Monthly Archives: January 2016

For Jeff Watts’ 56th Birthday, A DownBeat Article From 2002 and an Uncut Blindfold Test From 2004

In honor of master drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts’ 56th birthday, I’ve appended two pieces that it was my honor to write about him for DownBeat more than a decade. On top is a Downbeat feature piece written on the occasion of his second release, Bar Talk, in 2002 (the Zinc Bar, which figures prominently in the piece, was then on the north side of Houston Street). Below it is an uncut Blindfold Test that Jeff did with me in 2004.

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Jeff Watts (DownBeat):

When he isn’t on the road with Branford Marsalis, Michael Brecker or his own increasingly busy group, Jeff “Tain” Watts often plays in the cramped environs of Manhattan’s Zinc Bar, a low-ceilinged shotgun basement on the north edge of Soho where an international mix of New York’s finest workshop various projects. In the front section, patrons and waitresses vie for elbow room in a narrow aisle between a well-stocked bar and a long line of dime-sized banquette tables. The tables run past a 10’-by-5’ performance area between the waitress station and a sheetrock wall that conceals a pair of dimly lit restrooms. No matter how esoteric the material, the bands never stray too far from a groove of one diasporic origin or another, the better to keep the party going. Watts knows how to play the room and push the envelope as well as anyone.

The Zinc Bar’s skronky-cosmopolitan ambiance figures prominently in Bar Talk (Columbia), Watts’ 2002 release. Consider the CD’s cover photo. Shot in tones of boudoir red, Watts, in a leather jacket, perches over a drink, perhaps anticipating a round of conversation with Jean-Claude Rakotoniaina, a Madagascarian charmer and bon vivant who until recently mixed and poured $10 mojitos, caporinhas and martinis to a varied clientele. Watts signifies their profound banter—“He’d say, ‘Tain, you are the man’; I’d be like, ‘No, J.C., you know you’re the man!’”—on “JC Is The Man,” a singable five-note hook propelled by the drummer’s urgent, insouciant beat.

“Vodville,” which follows, celebrates another archetype of bar culture. Dedicated to the principle “in vodka, veritas,” it opens with onomatopoeic variations on “Giant Steps” by Branford Marsalis. This, Watts explains, “symbolizes the early stages of drunkenness, when guys suddenly are enlightened and aware of deep things.” There follows an abstract minor blues form where, “the conversation becomes more base; the time starts to slip around; the tempo speeds up; then the drunkard tries to make his way home, perhaps in denial about his drunkenness. In the third part the guy’s at home, drunk again, trying to cop a plea and pledging not to do this any more. Of course, the cycle starts all over again.”

For the remainder of Bar Talk, Watts eschews further exploration of the nuances of lush life. But he frames himself with an assortment of environments—a Brazil-inflected paean to Stevie Wonder; a tenor burnout by his two primary sources of income; a nasty blues; two harmonically luxuriant ballads; a post-bop evocation of Billy Higgins; even a contemporary-styled tune with a torchy lyric—that artfully convey the range of skills, predispositions and stylistic idiosyncracies that make Watts perhaps the most influential hardcore jazz drummer of his generation. He’s a storyteller, adept at extracting melodic motifs from challenging harmony and weaving his signature metric shifts and superimpositions organically into the form. He’s a drum virtuoso who plays with volcanic flash, but also intuitive taste, and he sustains a constant dialogue with bandmates Ravi Coltrane, David Budway and Paul Bollenbeck. On the heels of his 2000 leader debut, Citizen Tain, Bar Talk documents how deftly Watts, 42, has morphed himself from flow-shaping celebrity sideman to leader with an inclusive vision.

“I’m still trying to figure out what the hell I’m doing in general!” Watts exclaims with a raucous laugh from his spacious Brooklyn apartment. A video of the Miles Davis Quintet, circa 1967, flickers on the television. “I want to be able to interface with almost any type of musician. Stretch jazz vocabulary abstractly, but keep elements that are heartfelt and centered—music anyone can understand—and always keep what’s raw. I want to deal with the whole world rhythmically. As drummers, our prime function is rhythm. So we should know as many as we can.

