DropItLikeItsHot_Cover med

September 11, 2015

Sydney Morning Herald ★★★½


It even had its own name, “Ethio-jazz”, a unique jazz offshoot that Mulatu Astatke nurtured in Ethiopia in the early 1970s, and it soon became a benchmark of hipness. You can hear why in Matt Ottignon’s band Mr Ott, which plays original music drenched in Ethiopian rhythms and textures that is so infectious as to erode my suspicion of projects so subservient to idiom. The grooves, a jigsaw of minimal contributions from horns, guitar, keyboards, bass, drums and percussion, have an edge of exoticism as well as creating surges of energy. Wah-wah guitar, almost the style’s birthmark, is here supplied by Ben Panucci, who also produces some startling solos. Ottignon’s tenor and baritone saxophones intermittently blaze like bushfires through rhythmic thickets in which Eden Ottignon’s bass plays a hypnotic part. Ellen Kirkwood provides slicing trumpet, Daniel Pliner the chunky or slippery keyboards and Dan Kennedy and Steve Marin hold down the all-important drums/percussion duties.



Ethiopian jazz and soul from the ‘60s and ’70s has cast a spell in Oz-jazz circles. Sydney’s Mister
OTT is among a handful of excellent local combos exhibiting a strong Ethiojazz influence
cultivated by musicians such as Mulatu Astatke and Getatchew Mekurya, and French producer
Francis Falceto’s seminal Ethiopiques CD series. The debut album of Kiwi expat saxophonist/
flautist Matthew Ottignon’s band – inspired by an Ethiopian tour with singer Dereb Desalegn –
marries the mesmerising eastern-sounding pentatonic scale, distinctive phrasing and trance-like
rhythms of Ethiojazz with groove-laden retro funk and mainstream jazz playing. In Drop It Like It’s Ott, chunky sax solos, often in tandem with trumpet and Farfisa organ swells, swirl on a recording lent authenticity by analogue studio gear. The bright and breezy ‘Gonder’ is a harbinger of what’s to come. A dialogue between upper register trumpet and lower register baritone sax highlights the equally jaunty ‘Take It Higher’. Wah-wah guitar and bass lay down wicked funk rhythm for the horns in ‘Mattaraja’. Distorted axe solos grind in that track and ‘Shalimar The Clown’. Built on a standard Latin groove, ‘Shererit’ and the preceding ‘Octopussy’ include conga solos. ‘Jellyfish’ and set standout ‘Tana Lake Part 2’, which follows a short-but-sweet piano prelude, are comparative slow-burners. Tony Hillier


LISA THATCHER BLOG – Lisa Thatcher 30th June 2013

Matthew Ottignon is a cool as cool gets Sydney based jazz musician, born in NZ and world traveled enough to soak up sound culture everywhere he goes so he can include as much as possible in his musical performances.  I was lucky enough to attend the launch of Mister OTT’s first two singles at the gorgeous venue 505 in Surry Hills a couple of weeks ago, and I have had the sublime pleasure of listening to the launch tracks since. Despite his creative refusal of terms like “world music” and “jazz” you can hear the heart and soul in the cultures he allows to permeate his work.  Already a seasoned player in the Australian jazz scene and having performed with a whose who of great performers and bands (including a member of the triple Aria winning Monsieur Camembert) Mister OTT is the amalgam of the traveled influences where variety and novelty are given free rein and Matthew can spread his cultural wings into the sounds that he knows so well and loves so much.

Whenever you hear Matthew Ottignon play, you know you’re going to get the very best in sound experience, so it was not a surprise to hear the pulsing beauty of rich fat sound that filled the room on the launch of his singles. What was fascinating was the jazzy subject matter, very much taken after the sounds of Ethiopia Matt was exposed to on a recent tour. To properly understand Mister OTT, one needs to feed off the bands influences, the strongest of which is the great Getatchew Mekurya and the amazing Mulatu Astatke.

