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  • Writer's pictureJAM

Matt Otto: Umbra

Origin Records 2023

It is an album of all originals, nine in total, penned by bandleader and saxophonist Matt Otto, KC staple, but also of LA and NYC. The album opens with “Little Things,” which is understated funk and contemporary—with a heavy, low, electric bass vamp (subtly propelling) beneath. Otto (sax) and Herman Mehari (trumpet) duet at first, calls in the dark.

But that’s not all there is to this song (or the other songs) on this album. “Little Things” has a number of styles and movements, much like a Mingus tune: from funk to double-time swing to 6/8, two against three.

Otto’s compositional skill and skill on sax is highlighted throughout the album, featuring Ott’s full, smoky golden tone and edgy, but groovin’, propulsive tunes.

It’s a joy to hear Mehari on a number of tracks, uniting the KC jazz family; Mehari with his piercing, bright, brassy tone and minimalist approach.

John Kizilarmut’s drumming is melodic and soulful, laid back and right in the pocket, with delicious, subtle, truly musical flourishes: hands on the drum (“Paw Paw”) and drums played like timbales (“Melisma”). Kizilarmut’s ultra-quiet, subtle, nuanced playing on (“Paw Paw”) contrasts with his driving playing with KCJO, spotlighting his range as a player.

The album includes dedications to golden age jazz luminaries, like in track 4, (“Prez,”) which features tasty duet-like work between Otto and Kizilarmut, and Jeff Harshbarger (bass) and Kizilarmut: understated, noir, moody, as in a mist-filled classic movie shot in black and white.In personnel, the album includes also includes Matt Villinger (piano) and Alex Frank (guitar). The tracks on the album are as follows “Little Things,” “Hawk,” “Mousai” “Prez,” “Paw Paw,” “Umbra,” “Wanjiku,” “Esthesis” and “Melisma.”

Otto has performed on a number of studio recordings, including with luminaries like Peter Erskine and Roger Cairns as well as with KC staples Bobby Watson, Peter Schlamb, and Stephen Martin. This is Otto’s third Origin Records release, preceded by RED (2009) and IBERIA (2017).

Overall, it’s a solid, compelling, infinitely listenable album, and one that grooves hard, with Otto on display. Get it.

—Kevin Rabas

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