Willie Oteri: Seek and Ye Shall Find
“ I don't listen to a lot of guitar players these days, I listen to sax players. I like people like Kenny Garrett, John Zorn, people who play really free... ”
One of the biggest draws to the Jazz for Sale festival as part of the ongoing Visegrad Days 2004 was without a doubt the performance of the American/Slovak Willie Oteri and the Oskar Rozsa Quartet. The excellent bass guitarist Oskar Rozsa, trumpet player, keyboards and sound experimenter Lubos Priehradnik, and drummer Marcel Buntaj - the Slovak part of the quartet need no introduction to regular readers of Music.box. Guitarist Willie Oteri, born in California, is a very respected player on the American jazz scene. Even early on in his career, or as a session man or roadie, he moved in the company of people like Neil Young, Bob Seger, Chaka Khan, and the Doobie Brothers...
This promising beginning was however derailed by the sudden health troubles of his first wife. He took care of her with love for ten years, right up until her death. During this hard period he virtually vanished from the musical world and stopped all professional activity. He let the music world know about him again in the first half of the nineties. He moved to San Francisco and with the support of his second wife Sue he began to compose and play again. His first solo album was Willie's Cry and came out in 1995. Three years later his second outing hit the shelves with the title Perseveranja. Following that he moved to Austin, Texas and along with drummer Brannen Temple, bass guitarist Chris Maresh, saxophonist Mike Malone and second guitarist Chris Tondre - a collection of the best jazz innovators of Austin - founded the formation Jazz Gun, in 1999 producing the critically acclaimed album Concepts of Mate Ma Toot. His attempts to find a top, progressive, and at the same time an 'above'-genre producer ran the gamut through jazz and rock, and finally was rewarded with finding Ronan Chris Murphy, a man who made his name with King Crimson and the legendary Chucho Valdes. Thanks to Murphy, in 2001 he got in with the rhythm section of the 'Crimsons', bassist Tony Levin and drummer Pat Mastellotto, with whom he started putting together the first songs for the upcoming studio album, later being joined by keyboardist Mike Keneally (Frank Zappa) and trumpet player Ephraim Owens. The album Spiral Out came out in September of last year through the Japenese label DIW and enjoyed a fine success among fans and critics alike. Willie and his wife now live back and forth between Padova, Italy and Arizona, all the while concerting around the world.
The performance in Kosice's Thalia theater, in the company of Rozsa, Priehradnik and Buntaj, was apart a few themes from Spiral Out built almost exclusively from improvisation. Their set was interesting especially from the sound aspect. Rozsa, apart from the standard great grooves also employed various effects from his instrument along with other odd yet atmospheric sounds. And here 'The Artist' on the trumpet was equal to the task and joined in to second the multi-effect... Marcel Buntaj as a player ages like fine wine. He is said to be back to working on his 'chops' and the proof is reflected in the playing. With ease he handles the technically demanding moves, all the while being vital, tight, and dependable. Oteri is a player hard to define. He feels at home both in the jazz and in the experimental - rock areas. What he produces these days is a kind of mix of jazz-fusion and progressive rock. In any case he places great emphasis on the atmosphere, playing with sound, though with a somewhat more conservative approach in his choice of effects, it could be said that he wasn't moving at such an experimental level as the Slovaks. Even with regards to the fact that the gentlemen had only practiced together for a couple of hours before the performance, it could be sensed here and there that they were not exactly on the same wavelength. All such things are rescued by their natural musical talents though, the gift of improvisation and a professional approach, so in the end it seemed that there was some satisfaction on both sides. So in spite of the fact that there music was geared toward the more discerning listener, the performance of the quartet recorded a very good response (as far as I could gather) from the Kosice audience.
Two hours before the start of the sound check we set up a meeting with Willie Oteri in the Thalia theater, during which we had a chance for the following interview.
All About Jazz: A classic question first of all, how do you remember your early days? Were you self-taught?
Willie Oteri: The early days. Well I was self-taught just like a lot of American kids, we had the bands in high school and that kind of thing during the teenage years, didn1t really get serious until about in my twenties. I was playing in serious bands then and did that pretty much for my living until I was almost thirty. Then I had to quit for ten years because my wife was quite ill. Then I restarted in about 1992.