CD: Colors
Artist John Otott

john-otott-colors1As Cyndi Lauper sang in one of her iconic hit songs: “… don’t be afraid to let them show. Your true colors… are beautiful like a rainbow.” Pianist John Otott certainly lives by this advice, as evidenced in his latest release entitled Colors. According to John, many of the songs are inspired by his life events, conveying a true sense of meaning through music. Emotions provide the impetus for much of his composing and the piano is the perfect channel for his expression of them. In his words: “To me, it’s the most dynamic of all instruments. It can laugh for me, cry for me, talk for me and carry me to anywhere I envision.” In addition, he also enjoys letting his colors show on drums and percussion, as he does a bit on this recording.


Like so many recording artists and performers, music has been an important part of his life from an early age when he started playing piano. Although in high school, John became enamored with the bass guitar and played in a number of rock bands, including performances at well-known LA clubs such as The Roxy, The Troubadour, and The Whisky A Go-Go. As his musical talents progressed, John went on to play in a jazz-rock band that performed with a number of major artists such as Lyle Mays (keyboardist with Pat Metheny), Latin star Tania Maria, Grammy award winning sax player Gato Barbieri and Thelonious Monk Jr. As often happens, he came full circle back to the piano, which has been his main instrument and first love.


John’s debut album, Exit Reality, was recorded with violinist Julie Metz who plays with Yanni as well as The Pacific Symphony Orchestra. John subsequently released two more albums, Road Trip and Flying Machines, both of which were met with critical and chart success. There has been a span of time between his last album and the release of Colors, but as John shares: “Even if there are many years between my releases, I’m still quite musically active. I mean, like with john-otott1anything, my creativity ebbs and flows.” He goes on to say: “It feels great to actually release my music. Music is meant to be heard, right? I don’t want my compositions to be like that proverbial tree in the forest that made a sound when it fell…or did it… if no one was there to hear it?”


John makes a powerful opening statement on the first track, entitled “Tesoro,” as synthesizer strings swell, punctuated by dramatically placed thunderous drum hits. The piano sweeps in with an introductory melody before the song breaks into full orchestration. John’s background as a rock musician is evident in this section, while other parts reveal different facets of his musical spectrum. Although he is not classically trained and is, for the most part self-taught, John has absorbed a variety of influences in his playing and composition. This piece has a nice sense of dynamics as it moves through various motifs, ranging from bold to more delicate.


A few of the album’s tracks hold a particularly special meaning for John, and “The Wind Song” is one of them. Here he explains why: “My 14 year old daughter (Isabella) plays many of the violin tracks on this song (she was 13 when I recorded her). This was the first time we have worked together on a song and I wrote some of the violin parts specifically for her to play. I am very proud of her and she is really excited to be on a CD and to have people hear her!!” It’s a lovely piece and he has every right to be proud. The album’s title track was an interesting surprise for me. Perhaps because of the vivid color image on the cover, I was expecting it to be pianobright and energized. The mood however, is more subdued. While still quite “colorful,” the shades it is painted in express deep emotions and perhaps a hint of longing, especially in the beginning. Midway, as the orchestration kicks in, the piece lifts off with a grander feel as the strings accentuate the piano melody. John’s use of synthesizer orchestration here, and throughout the album, is exquisite, and adds just the right shadings to whatever he tints with it.


Another song that has a special meaning to John is entitled “A Memory,” written in reference to his mother who has Alzheimer’s. In John’s words: “This piece was not written with any thought towards song form or function. It is a direct conduit to the emotions I have felt during the last 6+ years. With this song, I attempt to convey sadness, incomprehension, hopefulness, anger, and helplessness. This piece is undoubtedly the purest metamorphosis of emotion into music that I have ever composed.” Listening to this track, I was deeply moved, and also impressed with how well John was able to convey these powerful emotions and give them such an expressive voice musically.


On the next track, “August and Life,” the clouds lift and the sun shines in this beautiful celebratory composition. This is the third piece that John notes as having a special meaning for him: “I actually wrote this song 14 years ago in celebration of the birth of my daughter, Isabella (born 8/15/2000). I dug it out of my song archives and included it on this CD. It is a very special song to me.” This piece also radiates deep emotions, this time joy and gratitude for the blessing of new life.


I was interested to hear John’s musical take on a song called “Santa Cruz,” since I live in the SanSantaCruzView Francisco Bay area and am familiar with that town and its unique energy. I think that he definitely nailed it and I could feel the power of the sea, the surf, and a wind-in-the-hair sense of adventure that I associate with Santa Cruz. That energy also carries over into a track called “Soaring,” which brings the album to a close. Perhaps my favorite song on the recording, it is also the least acoustic and features some tasteful electronic textures and bell sounds, along with a lofty piano solo in the middle. Its uplifting air provided the perfect finale to the palate of feelings this album represents.


Colors paints a bright picture of John’s skills as a pianist, composer, and arranger. This last aspect particularly caught my attention, in his perfectly attuned sense of when, and when not to, bring in strings and other instrumentation. In John’s words: “The songs on this album are what I like to call “emotionally orchestrated.” Strange term, I know. Although the songs are piano driven (except for “Soaring”), they are interwoven with string and keyboard arrangements that bring on a whole new level of musical dimension. And this is how I love to compose!” It certainly does add another dimension – one that gives Colors that extra bit of luminosity. John Otott’s Colors shines with captivating melodies, heartfelt sentiment, and exquisite artistry. Lets hope that the musical inspiration keeps flowing and that we don’t have to wait too long for John’s next release. I’ll be looking forward to that.