter to me like listening and staying relaxed emotionally and physically. Generally speaking, meditation is good for focus and calm. Although I'm not of the belief that it can change the world or right social wrongs, it's definitely a good way to calm and focus your mind and body in spite of the chaos and competition in the world.

I've been sitting Zazen nearly every day since I was about 18 years old, my father got me started when he was fighting cancer, he's fine now, and I still enjoy sitting every day.

DCV: I hear that you recently sold your SBA and switched to a Yamaha, you also stopped playing a vintage Link right? Why the big change in your setup?

MO: Economic compulsion lead me to sell my SBA which I wasn't playing at all and couldn't justify keeping around on a shoe string budget. I still have my Mark VI, which is a great playing horn. I got the Yamaha an inexpensive back up to the Mark VI and I've really enjoyed playing on it. It's taken me about four months to get a workable sound out of it, but I'm really starting to like it. I had to switch up everything to get my sound out of it; from Rico's to Vandorens, Selmer S80 H to Jazz Cafe Espresso mouthpiece (which is a copy of a Selmer soloist), and Mark VI to Yamaha Custom Z with G3 neck. I've never been a gear guy, but I'm glad I've found something that isn't as expensive, as my Mark VI.

DCV: I was talking to Doug Yates last week and we started talking about reeds. He was saying that sometimes it's almost not even worth it to play a low paying gig because of all the bad reeds you have to go through just to find a reeds that plays. I'm having a terrible time with cane lately. On top of that the reeds that I play just went up in price by 30%!

How about you, what are you playing on? Do you work on them? How many do you go through?

MO: It's good to hear that even great players like you and Doug are having reed problems; it keeps me from becoming to self-deprecating.

I've been playing on Vandoren Blue Box 3's. I buy about 4-5 boxes per month and keep them in water and hydrogen peroxide or isopropyl alcohol. I think Dave Liebman said, "Sound dictates ideas", or something to that effect. I tend to agree with that basic idea. When I'm happy with the tone I'm getting I enjoy playing, and when I'm enjoying playing, I seem to have more emotional freedom and an easier time listening, the ideas seem to come back to back.

A bad reed makes it really hard for me to get a good sound and to keep my mind quiet and focused on listening. I'm not sure how it is for other people, but it's hard for me to stay in an active listening state continually while playing, but it's a lot easier when my sound is pleasing and draws my attention and focus in.

I have a few tricks I may have mentioned before. One is, I practice on Vandoren 2.5s and perform on 3s. This seems to keep my embouchure loose and give me a little extra resistance on the gig. Overall, I seem to get a better sound and can use more of the reeds this way. I tend to be happier with my sound in general by doing this, sometimes the thin soft reed sound I live with in the practice room makes me enjoy almost any #3 sound that I get on the gig.

The second thing I do is to keep cotton balls in my sax case. If I have a bad reed and have to play in public, I put a little cotton in my ears, just a little, and it really helps me deal with the sound being "less than" I'd like it to be, it's like having an EQ where I can roll off the highs. There seems to be some psychological element to sound or tone. The less I play my horn the more I miss it and enjoy any kind of sound I get from it. The more I play it, the more fussy and neurotic I get about it.

One way to look at it is that there are basically two aspects to tone, one is the actual sound and one is your relationship to the sound. If you’re really inspired, playing with friends and feeling comfortable and confident, then sometimes a bad reed won't be an issue. I used to go through more reeds, but since my daily routine involves more singing and visualizing then playing, I'm generally more accepting of my sound fluctuations, because I'm just happy to be playing and hearing the horn instead of my admittedly average voice.

DCV:Do you sometimes abandon your stance as a high artist in order to keep the crowd happy and the drinks flowing? Does being a minstrel ever win out over being an artist?

MO: I'm don't think I'm much of an entertainer, and although I'm working on my artistry. I doubt I'll realistically contribute enough in my life to qualify for the high artist category. I mostly feel uncomfortable and awkward while on the bandstand especially when I'm not playing.

I really enjoy improvising, writing music, and playing with people, I'm just not comfortable entertaining. When I was younger, I played in an "Acid Jazz" group and did a lot of gigs in Japan at dance clubs, and at that point I was more extroverted and would dance a bit on stage; the thought of doing that now makes me tense.

DCV:How do you deal with playing music for an unresponsive and unappreciative audience? Does it change how you approach your music?

MA: It's always a shock when you're playing and you realize few people are listening, or that a sudden applause was for something unrelated to the music. For me, it's both difficult and humbling. On one hand it's a testament to how low the musical training is in the general public. On the other, it shows just how addicted we are to being admired, respected and listened to.

DCV: You studied with Garzone for quite a long time. What attracted you to his playing? What sorts of things did he stress in your lessons? What about his whole triadic concept, how did that change your playing?

