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Matern Otten and Maria Harp are the ideal blend of voice and guitar

What elements of your classical training do you find helps you out, when you're playing the guitar?
Matt: As you said I started out with classical training and in fact that was the only kind of guitar training I could get where I was living, when I was starting out playing guitar, when I was about 10 or 11 years old. At the time I didn't really have any particular preference in music; I just liked music in general, and I liked the guitar, so I started out with classical. In general, it gives you a good start in your technique. Also, of some of the pieces I learned to play eventually, after many years, I especially liked Bach.

There are many lute transcriptions for guitar, which are very beautiful but are also very difficult to play. In those pieces you are really playing 3 parts at the same time on your guitar and it showed me that you can approach the guitar not only as an instrument to play a melody or a chord but that you can use the guitar to play different things at the same time. Technically, that's pretty tough, but it really opens your mind to what is possible on a guitar. Also in jazz, of course, you would mostly play with a plectrum (pick) while in classical music you play with your fingernails, and I still do that, even though I use a plectrum most of the time, I still have long fingernails on the right hand and I still use that. Especially if I play anything in a Latin vein. It comes in very handy.You can really use the classical technique.

Did you come from a musical family?
Matt: No, my parents are not really musical. They did encourage me to take up music, not necessarily as a profession, but just as a part of my education. I know that my dad did some singing in a catholic church, and of my mother I know that she used to want to play the piano, but her parents couldn't afford a piano so it never happened, and probably also because of that, she encouraged me to take up music.

What were some of your musical influences?
Matt: I think the first and probably the most important guitar player for me, someone that I really liked was Wes Montgomery. I had some records of his and for many years that was my example.

I know you were saying that Wes Montgomery was a huge influence on your style of playing. Were there any other guitarists or any other influences that affected you while you were growing up and learning the guitar.
Matt: Wes Montgomery is still one of my main examples. He just had this incredible smooth sound and his timing was always terrific. He will always remain one of my main examples. Now, I guess there are just some guitarists that you just can't get around, that any guitarist has probably been influenced by at some point. If you talk about guys like John Scofield or Pat Metheny, these are the guys that have such a unique style and such an impact, you just can't get around that.

But as for myself I have to say I'm probably also influenced quite a lot by piano players and I have always been a little bit envious of piano players, because they have so many keys, in stead of the six strings of the guitar. There is so much you can do in terms of harmony on the piano, that you can do only to some extent on the guitar. This can be very difficult. It's much more difficult on a guitar to play chords with very tight voicings for instance. It's difficult on a guitar to get the same kind of harmonic richness that you can have on a piano. When people ask what are your examples I would still say Wes Montgomery and John Scofield are the two main influences. Wes Montgomery I like because of his great tone, great timing, great swing, everything always sounded so perfect and smooth and fresh. John Scofield is one of the modern players that I like a lot because he really has his very own unique style which is something I really enjoy. I couldn't say exactly what it is about his playing that I like. He's just original, in his own way.

What guitarists do you listen to most these days?
Matt: The modern guitarist I listen most to is John Scofield. I think he has a unique style, that is really his own, and he always manages to keep it interesting which is quite an accomplishment. I mean that's one of the very difficult things for a musician, even if you have achieved a certain level. It's so easy to just be content and play the same thing for the rest of your life, so to speak; I really like artists that try to keep changing and try to keep adding something new to their playing.

When discussing all these positive influences in your life, there must be a downside to this as well.
Matt: At the same that you get inspired by that, you can also become frustrated because if you try to do anything similar, you will inevitably find out that you can't do it the same way, you can't do it at the same level, but then you just have to use the inspiration to get the best out of yourself that you can, and at the same time be able to accept what you actually CAN do, and that's it!