Both sounds are influenced by their geographical proximity to the middle east, its Christian background and the fascinating detail that Ethiopia is the only African country never to have been officially colonized.  This gives Ethiopia a unique place in the familiar world of African jazz so famous for free-form improv and syncopation. Ethio groove is a style formulated by Mulatu after spending time as a jazz musician on the London scene and then latino bands in New York. The style is made to make the body move, even if you’re sitting in a chair.  With the right stuff already flowing through his veins, it became inevitable that Matt would want to absorb Ethio groove and become appropriator for a new kind of sound to the Sydney scene. The result is a funk infused syncopated stroll through the flavors and musical lust of pumping and heady sax heavy chunks of groovy sound. If Mattaraja wants to prepare you for whats to come, Take it Higher is the full blown fun assault, both tracks rolling their saxy tongues around their prevailing language while cool keys slide around a virtual melody.

Obviously tickled pink by being able to perform with his brother, Matt enrolled Eden Ottignon on bass to heat things up as you can hear, particularly on Mattaraja (SUCH a cute title).  Ellen Kirkwood brings a sexy shade of pink to the sausage fest, her trumpet filling out nicely around Matt’s sax, the sound needing her sultry female touch. Ben Panucci rounded out the strings with his contempo jazz nuances while the clean beat was maintained by Dan Kennedy’s steady drums. Daniel Pliner’s keys carried a little Cuban accent on Take it Higher while sticking with the funk on Mattaraja.  Guests included Steve Marin’s percussion, Peter Farrar’s melody sax and dancer Eden Dessalegn.

The powerhouse performance on the night of the launch included the professional relaxed atmosphere only the talented with experience can project. Matt is comfortable on a Sydney stage, we all know that, but he’s also comfortable with this new group and the sounds he’s created and the heritage he’s representing. Music like this needs to project its sense of ownership so that we can chill into the vibe, and Matt achieves this with his precise choice of talent, his passion for the music he is playing and the beauty of his compositions. Music like this is all about pleasure and ease of experience and freedom of the body, but none of that is possible if the musicianship isn’t at its finest. The taste we in the audience had at the launch of Mister OTT tells us the disc of singles will be a treasured item for years to come. Hopefully there will be more to hear and more to buy soon.


AUSTRALIAN STAGE – Brad Syke – 24th June 2013

505 is a congenial venue. And my happy excuse for being there, last Saturday evening, was the double single launch (not as much of a contradiction in terms as it first appears) of Mr Ott’s first two recordings. Mr Ott being a new project steered by master, commander, composer and saxophonist and flautist, Matt Ottignon, of the prodigious Ottignon clan, which perhaps had its genesis with Granny-O, who toured internationally, playing harp and, presumably, second fiddle, for Liberace. And big Daddy-O (I’m presuming he has elongated stature, similar to his sons’) played sax and flute with Manfred Mann.

Matt has another passion besides music. Travel. And Mr Ott fuses the two. Specifically, traditional Ethiopian music and jazz. Oops! Let’s not say jazz. Apparently, Matt’s not fond of using that word. He seems to subscribe to the old Leonard Bernstein maxim. You know. That there are only two types of music. No, not country and western. But good and bad. In the former category, sometimes, the good tends towards great. So it is with Mr Ott. I have to say, though, much as I know little about it, it seems to me traditional Ethiopian music and jazz have much in common. Well, yeah, ok, Ethiopian music tends to rely on a whole other set of scales and rhythms, but it does welcome improvisation which, surely, puts it right in the ballpark.

Mr Ott is really building on something for which the foundations have already been laid, by Mulatu Astatke, who’s regarded as the father of Ethiopian jazz; Ethio-jazz; Ethiopi-jazz. It goes by a number of names. Essentially, it’s a hybrid of traditional Ethiopian music and jazz and regarded as melancholy in flavour. Overwhelmingly, however, Mr Ott has  subverted these characteristics, making it funky and upbeat. Ott, like Astatke, calls it Ethio Groove. Sounds good to me. Nay. Great.

