Matt Otto : Kansas City Trio Review
Echoes of Elegance: Matt Otto and the Kansas City Trio’s Tribute to the Timeless Jazz Repertoire
In the vibrant jazz clubs and academic classrooms, where the jazz standards breathe life and innovation, Matt Otto has found his exploration and expression. With a recording legacy spanning well over fifty albums, each a shimmering snapshot of his ceaseless metamorphosis, Otto has evolved from a young, free-jazz firebrand to a musical poet, sage, and mentor.
His journey—three remarkable decades in the making—illuminates an unwavering commitment to his own musical ideals and artistic identity. Now, he embarks on a heartfelt tribute to the Great American Songbook, a timeless collection that owes its 21st-century perpetuation to the dedication of jazz artists like him.
The standards, once the playground of legends, now find new resonance in Otto’s seasoned hands. “I would hope that the composers would enjoy our renditions or at the very least give us a nod,” he muses, a sentiment reflecting not only his profound respect for the craft but also his enduring love for the tunes that have shaped the very fabric of jazz.
The time has come for Otto, at this stage of his career, to present an album of jazz standards, a decision born of passion, reverence, and readiness. The notes will dance, and the melodies will sing, echoing the legacy of composers whose works have outlived their creators, rendered immortal by the tireless devotion of musicians like Otto. A musical voyage that unfolds with Otto’s recent release with the Kansas City Trio.
The stage is set, the spotlight falls, and a cadre of musicians assemble around Otto, their tenor saxophonist and guiding star. Joining him in this sonic, chordless adventure are the bassists, each a virtuoso, sculpting the music’s foundation and pulse: Bob Bowman, setting the rhythm on tracks 11 and 12; Jeff Harshbarger, crafting the groove on tracks 5 to 10; and Ben Leifer, laying the foundation on the opening quartet of tracks.
The heartbeat of the ensemble is shared among the drummers: Brian Steever, infusing a vibrant beat on tracks 11 and 12; John Kizilarmut, the rhythmic maestro on tracks 4 to 10; and Marty Morrison, setting the tempo on the first three tracks. Together, they form a symbiotic rhythm section that dances and sways to Otto’s lead, each a virtuoso in their own right and all dedicated to the alchemy of jazz.
Otto’s respect and creativity for the jazz repertoire can be heard and felt in his rendition of Charlie Parker’s “Segment,” enveloped in an unusual and sinister bass ostinato figure. Otto’s tenor saxophone wails, a mournful cry echoing the haunting legacy of Bird himself. As the trio’s performance progresses, Otto’s melodic interpretation shifts effortlessly from abstraction to clarity, revealing his profound connection with the underlying structures of these classic tunes.
In the track “AJ,” he plays a contrafact to the harmony of Parker’s “Yardbird Suite,” weaving a rich tapestry that resonates with both familiarity and innovation. The flow of Otto’s improvisation, and the nuanced articulation of his saxophone speaks to a master craftsman at work, guided by a deeply-rooted understanding of jazz harmony and his ability to spell out harmonic progression via his single note playing on the saxophone.
The slower tempos found throughout the album, far from diminishing the intensity, serve to deepen it. Like a master painter, Otto lays down strokes with meticulous care; each note is a carefully placed dab of color, allowing the tension to build methodically until it bursts forth in an emotional crescendo, impossible to escape.
Among the high points contained within this collection, a particular high point is Otto’s original composition, “Thanks,” a heartfelt tribute to his fathers. The melody itself carries the weight of his gratitude and loss, a musical embrace that both mourns and celebrates. It stands as a poignant testament to his gratitude and a somber reflection on loss. As Otto himself explains, the experience of losing both fathers within a year was “the most difficult thing I’ve dealt with in my short life.” Here, the music transcends mere performance and becomes a deeply personal expression of grief, love, and homage.
The Kansas City Trio—Bob Bowman, Jeff Harshbarger, and Ben Leifer on bass, alongside the dynamic drumming of Brian Steever, John Kizilarmut, and Marty Morrison—offers a rich and responsive backdrop. Their humble and empathetic quality serves to elevate Otto’s musical expressions, reminding us all how to play, listen, and create with genuine soulfulness.
In conclusion, Otto’s Kansas City Trio shows the fertile canvas that still exists when a heartfelt dialogue with the Great American Songbook and jazz standards is initiated with creativity and respect. Otto’s saxophone, intertwined with the history and tradition of jazz, paints a landscape rich in color, texture, and emotional resonance. Kansas City Trio invites you to refresh your impressions and engagements with the classic jazz repertoire as these new approaches linger in your soul, a timeless tribute to the indefatigable spirit of jazz and its lineage of exceptional song crafting.
May it inspire the seekers of jazz’s eternal grace and elegance, beckoning them into a world rich in tradition and innovation, a worthy addition to the chordless saxophone-fronted trio catalog of this timeless and ever-evolving art form.
Kansas City Trio
June 30, 2023