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Top Tenors Team Up

Rich Wheeler (seated) and Matt Otto (standing) in rehearsal
Alex Smith
Rich Wheeler (seated) and Matt Otto (standing) in rehearsal

Back in Kansas City’s classic jazz era of the ‘30s and early ‘40s, it was not uncommon to hear a full stage of horn players making music together.

Today, jazz doesn’t draw nearly the audiences or money that it used to, and it’s rare for a gig to feature more than one horn player. Rather than collaborating, horn players are most often forced into competing for gigs. But two of Kansas City’s best sax players are defying the trend to form a new band featuring two tenor saxes.

Jazz As A Sport

Matt Otto grew up in Laguna Beach, just south of Los Angeles, and he studied at the Berkeley School of Music. In addition to living and playing in LA and Japan, he spent some time in the jazz capital of the world, New York City. There, he saw the extremes that horn players went to, not just to find gigs, but just to get a chance to play on stage.

Matt Otto: “You know, going to the Small’s jam session, for instance, it was just ruthless. The session would go all night long and, like, one tune would go for an hour, easily. And there’d be a line of like fourteen sax players like, literally, in a line waiting to play the next solo. And every guy’s just trying to outshine the next. And it was aggressive, you know. And it was very, when I first moved to New York, it was very intimidating. And it’s like, you kind of get a thick skin pretty quick or you just stop going. Or both, you know. I did my time, and then after a while, I’m like, I’m not going to put myself through this competitive, like its jazz as a sport. It’s like I didn’t sign up for football.”

Moving To Kansas City

Meanwhile, Arkansas native and fellow tenor sax player Rich Wheeler spent the last twelve years working the somewhat friendlier music scene of Kansas City. When Matt settled in Kansas City about 3 years ago, he was skeptical about the jazz of Kansas City, but hearing Rich play convinced him that our town had a lot to offer. Matt spent his first two night in town listening to Rich play with Brandon Draper, then at a jam session.

Matt Otto: “Monday night, the jam, it was Jeff and Rich and I think it was Mike Warren and Roger. And I sat it with them.  And the night before that, I heard this band, Brandon Draper’s band. I heard that band the very first night I was in Kansas City, and that was pretty mind blowing: to come to the Midwest and think that it’s going to be all about just, like, blues. I didn’t know much about the city, and hearing that band playing like very modern, progressive, sort of odd-metered jazz very well, and I was really excited. I was like, wow, this is going to be really exciting to move here.”

Mastering The Sax

It’s not too surprising that Matt and Rich would become close friends. They’d both spent most of their lives in the often thankless pursuit of mastering the tenor sax. The instrument is an almost comically complex tangle of keys, rods, springs and pads. And long before a player can reach a level of artistry like Matt or Rich, just learning to make the contraption sound good is a feat of its own.

Rich Wheeler: “Probably the hardest thing is getting a consistent sound, I would say.”

Otto: “Yeah, it’s one of those instruments that like, for instance, you could take your guitar to a lesson, and in the first lesson you can play a G, and it’s going to sound like, it’s going sound pretty good, like a G. And you’re gonna be making music already. On the saxophone it’s like ten years down the line before you can even sound remotely professional on the instrument. It’s just such a hard thing to get a good sound on. “

Wheeler: “It’s the old joke, you know, it takes a lot of work to sound bad. And all wind instruments are like this. You have to deal with the physical side of tone production, which take a long time to build up the air capacity and the concept of how to do it and the embouchure and all that stuff. And it’s the same thing with trumpet or something like that. But unlike piano or string instruments, we have to constantly deal with the fact that there’s a real physical side to playing.”

Horns: State-Of-The-Art Vs. Vintage

On the surface, Matt and Rich aren’t dramatically different players. They both like dark tones, and they’re both strongly influenced by John Coltrane. But they do have at least one major difference. Matt plays on a new Yamaha tenor. Rich plays a vintage Selmer from the ‘30s. Now, for most listeners, the horns sound about the same, but to saxophonists, the choice between a new or vintage horn is huge.