But before talking about the sets, let’s look at the players. Matt himself, of course, out front, musically directing, in the loosest sense, but clearly the convening presence nonetheless. Of course, a crucial part of the musical director’s job is recruiting and, in this, Mr Ott couldn’t have chosen better. At the back of the stage, Ben Panucci smiles even less than the Mona Lisa. I don’t think I detected so much as a curled lip. But man, does he play. His heritage might be Italian, but he has the deceptively benign look of a zapata. Appropriate, because he scorches on his electric guitar, which sounds like it’s set to ‘attack’ mode. He’s kind of like a jazz Hendrix, if you ask me, throwing off all the shackles of genre, to do his very own thing, wielding an axe like a branding-iron. He’s not afraid of colouration, or raucousness, that’s for sure. No wonder it’s only taken him a half-dozen years to climb to the top of the jazz tree, playing with the likes of Bob Barnard, Bernie McGann, George Golla and Phil Slater.

Next to Panucci is another Ottignon. Eden, on electric bass. (He’s interesting for reasons other than his very individual stylings, too. For example, by way of his band Sunchasers, he’s a pioneer in solar-powered live shows, having built a portable rig that coverts solar energy into useable power for amplification. An environmental science degree no doubt comes in handy.) To play, or not to play? At least one of his solos was notable for his confidence in deploying pauses and punctuation: a too often forgotten component of music, surely, is ‘negative space’.

Moving clockwise, there’s Dan Kennedy on drums (there’s a bit of a Kiwi mafia on stage, as I understand the Otts and Kennedy all hail from Aotearoa), providing jet propulsion. Like Eden Ott, he’s a highly individual player, with a big, phat sound, though delicate at times, that’s never overly busy; it’s all in the service of the tunes. And he’s so adept that unfamiliar time signatures and African feels faze him not a jot. Versatile is a word that springs to mind. As does sympathetic. Mike Nock and James Morrison seem to think so, ’cause he’s performed with both those legends. Lately, he’s been playing with Gerard Masters’ Random Acts of Jazz, to boot.

Alongside is percussionist (principally, on bongos, congas and cajon) Steve Marin, founder of internationally touring Latin band Son Veneno, that’s supported Aloe Blacc, Los Lobos, Sharon Jones and Ozomatli. Marin is in demand in his own right, too, regularly recruited by Damien Leith, among others. You don’t have to look far to find him behind a kit, or rattling, shaking and beating some other form of primal instrument. He’s disciplined and, like Kennedy and the others, has the discernment not to overplay, yet will fill the narrowest of openings with a challenging cross-rhythm. He was a guest, sitting in for the launch.

Ellen Kirkwood rates on the prodigy scale as highly as the many and various Otts. If you were blindfolded, you’d be oblivious to her youth, because she’s a much more seasoned trumpeter than she has any right to be. She’s also a composer and bandleader. Only last year she won the 2012 Jann Rutherford Memorial Award, implemented to foster professional development of an outstanding, young, female Australian jazz musician. She’s been busy. Captain Kirkwood. Sirens Big Band. The Bakery. And more. She trades breaks with MO as if they’re identical twins, with an intrinsic rapport.

Keyboardist Daniel Pliner’s official bio sums him up as follows. DP ‘performs, tours and records with bands such as The Asthmatix, Dereb the Ambassador, Darth Vegas, the Strides, Slimey Things, Zohar’s Nigun and more. He has also worked with Afro-Cuban legends such as Felix Baloy and Ordequis Reve. He spends much of his life out doing gigs or locked up at home with his Mac working on production. Either way, he doesn’t sleep till sunrise.’ His sleep deprivation, however, isn’t betrayed in his playing. His skills on piano, clarinet and organ are equal to each other in having few equals.