MA: George is in my opinion, one of the greatest living improvisers. He always stressed improvising and exploring your own musical language. He never once had me working on anything structured or We always played free and traded or played together during the lesson. Very rarely we'd improvise over a tune or form. In the 80's, when I studied with George at Berklee, I wrote down some of the lesson material. George used to say, "play in a circle" or "play a tree", or "play red". It was as if he was activator trying to keep me in conceptual and creative state of mind for as long as possible, knowing that eventually, I would integrate my intellect with my ear. Later he would tell me, "slow down just a little.", or "try a half size softer reed".

Anyone who has studied with him knows that he writes out these long intervallic sequences off the top of his head that are just note heads with no stems or rhythms. He gives you very little information about the lines. He just tells you to check them out. So you play through them in all the ways you can, and it's like they're little glimpses into the Garzone creative mind...they lead you towards improvising and inventing or discovering your own material.

Garzone’s triadic approach was, I believe, a way for George to help students get to free playing in a structured way. Some players/students need a more defined structure to learn to play free, and I think the triadic approach was Garzone's answer to that dilemma. The basic concept of the triadic approach is simple, you link triads of any quality together while ascending or descending in half steps, or any other root motion. The resulting lines are interesting to the ear and being based on triads, they have quite a bit of melodic and structural integrity.

After working with the triads for a while George has students add chromatic passing tones and eventually the whole structure falls away, leaving just and atonal cloud of sorts, which is the beginnings of some original shapes and vocabulary. In my opinion, Garzone is one of the great forward thinking and progressive improvisers and teachers.

DCV: Do you spend
a lot of time each day hustling gigs or do you wait for the phone to ring? Any suggestions?

MA: I go through phases, since we formed the LA Jazz Collective; I've spent a lot of time working with those guys to set up opportunities to play, which is easier to do with a collective as it turns out. I do a lot of writing and playing and probably 2 or 3 sessions a week with friends and mostly let the phone ring, not that I'd ever recommend that as a career approach. Old habits die hard, and I really like the saxophone and music, but really dislike business, the free market, and competition.

I think the best way to work as an artist is to hang out and really listen to people play. It seems that there is a correlation between hanging out and working, the more you support the scene the more it supports you, assuming you can play a bit.

DCV: Did you know that Berklee costs about as much as Harvard? How can anyone justify that kind of expensive education for such a low paying career?

MO: I think going to school for jazz is becoming a questionable choice. Hal Galper once said to me, "save the tuition and use the money to study privately with your heroes for 50 years!"... He's right in a way, the cost of school and the job market that awaits the graduate are at odds. It might be wise to move overseas to become educated.

DCV: Do you think your post grad music education has been worth the trouble?

MO: Well, I only have a master's degree, which is the new BA. It seems that unless you have name recognition, you really need a Doctorate to compete for jobs at the University level. If you're well known you may not need even a masters. A good friend of mine just got a University position teaching jazz with a BA in economics, but he's fairly well known an plays and writes at a high level.

DCV: Tell me about your new CD project. Do you produce it yourself? Did you find a record label or are you releasing it yourself?

MO: The CD project I've done with Andy Ehling is really something I'm happy with. Andy and I have played together since the early 1980's and this is our first album. I had offered to write some material for the recording and he sent me a list of standard changes he liked to play on. So I wrote 4 contrafacts for the album plus a few simple originals. Andy also brought in a few ideas that we loosely played over Out of Nowhere and Old Milestones.

We spent a lot of time before the recording talking about and working on the material, I even worked out some ideas for parts of my solos, which I like to do if and when I have the time. The album is pretty simple, easy tunes, lots of blowing. I think of the music as a type of jazz folk music, it's pretty lyrical and simple.

Andy is a great improviser, he studied with Garzone too, he has a very melodic approach and an interesting sound. He rarely uses any vibrato. He plays a few amazing atonal lines on the album, which I believe came from his studies with Garzone. We lived together at Berklee in the late 80's and in the early 90's both lived in a Zen Dojo in Chiba, Japan. I think Andy is one of those rare quiet type players that isn't really up for the fierce competition that has become common is jazz today. In the future I hope he'll be considered innovative.

Returning CD sampler
Matt Otto's MySpace page

The second half of this interview is coming soon!


Me Me said...

Amazing and useful interview, David! Why pay for Berklee when we have Casa Valdez? I eagerly await the rest.

WRT hanging out and supporting the scene, I too have found that to be useful. But frankly I almost never do it. Here I am sitting in front of the computer vegging out instead of going to a video shoot of a musician friend and potentially hobnobbing because I'm just too dang tired. Got home at 3 am from a gig and the kids woke us up at 7!!! Sometimes I think I'm not enough of a road warrior...

Unknown said...

i agree a lot about what he says about reeds. if you get a bad one, you don't feel like playing. if you get a good one, you feel like playing all day, but then you don't know whether to save it for a gig. if you do, the next time you use it. it's shit.


wen www.myspace.com/wenmew