What type of equipment do you use performing and for studio work as well?
Matt: For a guitarist there is just an endless variety of guitars and equipment. In fact I have never been that much into gear, because it distracts me. The instrument that I play the most is just an ordinary Epiphone Sheraton guitar, which is convenient because it's the sort of guitar that you can use for almost any kind of modern music. You can play jazz on it, you can play rock, you can play funk, you can play basically any kind of music on that kind of guitar. For me, of course sound is very important, but at the same time you don't want to get distracted too much from the music by too many different guitars or too much gear, or too much stuff that you have to take care of. I've always liked to keep things convenient so that you can just go somewhere, plug in your guitar and play. I still have only one amp that I have used always which is a small Sessionette; it sounds good to me. When I bought it I mainly bought it because it was so convenient, it was pretty small and I could carry it around easily, and as I said you could just pick it up, take your guitar, go anywhere, unpack and play, without a lot of hassle. I have often though of getting a different guitar and getting a different amp but...

You must have received a lot of comments from listeners regarding the sound that you get from your guitar and your equipment.
Matt: Actually I have had a lot of comments on my sound and people have often said 'oh it sounds good, your guitar sounds good, what is it, and what kind of amp do you play. In many cases they don't realize what really makes the sound is basically the player and much less the instrument and the gear that you have.

There must be a flip side to this as well..
Matt: Of course, it also can work the other way around; I mean if you have a really nice guitar it can inspire you to play certain things.

I guess you would use this example relating to your CD Up Close?
Matt: On the CD Up Close, on three tracks I have used a hand-made archtop guitar, built by a friend of mine, Frans Elferink. He's a Dutch luthier who built this guitar and if you've heard it you've noticed that has a very nice jazz sound, but also acoustic sound. In fact it has a D'Armond pick up and a built-in condenser microphone and you can mix the two inputs to create a more electric sound or more acoustic sound. Somewhere in between is the perfect sound for me, where it has the body of the electric sound, and the crispness of the acoustic sound added to that. If you play that guitar, strangely enough it inspires you to play simple, because just simple notes already sound so good that you don't feel the need to do anything complicated. But also it inspired me to a solo guitar recording, which I had never really done before. Especially for solo guitar, the sound becomes very important, because if I would use my Epiphone, which is quite all right for a lot of kinds of music, I wouldn't really like it for solo guitar, because it just doesn't have that acoustic clear sound that makes the solo recording sound so good. One of the solo recordings is also on the CD Up Close.

It's the piece Round Midnight. I made sort of my own arrangement of it, and if you would listen to it, I guess you would also recognize a little bit of my classical background, because in the intro I use a technique that would be more appropriate for a Spanish piece than a jazz piece, but anyway, you can hear some different influences in this piece. And on the CD Up Close I have also used an Admira Spanish guitar, but it one of those guitars that is amplified, and has a microphone and small equalizer built-in. I also got this guitar because it is so convenient, if you want to play you just plug it in and not worry about where to put the microphone and that you're sitting at the right distance and that you're not getting any background noises when you're recording. I mean the convenience of it just helps you to concentrate on the music and nothing not be distracted by anything else. And even if it may not have the best possible sound, the fact that you can concentrate on playing and not have to worry about recording stuff in the end gives the best result.

How did you get into jazz?
Matt: Just as choosing the guitar as my instrument was more or less a coincidence, you could say the same for my getting into jazz. I had a friend in school, who had a brother who was playing in a jazz band. I just liked the music and I started looking for some jazz records. I didn't know the first thing about jazz, but I was just looking for some records that I could afford, when I was 11 or 12 years old. And I bought on sale a recording of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.

That must have been a real awakening for you.
Matt: I had no idea what I had bought, and when I listened to it, first, I didn't really get it right away. So I thought, hmm.. so this is jazz. And, well, I was only 12 years old and I had never heard that kind of jazz before so it was very new to me. But even though I didn't take to it immediately, it just stuck in my mind and I kept playing it, and it some point it intrigued me and I started to like it more and more. I even decided I wanted to know what they were doing, and some of the pieces Charlie Parker played, you know, the well-known things like Ornithology and Bird of Paradise. I remember when I was 13 I had just played the guitar for 2-3 years and I had heard this record a lot and I was really intrigued by what they were playing. I had the feeling 'this is great, I don't know what it is, but I would like to know what they're doing'.