Peter Farrar was guesting, on C melody sax (that’s a step up, literally, from tenor). Not only is his playing thrilling, innovative and virtuosic, such as to align him comfortably with the abilities of his co-workers, he has the added advantage of having played quite extensively with Dereb Desalegn, so is already au fait with Ethiopian music. For several years, Peter was instrumental (excuse the pun) in bringing us The NOW Now, which is, at once, an organisation for experimental and improvised music, an annual festival and concert series. He performs with the masked band Prophets and works in hip hop production, too. Perhaps that’s how Mr Ott came to have Miguel and Fenix as guest dancers. They may not have been (or aren’t yet) the world’s best hip hoppers, but they’re good-natured enthusiasm was contagious.

But they weren’t the only dancers.

Eden Dessalegn is a human dynamo. She (and her colleague, Bubsy) seems to have as many things that shake, rattle and roll as Kennedy and Marin put together. The Ehtiopians have a word for it: eskeusta. As the phonetics suggest, a rough translation would be ecstasy, but even that hardly does it justice. Suffice to say, it’s a quiver that begins at the shoulders, rippling down the spine through the legs and feet. Whether you’re feeling or merely seeing it, it’s something to behold. With sunbeam smile she beckons audience members to dance and has what looks like half the capacity crowd up in no time. She might’ve been raised here, but she was born in Ethiopia, so only but adds to the authenticity, even if her style embraces hip hop, dancehall, salsa, samba & afro. She probably danced her way out of her mother’s womb (it’s been almost that long since she started). She has her very own, all-girl African dance troupe, Saea Banyana, which released a video last year and, 1.5million views later, it’s still going strong. No wonder Baz Luhrmann featured her in The Great Gatsby.

Before the band got underway, it’s well worth mentioning the contributions of Marko (Mark Ottignon), who you might well know, if in the know, as instigator of the Massive Reggae dances of the mid-80s, which started in the UK. He went on to found Sydney reggae crew Firehouse. He certainly spun some grooves which put us right in the mood for Mr Ott. I’d like to get my hands on his playlist for my regular listening pleasure.

From the very first bars, Tesfa Maryam Kidane’s Heywete, a ballad, proves emblematic of the indefectible fusion between east African musical sensibilities and jazz. It affords Matt O a sublime opportunity to show off the timbre of his playing, since it opens with a sorrowful solo part. With subtlest backing from the rhythm section, it’s a tune that communicates pain, loss and recognition. It breaks out, albeit gently, into some sharp, staccato, bluesy phrasing by Panucci and I was particularly moved by Eden O’s throbbing, insistent, quietly wicked bassline. At the same time, it sports a dead cool groove; the kind the wouldn’t be at all out of place in, say, a Tarantino film. But this is no lounge music, it’s too rootsy and real for that. Mellow, sure. But soul food, too. Tenor player Kidane was one of the very first Ethiopian (though, strictly speaking, he’s Eritrean) musicians to go to the US and he still lives and plays there (around Washington, DC). Mr Ott does this overlooked masterpiece profound justice, enshrining it as a rediscovered classic by way of superlative rendition.

Getatchew Mekuria is another Ethiopian tenor saxophonist, now 76. His Akale Wube took things up several gears. Perhaps the best clue to the sound is that Mekuria is inspired by warrior music. In practice, the sax parts sound for all the world like the freest of free jazz, yet Mekuria insists he’s never heard any. Whatever. It gives Mr Ott’s front line plenty of space to furiously improvise: it was as if all the oxygen in the room was burned up. It’s certainly a heroic piece for sax players and a hypnotic one for the rest of us. One can well imagine being whipped into militaristic frenzy; or any other kind, given the right circumstances. It’s drug-like. Steroidal.

