Jazz Saxophonist Matt Otto releases Umbra, his third album of the summer.

Photography provided by Matt Otto.

Modern jazz saxophonist Matt Otto is one of Kansas City’s finest. 

“He’s one of my favorite improvisers,” drummer John Kizilarmut says. The two have been working together for a decade now.

After living in Los Angeles, New York City and Japan and touring extensively, Otto moved to KC in 2009 and began teaching at KU a few years later. Now an associate professor of jazz studies at the university, Otto was granted a sabbatical to work on an album this past spring.

But the ever-busy Otto, who also plays gigs around town, wound up releasing three albums within just a few months.

In June, Otto’s Los Angeles-based band Joe-Less Shoe self-released Old Soles. The bass-less modern jazz trio features compositions from each of the members, including Jamie Rosenn on guitar and Jason Harnell on drums. 

Later in June, Otto released Kansas City Trio on his own label, featuring four different iterations of local trios. The album was his first release to feature standards––including a contemporary and funkier rendition of Charlie Parker’s  “Segment” featuring a droning bass line––while still interspersing a few of Otto’s own tunes.

Umbra is Otto’s most meticulous release of the three. Released in late August on West Coast label Origin Records, the album is a culmination of Otto’s extensive catalog of originals, many of which were written within the past year while on sabbatical.

Umbra’s second track, “Hawk,” a tribute to his late saxophone teacher Doug Hawkins, exemplifies Otto’s distinctly lyrical lines––a product of his holistic approach to writing. 

“I sing a lot when I write and when I practice,” Otto says. 

Featuring mainstays from the Kansas City scene––bassist Jeff Harshbarger, drummer Kizilarmut, guitarist Alex Frank, now-Paris-based trumpeter Hermon Mehari, and Matt Villinger on Fender Rhodes––the recording, mixing and mastering process for Umbra was nothing less than comprehensive. 

“What you’re hearing on the record is the ‘best of’ moments from countless hours in the studio,” Kizilarmut says. “He really turned the recording process into a regular activity. It was really the ideal scenario for capturing true, intuitive musicianship.” 

“I just worked on it every day for months,” Otto says.

This fall, Otto returned to the classroom. Despite his busy schedule as a performer and educator, writing music remains a priority––as does releasing more of the recordings from his sabbatical sessions within the next year.

“I have a goal of sitting down at the piano and writing one musical idea a day,” Otto says. “Sometimes that germ of an idea turns into more.”   

GO: Roger Wilder Quartet featuring Matt Otto. Saturday, September 9, 10 pm. Black Dolphin, 1813 Grand Blvd., KCMO. $5 cover at the door.

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