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From alt-rock to jazz: Saxophonist/composer Chris Otts reveals musical evolution
(Published: January 25, 2016)

Q: When did you learn how to play sax and who taught you?

A: I began playing the saxophone in middle school. I remember starting the first day of sixth-grade band they had everyone try out all the different instruments. Trying out the saxophone felt comfortable to me, and I knew it was what I wanted to play. I started taking lessons a few years in from the main professional saxophonist in Augusta at that time, Joel Cruz.

Joel taught me all of the standard literature but the most important thing he provided, in addition to being one of my greatest mentors, was the opportunity to play regularly. From my early teens he would let me come to his jazz gigs and sit in for hours fumbling my way through the tunes and changes. My college mentor at Kennesaw State University was Sam Skelton, who taught me what it meant to be a professional musician and how to succeed in the extremely difficult music business. It also doesn't hurt that he is easily one of the five greatest saxophonists alive today.

Q: What inspired your passion for music?

A: I always loved listening to music growing up regardless of whether it was pop, rock, hip hop, etc. I actually didn't get exposed to jazz until I was almost a teenager. I remember when I was 12-years-old my uncle who always loved jazz music gave me my first record, Blue Trane. That's a pretty heavy record for an almost teenager to digest but I loved it even though I couldn't absorb how incredible it was and knew from that moment that I wanted to be a jazz musician.

Q: What artists influenced you the most while you were growing up?

A: I grew up during the whole '90s to 2000s alternative rock era and listened to that music constantly. Nirvana, Linkin Park, the Foo Fighters, just to name a few. I loved all of the era, and I still do to this day. My favorite part about that music is the incredible amount of raw energy that's being poured into it and that you can feel as a listener. That's what I strive for in my own music as a result of that.

In my later teenage years I was exposed to a lot more jazz music and started to obsess over great tenor players. I love listening to Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, and Sonny Rollins but my writing inspiration comes from some of the newer faces in jazz. Joshua Redman is without a doubt my favorite saxophonist, and Bob Reynolds is my favorite composer. The style and energy they both write and perform with is what I strive for every day in my own playing/writing, and I only hope that one day I can approach their level.

Q: Who are the other musicians in your group and how did you meet them?

A: Tyrone Jackson, piano/ co producer; Brandon Boone, bass; Andrew Lastrapes, guitar; Justin Chesarek, drums; Kati Stewart, vocals.

Each of these members are dear friends of mine and great musicians in the Atlanta music scene. We all met through my days in school at Kennesaw State.

Tyrone Jackson was a professor of mine at Kennesaw State University, whom I studied composition/arranging with privately. He's the person that convinced me to start writing music, and I am eternally grateful to him for starting me on the path of writing music. I also know that doing this album without his help would have been impossible as he guided me through every step of the process.

Brandon and I have actually gone to school together and played in bands all the way from middle school through college. All that experience playing and gigging together helped build a familiarity that really helped in the studio. Also, he's an incredible up and coming bass player on the scene and it made adding him to the album a no-brainier.

Andrew is a good friend from my Kennesaw State days with a unique jazz guitar sound. We went through the craziness of music school together and getting to hear him play all the time I instantly knew I wanted him to be a part of my music. In my band I see the guitar as more of a melody instrument to work with the saxophone and Andrew's ability to use his background as a rock guitarist that studied jazz provides a unique sound that I think brings a lot of energy to the melodies in my music.

Justin is the Jazz Percussion professor at KSU currently, in addition to working in the ATL scene. What drew me to want Justin in the band and on the album is his creativity as a writer and ability to add so much to each track. I am clueless when it comes to the drums so it felt like every rehearsal I would bring in a new tune, give Justin a general idea of the chords and melody, and then he would just come up with the perfect groove for each tune that I brought in. His versatility and creativity took the album to another level, and I can't imagine what my music would sound like without his contributions.

Kati and I met at Kennesaw where she was a choral education major and professional singer in the area. We've all been trying to convince Kati for years that she had an incredible voice and one that needed to be heard in the jazz scene. I wrote the vocal tunes on the album with her in mind and was thrilled when she agreed to come in and sing on the album. I remember in the studio the first vocal tune we tracked was "No Control." She came in, did one take, and that was the one. She's an incredible talent, and I'm glad I got her on my album before the rest of the world discovers her.

Q: What composition on Layers is the most personal to you and why?

A: This question was a tough one to answer because each composition that made the album means so much to me in a lot of different ways. Of course there are too many awful songs I wrote to talk about that didn't make the cut but we learn and move on from those. If I had to say one I think it would be "No Control." It was the first song I've ever written with lyrics, and I felt that it would be an impossible process when I started. I came up with the chords and the groove to the song first but I knew I had this theme of lacking control going in. I think it represented how I felt at that time in my life. I had just graduated college and that transition can really leave you feeling lost, directionless, and terrified of what's to come next.

The lyrics to "No Control" really reflect how I felt at that time waking up every morning and working on compositions for hours each day. I think that song really helped a lot and working on the compositions daily and having the goal of getting my music out there really got me through that rut. It kept me moving forward and staying productive.

Q: How has your music evolved over the years?

A: I'm really glad you asked this question because I've never stopped to reflect on this until now. Thinking of it now, I am really happy with how the music evolved and we've recently started performing some new tunes that have me really excited about the direction of the band.

I feel like I started out writing more straight-ahead jazz (my first couple of tunes were synthetic blue and internal struggle which are on the album) and then I started to experiment with the vocal tunes and the more rock-oriented instrumentals.

My goal is to reach a point where my music has the energy of the rock music I fell in love with growing up, the melodic content of pop music that I also enjoy, mixed with the harmonic possibilities of jazz music. And I really think we are headed to that point.

I'm excited about the new music we're working on, and I feel like every time we perform songs off the album they have more energy and have that rock/pop/jazz mix that I'm hoping people will enjoy.

More Information: http://www.chrisotts.com

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