Hot on the heels of Akale Wube came Eywat Setenafegagn, another Mekuria tune. This one is distinguished by a loping rhythm, beat out primally on bass-drum, switched-off snare and toms. Though of quite a different ilk, like Akale Wube, it’s mesmeric, with a repeated riff. The guitar part puts me in mind of Dick Dale or The Shadows, while sax permeates every bar, sounding like a jungle animal, or tortured soul crying out for release. Heady. Sorry Matt, but this is jazz. At its best. Imagine someone really out there, like Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and you’re getting a glimpse of the picture.

Then came the first of the brand spanking new singles: an original by MO, in Take It Higher. It has that African rhythm, to be sure, but it’s in a straighter, catchier format, more familiar to western ears and feet; so you don’t have to be able to shake it down like Eden to get physical. And you’ll be hard-pressed not to hit the floor. Resistance is practically useless. There are lapping waves of wah-wah, ‘organic’ flourishes, a crisp unison between baritone, C melody and trumpet, an elemental percussive pulse, prancing bass pattern and, above all, a pervasive, nostalgic sense that life is good. It’s a vital, infectious sound that’s bound to get toes tapping and dissipate negative energy. It’s  under five minutes in duration, but if played for twenty or more, I doubt anyone would complain.

Kulun is a very sophisticated Mulatu Astatke number. I love the bass motif, which leans the whole tune forward and pushes it along. It allows Marin to interject with Latin dynamics, a piano solo that sounds very Semitic in flavour, a pitter-patter of finger-controlled taps on snare and cymbals and the ascension of the horns into a full-blown, yet sweet crescendo. This tune could charm a snake. Cool as a duke.

If I remember correctly, Shalimar The Clown (another Matthew Ottignon composition) was the one that sounded like the bent style of Tom Waits, with its wildly wavering tempo and gruff aural fabric. Named, I understand, after a Salman Rushdie book about a Kashmiri tightrope walker, you’d expect it to be idiosyncratic, I s’pose.

Chik Chikka is another Astatke tune from the polytropic (he plays piano, organs, vibraphone and other percussion) parent of Ethio-jazz, a genetically-modified music that embraces pop, modern jazz, traditional Ethiopian music, Latin rhythms, Caribbean reggae and Afro-funk. The rhythm section builds a subtle, yet dense percussive backdrop, over which the horns lay down another of the entrancing riffs that seem to characterise the form.

Samuel Yirga is a much younger Ethiopian pianist. Just 26. The astonishing far being he didn’t even touch a piano till he was 16. Despite this, he’s already cited as being in the league of Keith Jarrett and Herbie Hancock. Besides jazz, it’s reasonable to say he’s influenced by classics, too. Mr Ott plays what was originally recorded as a solo piano piece as a duet: Yeh Bati refers to a town in northern Ethiopia, but is also the name of the scale. Though based on an old melody, Yirga has subverted the time signatures, making it well-suited to the improvisational skills and range of Pliner and Matt O.

After a quintessentially African piece by Eritrean, Bereket Mengistab, Mr Ott played a few originals, including Gonder (after the hometown of Dereb Desalegn, with whom Matt O’s performed for years now), Octopussy (with an interesting anecdote attached), and the much awaited other half of the double single launch, in Mattaraja. This is based, essentially, on a filthy, deep house groove that teeters on reggae. It’s a blast, from start to finish. There’s a stinging, almost psychedelic solo from Panucci; cross-rhythmic cajon fills; not to mention a world-beating baritone break in which Matt O argues himself into equality with the likes of Harry Carney, or Gerry Mulligan, in tonal dexterity. Oh my gouache, what a colourist!

There was something from Mahmoud Ahmed (Ye Woyen, I think), which exemplifies the man’s status as a primary exponent of melding traditional Amharic music, with it’s quintessential five-note scale and circular rhythms, with pop and jazz, creating something entirely distinctive. There’s probably noone better able to invoke eskeusta than Ahmed and Mr Ott seems to lose none of his potency in their execution. The horns sensationally emulate Ahmed’s famous multi-octave vocal capability.

