By George V. Nostrand
“The Jay Ottaway Band — Live in Europe,” album lays down a driving, rollicking sound right off the bat. It’s the type of CD where, when you put it in the player, it only takes a few notes before you’re turning up the volume dial. By the time the solo hits, you’ve cranked it up again — and realize that the person in the next lane is staring at you while you nod your head to the beat and play air-drums on your steering wheel.
Hearing this, you might not expect to learn that the band leader, Jay Ottaway, went from this live project to a recording that had its roots in the 19th century. But, roughly five years ago, Ottaway found himself walking out of a concert inspired and with a new idea. The concert was a performance of “Winterreise,” featuring lyrical poems by German poet Johann Ludwig Wilhelm Muller. These were set to music by Franz Schubert.
“In music school, I studied some of Dylan’s lyrics. He used a lot of old poetry and writings for inspiration,” explains Ottaway. “These thoughts and feelings from the 19th century are pertinent today…There are lines through history and I wanted to create something like this featuring contemporary music.”
Ottaway also joked that it was a great project for some of the harsh winters we have in New England.
He spent the next four years writing contemporary music and lyrics based on that series of songs.
Ottaway started by translating the poems from German to English. Then he worked them into something that he could fit with modern music. Rather than translate directly, he tried to follow the structure of the original lyrics with his own writing.
“It was great to be able to write a song and not have to start with a blank piece of paper. I started with a German poem, and then I would translate it and work it into a song form. Not one-to-one translation, but very inspired by the poems.”
After writing up the songs and putting them to music, Ottaway recorded scratch tracks, or rough versions of the songs, that he sent to Nashville. With his producer, he lined-up some well-known session players and sent them charts and notations for the songs.
Ottaway set the collection of 24 poems to country, rock ballads, blues, jazz and folk songs. There are several intentional threads — musically and lyrically — that run through the double album.
While he was not able to go down to Nashville for the sessions, Ottaway was able to listen live, through streaming audio. He could also chat via computer as the sessions were happening, and if need be, pick up the phone.
The album was mixed and mastered in Cologne, Germany, where Ottaway’s record label, Cactus Rock Records, is located. Ottaway has a lot of connections in Germany, as he spent time in school there, met his wife there, and travels back there several times a year — both to tour and visit family.
Nothing was spared on the packaging either. Ottaway’s family played a role in creating the work. A photograph taken by Ottaway’s father of a winter scene with barren trees and a split-rail fence running along the road spreads across the inside of the jacket. His mother recommended using the picture on the cover.
Ottaway is preparing once again to head over to Germany, to visit, play some music and pick up copies of his limited-edition record.
“I’ll save some money on shipping that way,” he laughs.
Find out more about Jay Ottaway at www.jayottaway.com. Copies of his new double CD version of this album are available at Howlin’ Mouse Records, on North Main Street in Rutland. Visit www.vermonttoday.com for audio recordings of the full interview, as well as music and video of Jay Ottaway.