Otto: “Rich plays a nice, old vintage Selmer, and I play a brand-new Yamaha, and I used to play vintage Selmers. I actually switched just merely because of the financial reasons. The upkeep of Rich’s horn compared to mine is like no comparison, and it’s just like when I want to replace the horn or change something, it’s so expensive if you’re playing old Mark VI Selmers or Super-Balanced or Balanced-Action. But, that said, those are the best-sounding horns ever made, in my opinion. So, I compromised, and said, well, ergonomically it feels better, it’s cheaper. I’m going to go with this modern horn and suffer the consequences and try to make up for that with doing long tones and working on my sound.”

Wheeler: “Also, with vintage horns, you tend to have a lot more issues with things like pitch issues. Modern horns tend to be a lot more in tune than older horns.”

KCC: “On the cost of the vintage horns, how much would it cost these days for someone to get, like, the same horn as John Coltrane or Dexter Gordon played?”

Wheeler: “Oh, Jeez Louise, well.”

Otto: “I mean, over ten grand.”

Wheeler: “Yeah, probably. I mean, I’ve got a Balanced-Action. It’s like a late-‘30s Balanced Action, and there’s no way I could afford to buy it now.”

Otto: “It’s worth at least twice as much as my horn. Maybe three times.”

Wheeler: “I think that there are collectors and stuff like that that are willing to pay top dollar for these horns that are really, they’re really, at this point, getting pretty hard to find cause they’re pretty old.”

Otto: “And there’s not that many that play well anymore.”

Wheeler: “Right, most of them are worn out, you know.”

Musical Influence

In addition to performing regularly, both Rich Wheeler and Matt Otto are also sax teachers. And they share similar ideas about musical influence.

Wheeler: “One way or another, sometimes unintentionally in fact, you’ve influenced by everything you’ve heard.  What you play like today is sort of a conglomeration of every piece of music you’ve heard since the time you were old enough to process it. Like on the horn itself, I think we all have influences that come, playing tenor for instance, like, for me, probably Dexter Gordon one that was the earliest influence, but people like Hank Mobley and John Coltrane and Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins. And then modern guys as well, people like Michael Brecker, I guess, Donny McCaslin, some of the more modern guys. All of that, everything you hear from any of those people, even from an unintentional standpoint, it’s going to show up in your playing, you know. For me, I used to listen to just tons of saxophone players, then, as I’ve gotten older, I find myself listening to more guitar and keyboard players than I do saxophone players.”

KCC: “When you hear recordings of yourself improvising, can you identify where different parts of your playing come from?

Wheeler: “Oh sure. It’s totally unavoidable. You’re always going to have those kinds of things kind of poking through. And if you go back and listen to even like Coltrane or stuff like that, you can listen to what they’re doing, and you can find little nuggets that were people before them. Everybody is constantly incorporating stuff that they’ve heard from other people. I usually get annoyed with myself if it’s real literal. Like if I hear something and I know exactly what it was, then I’m just kind of like, oh man, really? Everybody’s gonna know what that is. “

Otto: “Didn’t disguise it at all.”

Wheeler: “Exactly.”

Teaming Up

Like New York and LA, Kansas City doesn’t have enough paying gigs to support its jazz talent, but that hasn’t turned all of our musicians into gladiators. Instead of competing, Rich Wheeler and Matt Otto see sharing the stage as a chance to collaborate.

Wheeler: “I have a huge amount of respect for Matt and the way he plays, and I think in large part, playing a gig with him it’s more about trying to keep up than anything else. As a tenor player in a small group setting, it’s fun to end up playing with another tenor player cause it never happens, generally. If you’re on the gig that means there’s not another horn player, typically. So when you get to play a gig like that, and you can both play at the same time, and you can play with another horn player that you have a lot of respect for and really like the way they play, and maybe to and bounce some ideas back and forth onstage, it’s a pretty fun situation.”

Tenor saxophonists Matt Otto and Rich Wheeler will debut their new band on Thursday, May 3rd at the Westport Coffee House. Their rhythm section includes bassist Ben Leifer, keyboard player TJ Martley and percussionist Sam Wisman.

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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