Ellen Kirkwood has already proven quite a gifted and prolific composer on behalf of her own projects and, if Shererit is anything to go by, shows promise in the Mr Ott frame as well. It’d be interesting to hear what an Ottignon-Kirkwood collaboration might sound like.

Here endeth the second set, but not without two very much demanded, as opposed to merely obligatory, encores: Astatke’s Yekatit, for one; exceptionally appropriate, as it’s a very fitting companion piece to MO’s Mattaraja. If you’re a Jim Jarmusch fan, you might recognise this one from his 2005 film, Broken Flowers, featuring Bill Murray and Julie Delpy. It’s Astake that’s credited with introducing Latin rhythms to Ethiopian music, by dint of his interpolation of bongos and congas. This suits Mr Ott very well. In a way, Mr Ott‘s originals have taken Astatke’s signature sound as a template on which the band has built, leaning just a little more heavily, perhaps, towards a funk element.

The parting gesture was Wallias Band’s Muziqawi Silt, a tune very much in the same stylistic vicinity which afforded Pliner some play room.

That an Australian band comprised of hot, young jazz (sorry, Matt) players should delve so deeply, authentically, respectfully and inventively into this exotic music is courageous and laudable. Then again, it’s so infectious, it’s not like it’s hard to sell. Let’s hope they sell some singles, so they can keep this train on the tracks.


SYDNEY ARTS GUIDE – Suzanne Rath – 17th June 2013

Matthew Ottignon certainly keeps himself busy. The saxophone, clarinet, flute and bass player has appeared on stage with the likes of Lou Reed and Brian Wilson, while simultaneously producing his own music and teaching. His latest project sent him to the New 505 Venue in Surry Hills for the launch of two singles with his band, MISTER OTT.

Shortly after 8.30 pm on a Saturday night, one thing became apparent; it was a mystical night and the audience, sipping on Bourbon heavy cocktails in this atmospheric venue, were about to be transported on a world tour. After their opening cover of a song by the famous Ethiopian saxophonist Getatchew Mekuria, Ottignon requested that the volume be turned up on his sax. This was in time for the band’s performance of their first single released on the night, ‘ Take it Higher’, named after a lyric in James Brown’s ‘ Funky Good Time.’ The booming instrumental threatened to drown out Ellen Kirkwood’s trumpet for a moment until they settled into this funky tune with clear percussion beats and a strong ending.

The next composition of the evening was different again. This Asian-influenced tune named ‘Shalimar the Clown’ (a title of a Salmon Rushdie work), performed by Matt Ottignon with his bass-player brother Eden, wouldn’t have been out of place in some of Rushdie’s film- adapted novels.

That trip to India also inspired the second single released on the evening, ‘Mattaraja.’ The song title is a construct of the Indian word, ‘Maharaja,’ and ‘Matt.’ Playing ‘Mattaraja’, the band were accompanied by two hip hop dancers, as they upped the tempo for the second half of the show. Yes, you read that right; Ethiopian scales are often blended with hip hop beats in Ottignon’s music. And did we mention that the singles were recorded on vintage analogue gear and mixed in the Tasmanian rainforest? This cultural mishmash certainly contributes to the fresh sounds heard in their music.

Ottignon is a talented multi- instrumentalist, but a feat as great as MISTER OTT requires a full and accomplished band, who did their job astoundingly well; Eden Ottignon bass, Kirkwood on trumpet, Ben Panucci on guitar, Dan Kennedy on drums and Daniel Pliner on keyboard. They were joined on the night by special guests, Steve Marin on percussion and Peter Farrar on sax.

Such is MISTER OTT’S accessibility, that Ottignon himself dislikes the generic label of jazz. Mister OTT are clearly influenced by 50s and 60s soul and jazz, but they blend this perfectly with the traditional, as well as much improvisation to create a twenty-first century sound. Many of their base tunes are similar to the sounds of popular West African outfits such as AMADOU and MARIAM. Ottignon’s aims are to create ‘new music that draws from virtually every culture, tradition and society on the planet’ and ‘gives the soul room to breathe’. With these singles, he may just have achieved his goals.