Did you do like so many other musicians and want to transcribe the music for yourself?
Matt: I decided to transcribe one of the Charlie Parker solos on this record, and as you can imagine it took me quite a while. I had an old record player that I could play at half speed so I played one of the Parker solos, I think it was Ornithology, I played it half speed, and picked out the notes one by one, and started playing them on my guitar. And with the little knowledge that I had of music, the little knowledge of chords and harmony that I had after playing the guitar for three years it just struck me as genius. That was the point in time that I particularly remember that I was really in awe of the level of artistry of a musician like Charlie Parker, and I think that was the moment that I really got hooked to jazz. And even though now I don't just play jazz, I play different kinds of music, jazz will always remain my main inspiration

Aside from guitarists being an influence on your playing I know Bill Evans was always a great influence on you. I'd like to know what was it about his playing and his talent that influenced you so much.
Matt: There are many musicians that have an influence on your playing in the end, you can't even begin to name them, but one of the names that really comes to mind when I think about my own influences is pianist Bill Evans, because he had such an incredible sensibility that, to me, sounded almost like classical music. But still it had the freedom and swing and those elements of jazz; to me that music has always been very intense and I think that's something that anyone strives for in music.

In fact some of the arrangements I have done for solo guitar are in some way influenced by Bill Evans, in the sense of what I liked about his approach to many standards: I think he used to play some standards for a very long time, and even though they were improvisations, these improvisations sort of evolved into compositions. When he played My Romance for instance, after many years, he would play this enormous intro, which was to me just like a classical piece. I mean, this had obviously evolved from playing this tune many times and adding new elements to it every time, at least that's what I imagined.

I would love to be able to get that level of combination of improvisation, composition and intensity into any piece that I could play. I could say I am influenced by that especially in my solo guitar playing. In fact I chose My Romance as one of the pieces I recorded some time ago for solo guitar, mainly I was so in awe of some of the versions I had heard of Bill Evans.

Maria Harp has played such an important role in your musical life, Matern, I would like you to discuss a little what it is about this woman that's so special, I mean she is such an incredible singer on a lot of fronts. She has an interesting way of not only telling a story but of conveying the feeling of the pieces. What are your thoughts on this?
Matt: You know Maria is really the kind of singer that really is most interested in getting the message across to the audience, so she's really someone who, when she's singing, really knows how to tell the story to the audience, and to convey the feeling of the tune to the audience. In that respect, I think, even though we have a lot of good singers here in Holland, there are hardly any other singers that I know of here, that have that same kind of intuitive feeling of how to interpret a song. And I guess we have influenced each other a lot, because when we started working together, I was really into jazz very deeply, and anything outside of jazz I was a little bit wary of. She on the other hand had started out with pop music and was going into jazz. So we came so to speak from different worlds and think this has finally resulted in a very fresh combination.

Do you remember your first performance with Maria?
Matt: My first performance with Maria, well, I was playing in this quartet, and then one night Maria joined us. I have to admit that in the beginning I wasn't really into vocal jazz that much, I was much more an instrumental guy, but anyway she quickly proved that she really could sing and it went very well. In fact Maria said she had worked with a guitarist before and she would like to do that again. She had very good experiences with that kind of performance. So we thought about doing that, and we rehearsed a little bit and pretty soon we decided we really wanted to have our own band and do our own thing. Our own music. So we started our own band, and this is the band that we recorded our first CD with, Easy to Love. This was also the same time that we met Bart Platteau Bart was in our band and in the beginning, and then when we met Amina Figarova it was obvious it would be a great opportunity to work with her as well.

