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.
AAJ: But if I am not mistaken, you had become a famous musician by the age of twenty... Was it all about musical ability or luck?
WO: Yeah, I was about twenty five. I was getting work doing themes for television shows and things like that. But it was luck, meeting the right people at the right time.
AAJ: Tell me about those years when you were out of the music business, it must have been hard...
WO: It was a hard time. Contracts just stopped, I was very poor, and I thought I wasn't going to even do music again.
AAJ: Really that poor? But you were playing with people like Neil Young...
WO: Right. It was basically just the expenses for my wife's medical condition, because in America we don't have free medical care. Just very expensive to take care of her. And I didn't think I was going to get back into it until I later got re-married. And then she led me back into it.
AAJ: Did you play at all during that time, and when did you decide to compose your own music?
WO: No, I didn't play at all during that time, I didn't even own an instrument. The drive to compose my own music was that if I am going to start again, I am going to do it exactly the way I want to do it.
AAJ: What is your opinion of your debut album after all these years? It was a success not only with your fans but also with the critics...
WO: Spiral Out ? I am very very happy with it. It is about ninety percent the way I wanted it to be, and I was very lucky to play with those musicians. And yes the critics really loved it.
AAJ: The next important point in your career was meeting with Tony Levin...
WO: Yes, Tony Levin, or meeting the producer really, Ronan Chris Murphy, who I met through an internet group, I was saying at the time that I was looking for a producer and he was one of three who seemed interested. And I found out that he had worked with King Crimson a lot and I thought that this would be perfect. When we were in Los Angeles working on the pre-production, just the themes for the songs, I said 'Tony Levin would be perfect for this sound', and then he said 'Oh, I can get Tony Levin'. It was very fortunate and very lucky, but Tony had had a couple of weeks time and sounded interested in the project, so we sent him a demo, and then he said 'Yeah I want to work on this'. And then we got Pat Mostolotto, the drummer, because he was living in Austin Texas as I was and it was very convenient. And he had worked on King Crimson albums with Tony, so it was great.
AAJ: As an 'open-minded' musician you must click quite well with Tony...
WO: Yes, Tony is a very open-minded musician and we all clicked very well. The whole CD was made by just jamming for two days, and then we took out what were the best sections.
AAJ: So there was no conception before the recording then...
WO: Only themes. Just the basic themes, starting off in the head with the themes, and then going from there. The longest song on the record is 23 plus minutes - the first jam we ever did. We just plugged in and started playing and it just became this big thing. And we knew from there that we worked well together and that made it really easy.
AAJ: You have a very special sound, like some 'old' band...
WO: Yes, the producer and I wanted to do something like it was from the seventies Miles Davis period, but through more modern means of recording, like being able to add computers and things to edit it.
AAJ: Do you like computers?
WO: I like computers to edit music, I don't like the sound if you go straight to the computer. I still prefer tape for the sound because it's much fatter. And what we did was we had a twenty four track machine and recorded everything on tape first, and then through the playback head it went to a Mac with ProTools. It made it easier for us to edit, but the sound was real fat. It was good.
AAJ: Tell me something about your equipment, do you have some 'little machines' or are you conservative?
WO: Me, no, I have a little four-track machine and that's all. I'm conservative, I like to go the studio and let the professionals deal with all the technical end of things.
AAJ: What was the reason for putting out the album under a Japanese label?
WO: We were looking at different labels. First there was Magna Carta which was this big, progressive label, and they made us a pretty good offer, but we wanted to keep rights for film and things like that. They didn't want to give us any rights at all and my lawyer didn't like the contract so we were still looking. The producer, Ronan Chris Murphy, had worked with a Japanese bassist, and then played some of the CD for him. And he said that he knew this label and he would play it for them. The first label said that they were not big enough for this, and that he should go to another label, DIW, because they are a bigger label and they have people like John Zorn on their label, David Murray, these bigger names. And then they made us an offer and were willing to negotiate different things so we still can sell things for films.
AAJ: Are you still active in that area?
WO: No, but I would like to get back into it. I have some connections in Los Angeles for that, but it is difficult now, it has become a very closed market. There are three or four people who write things for movies now, and three or four people who record it. But there has been some interest, so eventually it would be nice to do something with that.
AAJ: It must be a problem for a musician like you to change your mind to the world of film music...
WO: If you are doing something for films, you have to do it like something that will work for the scenes of the movie, it is much freer to do what I do now, because you can do what the musicians are comfortable with when you are jamming, and more improv. I prefer what I am doing now, and I would prefer to keep traveling the world and promoting the CD.
AAJ: I have heard the CD Spiral Out , and I don't think it's possible to describe this music. You are really, really open-minded. Someone said to me once that you were a hard rock guitarist, but I don't think that is really true.
