A self-described "Lifetime New Yorker," Otter started playing the alto at age 11 before switching to tenor. He is a graduate of New York’s Performing Arts High School. At that point in his development, Ned says he was advised that what he needed to do next was to find "Someone like Frank Foster or George Coleman to show me how it was done, take me through all the keys." In an amazing synchronicity that was to have a profound impact on his life, the young Ned Otter met Big George shortly thereafter at a gallery opening in New York and began what he describes as his "Twenty-five year apprenticeship with George Coleman."
"I was invited to this gallery opening when I was 17, a senior in high school. This was 1976, and you have to remember that at this time there were no records out by George Coleman as a bandleader, so I had never seen any pictures of him. Actually, I was listening to his records with Miles Davis around then, and I really liked his playing. Anyway, so I’m at this party and there’s this band playing, and I don’t know who I’m listening to, but I’m thinking, ‘Wow, this guy sounds like George Coleman.’ My friend asked if I could come up and play with them, and George said yes. When it was over, we introduced ourselves, and when he said his name was George Coleman, I was so embarrassed! Here I’d been playing with George Coleman all this time, and I didn’t even know it."
From there, Otter says he began taking lessons from the great saxophonist, seeing him "About once a month at his place" for more formal instruction. At the same time Coleman was "Very generous in allowing me to sit in with him many times before I was ready to go out there on my own. I remember sitting in with the George Coleman Quartet in clubs around New York during1978-79, when the band had Hilton Ruiz on piano, Billy Higgins on drums and Calvin Hill playing bass." Otter describes their relationship as more like "Father and son, or mentor and disciple, than it is teacher and student. He refers to me now at 42 as his ‘not-so-young associate.’"
"We have a certain kind of connection musically because of our somewhat similar sensibilities. He’s of one the greatest players at moving a harmony behind a melody that you’re playing. There are times when we get together that something just happens, when as Billy Higgins used to put it, ‘That thing just comes in the room.’"
The late Billy Higgins is on the current album and on another session that Two and Four has slated for release next year. Of that latter session, Otter recalls "I remember Billy coming out from behind the drums when it was over and saying ‘Nice date!’ which made me feel really good; I rescheduled the date from an earlier time so that Billy could be on it. I could have hired another drummer, but I’d written some of the songs with Billy in mind and couldn’t imagine anyone else playing on them. The music, I mean it was always a great session, but it just seems really precious now that Billy is gone."
Harold Mabern is the featured pianist on that recording as well. "Mabe is my favorite pianist in the world. He’s played on every date I’ve ever recorded, and hopefully, on every date I will record. I hope he lives to be 120." Not that he’s the only pianist whose playing he admires; at the time I caught up with Ned, he was getting ready to embark on a mini-tour of Europe and one of the things he was really looking forward to was finally getting the chance to play on a couple gigs with Cedar Walton. "I’ve always loved his playing. It’s funny, I live in Manhattan, Cedar lives nearby in Brooklyn and we know a lot of the same people, but I’ve never played with him. It says a lot about the reality of trying to play jazz in America that I have to go to Europe to get to do it."
This reality is something he has to deal with both as a musician and as the leader of a jazz label. Two and Four came into being because Otter was "Dissatisfied" with the offers he had from other record labels. "One label offered to release an album featuring a selection from all the different sessions. Never mind that they featured different musicians and that the ones recorded by Rudy Van Gelder had a totally different sound than the other ones, and that a CD like that wouldn’t make any sense."
Both Two and Four releases have featured distinctive packaging, highlighted by beautiful photography by Jimmy Katz. "It’s more expensive to do it this way, but I came up with records and I hate the way CDs all look the same. I want Two and Four records to have their own style."
One thing Otter doesn’t want is for Two and Four to be perceived as or become a vanity label. "I’m pretty far away from making money on this, so right now I only have the bucks to promote my own stuff. I’ve had some conversations with Michael Weiss, a great pianist who’s worked a lot with Johnny Griffin, about recording for us. He’s another guy who’s a little reluctant to get more involved with the record business, yet wants to get his music out there."
"There’s a bass player named Jamil Nasser, he’s about the same age as George and Mabe, and he’s from Memphis like them-they form ‘the Memphis Contingent.’ When he first got to New York, he fell in with ‘Papa’ Jo Jones and, through him, got to play with Lester Young. He told him ‘Papa Jo sent me’ and that was enough. He was young, but Papa Jo and Lester liked him and said they could see he had ‘A lot of fight for this music’ in him."
"And it’s like a battle, trying to play jazz. This country has never properly supported this music. One good recent development has been that an educational structure has been developed to support a lot of musicians, but that also makes it more institutionalized. The amount of money it takes relative to people’s income to go out and hear jazz in New York really keeps young people out of the clubs. I want to do more to make jazz accessible to young people. I feel like music has called me to serve."
Ned Otter is fighting the good fight. With "Danger High Voltage," his Two and Four label treated jazz fans to a rare recording of the George Coleman Octet and his current "So Little Time," featuring his assured tenor alongside the always swinging Mabern and Higgins, is a treasure for a jazz world that is still mourning the loss of the great drummer. Future issues are scheduled to include another set from the Octet, as well as two more dates led by Ned Otter. I, for one, can’t wait.