There is a recording that you made with Maria Harp, 14 Pieces for Harp and Bass. When you listen to that recording, it's not only beautiful but it's very special on many levels, I guess because of the talent that you were able to assemble for this recording, including one of the legends on the jazz bass, Niels Henning Orsted Pedersen. How did this recording come about.
Matt: Yeah, about the album 14 Pieces For Harp and Bass, it was quite an interesting development, to see how this project got bigger than we originally intended it to be. Well we first thought of 2 bass players, acoustic and electric, because we had some different moods in our songs. We first asked Hein van de Geyn, not only as a bass player, but also as a producer, and to see if he was interested to have this record for his record label, and he was quite positive about the compositions we had made and was immediately all for it. Then through Maria's son, Terry, we got into contact with Gary Willis. He said, "sure, I could do it, but I would want to hear some of the music first, I want to know what it is". So we sent him a tape with very rough demo and he immediately said, "yeah, ok, I'll do it". And more or less the same happened with Pino Palladino. And finally, when we had three bass players already, Hein said, since we have two electric bass players and one acoustic, and since I'm also producing this, it would be nice to balance things out. Why don't we get one more acoustic player in. He said "what if I ask Niels Henning Orsted Pedersen?"

Wow, no kidding.
Matt: We just tried to look not too surprised and we said, "sure", and that's what happened. The only condition from Niels was that we would record in Copenhagen, which we did. The whole experience was really amazing. I still think it's pretty unique to have one CD with four bass players from really different parts of the jazz and pop scene, which have never been in the same context before. I think it's pretty special.

Maria, you were born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia?
Maria: I've always been singing I guess ever since I can remember. When I was a teenager, back in Georgia, I started singing regularly with a band, we did some radio stations and I was into Motown music at that time. There was one guy in the band that was a pretty good guitarist and he introduced me to a record of Julie London and, I think it was Joe Pass, just guitar and voice. I listened to that and learned some of the songs and started doing them with him and that was a lot of fun. That was the first time I ever listened to anything other than pop music. Much later on when I was living in Holland I started singing jazz music. I've really enjoyed it and I have been into a pop-jazz kind of music for about 10 years.

Another composition, actually an original from you and Matern off of your album Up Close is one of my favorites and it's entitled Alone. What is this song about?
Maria: The song Alone, when I heard the melody to that, I thought of my son's girlfriend. My son had broken up with his girlfriend and it was so sad. She was so heartbroken, and it was right at that period when I heard that melody, and I right away associated that with her broken heart, You know how we all feel when we lose a great love.

Alone was also recorded on your album 14 Pieces for Harp and Bass as well as on the album Up Close, wasn't it?
Maria: Yes, Alone was recorded on 14 Pieces for Harp and Bass, and we did it again on the duo CD Up Close, because I thought it was a nice song to do with just the two of us.

14 Pieces for Harp and Bass is a pivotal recording for you and Matern, and we heard from Matern a little earlier how that recording came about. I am sure that when you found out that Niels Henning Orsted Pedersen was going to be on the recording, that must have made you very happy indeed. Can you discuss your point of view as to how this recording came about and what was involved in making it?
Maria: Well Matern and I got an idea to record some of our own songs. That was a really exciting thought to do some of our own songs. We started thinking about how we would do that, and thinking about doing it with an acoustic and an electric bass. I happened to know a great bass player Hein van de Geyn, I've always been a great fan of his. He works at the Conservatory here in The Hague, so I decided to surprise him and give him our tape. He promised to listen and after he had heard it, he was really enthused about our music which made us really happy and excited. He said it was a good idea to record an album with these songs and he would love to produce it. Because he was planning to produce the album he thought it was a good idea to have another acoustic bass player.