WEEKEND NOTES – Lydia Lee – June 16th 2013

Bold Brass Grooves

My partner leans towards Jazz while I’m more of a world music fan, so when I heard about this fusion band, I thought I may be onto something that would please us both.

So we headed down for the CD launch party of the new singles for Mister Ott. The party was more of a concert at 505 in Surry Hills.

Mister Ott is a 6 piece band lead by Sydney-based Kiwi saxophonist Matt Ottignon. Last night, however, with a guest percussionist, Steve Marin and guest saxophonist, Peter Farrar, 8 musicians crammed the tiny stage – Daniel Pliner’s grand piano stole a lot of the space!

Opening with some numbers by The Ethiopians, mixing that old school jazz of the ’60’s with African beats and sounds, one song even had some choral chanting. Then they moved into some originals, including the very infectious Take it Higher – the first single release of the night. Take if Higher is has much more of a funky groove and the influences much more subtle.

The second original was an Indian influenced piece of music, that had been written for a Bollywood film. Shalimar the Clown showcased the very impressive finger work of Eden Ottignon, and was a completely different sound to all the music up until that point in the evening.

My favourite, however, was the very simple, scaled back yet forlornly melodic opening number of the second set, with just the piano and sax. Old school style at it’s best, a song by Sebastian Yirga.

Then it was into dance mode – the festivities were launched with the second single release of the night, ‘Mattaraja’ – with guest dancers, Miguel & Fenix, that can be seen in the film clip.

Next came some traditional Ethiopian dancers, in traditional dress, highlighting the seamless integration of the musical influences. The band members really enjoyed this number, and Ellen Kirkwood (trumpet), Ben Panucci (guitar), Dan Kennedy (drums) were delighting in the grooves.

It was a fun night with great music, and it’s well worth checking out Mister Ott on iTunes and even on old fashioned CD. The singles were mixed by Chris Townend and mastered by Grammy Award winner William Bowden. A more eloquent description of the musical style comes from the band itself: “an amalgamation of native melodies from many sources, blended with the free-form improvisation and syncopation for which African-pedigreed jazz is renowned.” If you’re looking for some new music, Mister Ott is not a bad place to start.


MEGAPHONE OZ – Lucy Kiely – June 13 2013 

Acclaimed jazz saxophonist Matthew Ottignon assured me that Saturday night’s launch of his new band Mister OTT would be “something a bit different for the 505 crowd”.

Despite his self-confessed “pretty standard” taste in jazz – John Coltrane, Wayne Shorte, Miles Davis, of course – Ottignon has found his latest and most profound inspiration in Ethiopian groove driven by heavy hip hop beats.

Mister OTT is clearly a project that has been brewing for some time now and one in which Ottignon is deeply invested. It draws on the music of the Éthiopiques collection as well as 90-year-old Ethiopian sax veteran Getatchew Mekurya.

Recorded live with vintage analogue equipment and mixed in a studio in the tranquil surrounds of the Tasmanian rainforest, Ottignon’s newest originals marry ancient Ethiopian scales and native melodies with free-form jazz improvisation and syncopation.

London-born, Auckland-raised and Sydney-trained, Ottignon tells me his relationship with music is “kind of hard to explain”.

“The enjoyment I get from performing is so strong that I want to perform as much as possible, to the point where I’d be quite happy rehearsing all day, gigging all night and jamming till four or five in the morning,” he tells me.

“But I’m so busy playing other people’s music that I’ve always had a strong desire to lead a band and write my own music.

“Sometimes you’re not sure if people will get it or whether you’re doing the right thing, but with this band I know I’m on the right track. It just feels right.”

Two nights later and 505 in Sydney’s Surry Hills is abuzz.