WO: Right. I think that a lot of me in my younger days is from hard rock. I was a fan of people like Jeff Beck and so on, I think it is just natural for Americans to play the guitar (ha ha). A lot of it is heavy stuff, but I try to be open-minded, I like to mix things together and do all the different styles.
AAJ: What about your other "idols"...
WO: I like John McLaughlin a lot as a guitarist, Stevie Ray Vaughan when he was alive, I don't like all the Stevie Ray Vaughan clones that are around these days...
AAJ: You like something with soul...
WO: Yeah soul, 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, and a lot of my favorite bands are not really popular. Jazz Odyssey is a popular band in America at the moment, very avant-garde, open jazz stuff. It's mixed.
AAJ: Do you like any pop music? Peter Gabriel?
WO: Not the pop music that's out right now, Peter Gabriel that's old school pop, different from the singer songwriter girl pop that's popular in America now like Brittany Spears. Peter Gabriel, yes, of course. But there are a lot of good musicians behind one-hit-wonders, because it's good money and it's work. In a way it is because sometimes they are not contributing to the best forms of music or the best things for their future. They will just play on a tour and be forgotten about. They have to be really good to get the tour in the first place. And then nobody remembers who they are, it's kind of sad.
AAJ: Are you ready to do something like this for a one or two-hit-wonder?
WO: No, not me. I couldn't it, I would probably tend to focus on an older star, work with somebody like Peter Gabriel or something like that if I could.
AAJ: What about commercial success of Spiral Out...
WO: It's doing well for the odd CD that it is. It's gotten great reviews all over the world, people know it everywhere, I get E-mails from all over the world. So I think for the type of record that it is, it is doing very well. It's not really putting money in my pocket, but I never really expected that, I expected to be able to come to places like this and perform, which is what I wanted in the first place. I would like to progress now and do another one similar, even get the same players and do the next step of Spiral Out , it is difficult time-wise, and it's expensive.
AAJ: Do you have any idea how the performance will look today?
WO: Yeah, it's going to be pretty open, improvisational, were going to work from three or four of the themes of Spiral Out , and from there it's going to be totally open and free and I'll let the players throw it around and move in its own direction.
AAJ: Do you know the musicians and are you open for experiments?
WO: Very, very good, I was really impressed with the musicians. We all agreed on a few possible ideas of where to go. So we will be just nodding at each other and trying to keep it all as free as possible.
AAJ: What about your next project...?
WO: It's difficult but it can be done. I have played with enough different musicians around the world that I can feel the energy could go to another level by getting the right players together. I think Ronan Chris Murphy as producer would be perfect again, for he tends to listen more than most producers where they want to just structure it, he's open. I would like to take to another level.
AAJ: Is is possible you do something with the guys...
WO: I was thinking about that, a project having Oscar and the trumpet player, and a drummer named Schroeder from Germany, and his girlfriend plays violin, and we did a show in Italy with two members of a Croatian band called East Rodeo, and they were a bass and guitarist and both very, very good. And Schroeder, he is unbelievable, he can play in odd time signatures and it comes easy for him, and he really drives everything, really amazing. So I was thinking that I could put together the two guys from here along with two guys from Germany and that would make a really good record. So now it about the time and being able to afford it. I don't know how much it costs here, but in America it's very expensive.
AAJ: It's cheaper here...
WO: There is a different sound of our CDs and those of bands from Slovakia. I don't know. I think it is because we still use old studios with old amps and vintage gear. But you can get the vintage gear here Ronan Chris Murphy is working on a project now where they bought a bunch of vintage gear on the internet at a good price, getting that big fat vintage American studio sound.
If you have a tape machine, that's a big part of it. And it doesn't have to be a big expense really because it doesn't have to be of great quality to run it from the tape machine into the Pro Tools, and you can get a big, fat sound that way.
AAJ: I think the analogue machines are in fashion now again as well...
WO: Yeah, the hardest thing to get are good mixing consoles, most of the older studios in American have those big, old consoles with the thick sound, and here you probably have to get something like Mackie's and that sounds a bit thinner. But you can make even that fat by using two compressors and two amps for the microphones. So you can take an inexpensive microphone an run it through a tube pre-amp and it will sound really big. With a good producer it doesn't really matter if the gear can do it.
AAJ: The most famous singer from Slovakia recently recorded and album in New York with some great players, and it's a really different sound than what you get from Slovak recording studios, and I can't describe it.
WO: A lot of that might be in the mastering too. In America there are mastering studios in rooms bigger than this, huge speakers that go down all the way to little speakers, and they can keep switching back and forth to get it balanced, and they have tons of vintage gear to warm it up and I think that's what your missing, that bottom, fat, thick, wall sound that a lot of American CDs have. Those places have been established for a long time, so you have to get some more vintage gear(ha ha). Bring on the vintage gear!
Visit Willie Oteri on the web at www.willieoteri.com .