Matt Otto doesn’t resemble an agent of subversion. Yet the mild-mannered man has instigated a quiet revolution on Kansas City’s jazz scene since he moved to the area in 2009.
The transformative shift from bluesy Kansas City swing to more abstract forms of jazz was already underway in area jazz clubs, but it accelerated on Otto’s arrival. "Soliloquy," his exquisite new album, typifies the approach that’s had an outsize influence on his peers.
Otto, a saxophonist, bandleader, composer and educator, didn’t set out to be a disruptive presence. But unlike Kansas City jazz musicians who were reared in the formidable shadows of Count Basie, Jay McShann and Bobby Watson, Otto doesn’t feel an innate obligation to abide by the area’s imposing tradition. While he’s well versed in the Kansas City sound, the years he spent playing in New York, Tokyo and Los Angeles provided Otto with an uncommon perspective.
Free from the constraints that have inhibited some of his colleagues in town, Otto freely selects the modes that best suit his intent. On "Soliloquy," he opts for cool jazz imbued with grace and serenity.
Abetted by several of Kansas City’s most notable musicians, Otto has created a remarkably tranquil work. "Soliloquy" consists of ten quiet meditations distinguished by surreptitiously sticky melodies.
Wordless crooning by vocalist Shay Estes on the theme of “Brush Creek” augments the composition’s hauntingly catchy melody. Her captivating contributions evoke the “folk-jazz” concept Otto has explored on a few of his previous projects. Entwined with T.J. Martley’s playing on Rhodes piano during “Chibi,” Estes sounds as if she’s sharing a secret. Flutist Molly McLaughlin and guitarist Jeff Stocks add similarly soothing textures to several selections.
“Ayler,” in spite of its titular allusion to the avant-garde jazz giant Albert Ayler, is a measured contemplation of peacefulness. Rather than engaging in a noisy duel, Otto and saxophonist Gerald Dunn proffer quiet elegies. Dunn’s presence is one of the most valuable components of "Soliloquy": Though he’s the entertainment director of the American Jazz Museum, Dunn’s impressive playing has rarely been documented.
Throughout the record, bassist Jeff Harshbarger and drummer Mike Warren provide a stealthily insistent pulse that prevents their band mates’ ethereal playing from seeming precious. Harshbarger, one of Kansas City’s most adventurous musicians, plays with attentive authority, while Warren politely dares the soloists to take additional risks on the title track.
Some listeners might wish Otto had encouraged Warren to play with further temerity. Many of the more than 50 albums that feature Otto as a leader or as a sideman demonstrate his capacity to play more aggressively, but "Soliloquy" is uniformly placid.
Though it bears no resemblance to the music made during our city’s storied heyday, "Soliloquy" is an important contribution to the radiant new era of Kansas City jazz that Otto helped initiate.
Bill Brownlee’s writing appears weekly in The Kansas City Star and Ink magazine. He blogs about Kansas City’s jazz scene at Plastic Sax.