“I’ve questioned my rationale for writing music or addressing stuff on the instrument that isn’t straightahead jazz,” he continues. “It took me a long time to resolve this. Maybe because I felt for so long like I was in the trenches trying to save the world with jazz, there’s an unspoken guilt about loving a simple song with three chords, or one groove and two fills. But when you analyze things in fusion or things Miles Davis did that people find questionable, often it comes down to a different base rhythm. But if there’s a dance and invention and interaction and a group sound and a certain level of quality, then the jazz thing is still there.”

Perhaps Watts retains a fresh attitude to jazz became he discovered it so late. Immersed in funk, r&b and fusion as a Pittsburgh teenager, he matriculated at Duquesne University as a classical percussion student, anticipating a future in the studios. Then he met Steel City trapset giant Roger Humphries, transitioned from a devotee of Billy Cobham, Mahavishnu and George Duke into, as he puts it, “a jazz head,” and transferred to Berklee College of Music. There, Watts encountered a cast of talented, ambitious peer-groupers—including Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison, Greg Osby, Kevin Eubanks, Wallace Roney, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Cindy Blackman and Gene Jackson—eager to investigate the future upon a solid bedrock of tradition. In the fall of 1981, Marsalis, aware that his trumpet-playing younger brother was looking for a drummer to play a few gigs, recommended his friend.

“I always felt that Tain was the guy,” Branford says. “I liked how he constructed his comping behind soloists at jam sessions. As opposed to being a complete, thorough historian of the music and playing all the right things at the right time, he played strange things at the right time, imposing his fusion influences on a jazz context. I appreciated that and thought it would be great for Wynton’s band.”

“My brother liked Tain,” Wynton Marsalis recalls. “There were no auditions. Kenny Kirkland had an apartment, and we started rehearsing. At that time, they knew about jazz and kind of liked it, but they were mainly into fusion. I was into jazz. I liked Tain because he was funny, but he has a phenomenal level of talent and intellect. He’s a master of form, with perfect pitch and tremendous reflexes. Over the years, he developed a vocabulary that only he plays. All those pieces with time changes and different meters came from playing off of him, because he could do it. It forced me to shape my lines that way, too.”

“When Wynton started his thing, we stepped up the learning game,” Branford says. “Tain talked to Tony Williams and hung out with Art Blakey. He hooked his stuff up. When we first got to New York, he didn’t know how to play four-on-the-floor. His cymbal sound was OK, kind of splashy. He would hit the cymbal for hours, getting that together. Then he spent time learning Max’s stuff, then Art Blakey’s, one person by one person. The more you do that, the more sophisticated your language becomes, so eventually you can play almost anything. But on top of that, he was doing it his own way.”

Watts describes himself as less apt to break down his major influences stroke-for-stroke than to create something that outlines their essence. “Perhaps I’ve helped people to operate within the tradition but also independently of the tradition,” he notes. “Early study in jazz drumming tends to focus on bebop because it was so codified. Each guy had a signature vocabulary—a certain set of licks—that you can use to try to create the illusion of being melodic over a form. You can get hung up on someone like Philly Joe Jones, and it dictates how you approach a tune. I gravitated to drummers like James Black, Ben Riley, Frankie Dunlop and Papa Jo Jones, who aren’t out of any specific bag, but just swing and make commentary. This freed me up. Wynton pretty much specifically asked me to find things that Tony Williams didn’t play. We used that music and got ideas from it, but it was important to work on a voice.”

That voice has inspired two generations of esthetic descendants as a gateway into jazz lineage. Watts combined the vocabulary of Billy Cobham and Narada Michael Walden with the vocabulary of Elvin Jones and Tony Williams. He found ways to codify the equations of metric modulation, or pure polyrhythm (Vinnie Colaiuta defines this as “playing an alienated group of notes evenly dispersed throughout a given number of beats”), into a consistent improvisational style. “During my second year at Berklee, I skimmed Gary Chaffee’s books and figured every polyrhythm that I would need,” Watts says. “Once again, rather than learning all the specifics, I made my own decisions. That informed the more linear style of my earlier playing with Wynton.