The mysterious burst of sonic energy that is Mister OTT is infectious. A jubilant three-piece horn section (led by Ottignon on sax), keys, bass, guitar, drums and percussion coupled with Ottignon’s masterful vision and ability makes for an outrageously good evening.

Having shared stages with Mike Nock and James Morrison, Ottignon is an old hand at jazz and ghosts of legends past resonate through every note that escapes his lips. But amidst the improvised jazz and Ethio-groove of Mister OTT are twists of reggae, ska, hip hop, Bollywood, seventies funk and sci-fi and they all come spilling forth through the rapturous sound coming from the stage.

The two original singles being launched – “Mattaraja” and “Take It Higher” – are punchy and primal. “Higher” is a dirty, funky organ number with a big bold brass-line, while “Mattaraja” is more of an intriguing, chilled-out funk, but they both go down a treat.

There are even hip hop dancers and two Ethiopian performers in traditional dress to liven up proceedings, and watching one of the hip hop dancer’s fruitless attempts to get my mum up on the dance floor is undoubtedly one of the highlights of my night.

The crowd that packs 505 is clearly in party mode and by the end of the evening most people are twirling and spinning ecstatically down the front with hip hop dancers Phoenix and Miguel.

It’s only after the third encore that people begin trickling out of the club, dancing their way down Cleveland Street and off into the night.


 CANBERRA JAZZ BLOG – Eric Pozza – Nov 15 2012

Matt Ottignon and his Ethio Groove project are playing just one part of the spectrum of African musics. Matt explained some of the background. Ethio Groove is a new development of Mulatu Astatke and that it first appeared in his compilation called Ethio Groove. Mulatu had studied jazz in London and performed with Latino musicians in New York before he returned to Ethiopia to develop his Ethio-jazz style.

To generalist ears, it’s based in the rhythmically intense musics of Africa, but Matt also talked of local scales (Wikipedia says modal pentatonic with long intervals and not tempered – Music of Ethiopia, in Wikipedia, viewed 14 Nov 2012) and styles of singing and specific rhythms. It’s certainly infectious and danceable. Matt himself stood rocking side to side, and although the audience were seated, there were plenty of tapping feet and nodding heads. Our Euro-reticence seems so out of place when this music gets a head of steam. It’s cleverly played and the solos are interesting, but it’s primarily physical and probably best appreciated on your feet.
Matt with his wildly syncopated heads and call and response solos. Luke S on the organ, with growling solos and choppy comping. Brother Eden O laying repeating lines, often oddly spaced, on electric or double bass and Luke K-B holding steady on some devilish repeated but irregular beats.

We were introduced to a rhythm from Tigré that crossed triplets with straight beats. Like jazz swing, this is something you learn to feel and it’s impossible to write. It’s like a language: you have to learn and it’s best learnt young. I could feel an underlying beat at heart-beat speed (120bpm) under most tunes, often four-to-the-floor on the 1-2-3-4, sometimes on 1-3 (I don’t think on the jazzy 2-4), but I tried to tap the bass lines a few times and it wasn’t in my vocabulary. Interesting that; understanding requires time and immersion, as does Matt’s rocking gait. It’s dancy so the immersion would be fun. Matt introduced the tunes and the performers, but it’s all Ethiopian to me. Other than one tune that was sung by two women with the Ethiopian Army Band. Or a mention of an 80-ish Ethiopian saxist playing punk in the Netherlands. Or when they took a turn sideways for some originals from Luke S and doubly so when they played a Pharoah Sanders tune that floated with bowed bass and piano arpeggios and cymbals and a rich and deep tenor tone. That was a change. But mostly it was the triplet feels and funky but stilted beats of Ethiopian groove and it was indulgent and immersive and physical.

This is really music for the body and soul, even if the intellect if satisfied. Matt Ottignon (tenor) led his Ethio Groove project which comprised Eden Ottignon (electric, acoustic basses), Luke Sweeting (organ, piano) and Luke Keanan-Brown (drums)


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