When Hein first mentioned Niels Henning I was thrilled to pieces. I thought it was just unbelievable to have such a great bass player work with us. Through my son Terry, we got in touch with Gary Willis and we sent him some of our music. He was willing to do some pieces with us too, so while he was on tour in Holland and did some clinics he was able to record with us, which was also thrilling because he had not done anything like that It was a little bit different from what he usually does. But anyway it was a great opportunity to get him. The thing grew and grew and then we decided to add another bass player, Pino Palladino, because we found out that he was also in town in the period that we were recording and that he would be honored to do a couple of pieces. So, this way we had all these different bass players and that makes the album quite unique.

We have a really great memory of making that album. When Niels Henning agreed to record with us, and we went to Copenhagen, to meet him there and record the whole thing was such a ball, it was such a thrill to experience.

I'm sure there are many vocalists, and even non-vocalists out there who have influenced you over your career.
Maria: There are so many singers that I have listened to and that I have admired. I would have to make a long list because there are so many that I have been influenced by. But when I first started listening to jazz, the first singer I started to study was Billie Holiday. Later I have heard many jazz singers tell me the same thing, that they all start off listening to Billie. Besides Billy I listened to Joni Mitchell. Ieally liked her too, and Abbey Lincoln of course is one of them too. Those three people are my very favorite jazz singers, just a few of the long list of people that I admire.

The first time I heard Put On Your Wings, your version of that song that was written by Amina Figarova, I immediately thought of the Brazilian singer Flora Purim, and I would love to have heard her do a version of that particular piece. What is it about this composition that made you want to perform it?
Maria: It's funny that you should mention Flora Purim, I used to love to listen to her. It's been a long while now since I have heard her and maybe I should start looking up some of her music. I'm sure she would do a great job of Put On Your Wings, I think it's a fun song, a happy song. When Amina first sent me the tape with the music on it, I immediately got the lyrics. It wasn't easy for me to do that song in such a fast tempo, so I had to practice a lot to get it right for the recording.

That's basically the basis of composing songs. I mean based on so many different feelings, and I would say emotions as well.
Maria: You know that usually the way songs are made, they're based on emotions and about things you feel. Music does that, brings you in a certain mood. It's very interesting. The only way I can really write lyrics is when Matern gives me a melody, and I right away get an emotion with that melody, and a story. The only way I can write a lyric is by hearing the music; I guess I should start writing some more music because it has been a while since I've done any lyrics, so we should start on a new project!

Southern Memories is another beautiful composition that I particularly like, that was also written by Amina Figarova, what are your thought regarding this particular piece?
Maria: Besides Put On Your Wings, Southern Memories is also a song that Amina wrote and I wrote the lyrics. That was quite unique. I was at her house one night and she started playing the melody, and right away I got an association with my background in Georgia. She wrote it without me knowing about Azerbaijan, and her emotions about her country. When I heard the melody I right away thought about Atlanta and my background there. So we both had the same emotion about that song, which was very special. When she read the lyrics it was almost like they were her lyrics, like she wrote it. Well that's pretty special, because you have the same emotions about a certain melody, a certain song. Matern and I had the same kind of thing going with the songs that he wrote; he would have a beautiful melody, and I would listen to it, and I would right away get an emotion with that.

Maria, you do an excellent version of the Abby Lincoln classic Throw it Away. I was just wondering why you choose to record this particular composition of hers?
Maria: The song that Abbey Lincoln did is a song that I heard many years ago. Another jazz singer that I knew very well, Patricia Beysens, she sang this song on one of her gigs and I thought, wow, I love the lyrics. Then I listened to the original by Abbey herself, and I lived the song even more. I told Matern about the song but I didn't have a recording of it anymore, so I told him just run the tape and I'll sing the song, then you can hear how the melody goes. So, actually, the whole idea was to sing it for him, and then to record it with both of us together. So I sang the song and we thought it sounded pretty nice and decided to leave it on there like it was. When I sing the song, I also sing it for my grandmother, I associate the lyrics with her memory.

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  • Artist / Group Name: Mattern Otten and Maria Harp
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