He sings a rhythm with an abstracted second-line feel to demonstrate his point. “Kenny Kirkland would comp that a lot in Wynton’s band to give things a disjunct feeling. People call it playing five, but it isn’t. It’s playing eighth notes grouped in five; it goes over the bars, resolves in a different place, and makes the music flow differently. By 1984, I wanted to do some things that transcended jazz vocabulary, and I started to experiment, play a pure five beats or seven beats over four beats or three beats. To this day, a few recordings are really radical on that end, like Live At Blues Alley and parts of Marsalis Standard Time, Vol.1, as well as Gary Thomas’ first record and Geri Allen’s The Nurturer. It’s like a 20th century classical music device, and it’s evolved and become more complex. People aren’t afraid now to use pure polyrhythm for the ensemble or for soloing.”

Still, the fact that Watts became a household name among jazz cognoscenti during the first decade of his career had less to do with what he played than with whom he played it. He remained with Wynton Marsalis until 1987, went on the road with George Benson and McCoy Tyner, rejoined forces with Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland after their sojourn with Sting, and moved with them to Los Angeles in 1992 for what became a three-year stint on Jay Leno’s “The Tonight Show.” Out of the fray, Watts began to compose, figuring out ways to translate his take on modern trapset vocabulary into the compelling narrative he presents on Bar Talk.

“I had fun for maybe the first year-and-a-half—and then it became a job,” Watts relates. “I was in purgatory. But looking back, it was almost like a paid sabbatical. Wynton was always encouraging me. He said, ‘Write it, and if it’s halfway done, we’ll play it and make it right.’ But I didn’t have a lot of theoretical knowledge, and I was shy about composition for a long time. If I’d stayed in New York I might not have had the time to open myself up and pursue it. Being denied a lot of playing opportunities and access to a pool of musicians made me focus on other routes. And living next door to Kenny Kirkland was not a bad impetus.”

“Kenny and Jeff would work from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., then they could leave and do whatever the hell they wanted,” Branford says. “They were always in one another’s houses. Kenny had the Mac set up with the software, Tain would go in, and they would just write tunes, work on things, and play gigs from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m., maybe get a full eight hours sleep, and still wake up in time to get to work.”

During the ’80s, Watts had supplemented polyrhythmic explorations with tutorials in Afro-Cuban music from Kirkland; these led to marathon master class listening sessions and occasional gigs with Jerry and Andy Gonzales. He continued his homework in L.A.’s dynamic Latin community. “I sat down with people, got some specifics and actually implemented the vocabulary,” Watts says. “Playing Latin music is a bridge to an African sensibility. It helps you get away from bar lines and conventional phrases; you feel a basic heartbeat, but then you cut it up. You have the freedom to create from nothing—a personal world of music with just the drums.”

Watts resettled in New York in 1995, well-prepared to tackle the Pan-American rhythmic mix of Danilo Perez, with whom he played and recorded for two years. “Tain had done enough homework where now it was just a matter of execution,” Branford says. “He was able to apply what he had already peeped and find out if things worked or not. Danilo was smart enough to hear that Tain would bring more of a jazz dynamic than most Afro-Cuban drummers.”

“People will always emphasize authenticity,” Watts says. “But some Latin and quasi-ethnic folk call me because they also want something that doesn’t sound like what they’ll get from somebody from their country. Now I’m not afraid to add some American stuff or things I make up. People are taking chances compositionally, and you want to make it sound real within the first 10 minutes, to let them know they’re on the right track.”

Watts put some Tainian mojo on a recent no-rehearsal hit at the Zinc Bar with an Afro-Jazz sextet led by Nigerian-American bassist and Jazz Messenger alumnus Essiet Essiet. He propelled the band with four-limbed variations on a set of vernacular juju rhythms that Essiet had shown him a few years earlier, ratcheting the intensity, conjuring from the trapset a sound not unlike that of the talking drum choir with King Sunny Ade and his African Beats.

His playing recalled a comment by Brecker, Watts’ frequent employer since 1997 and himself an avid drummer. “Tain has come up with a new language on the drums,” Brecker says. “When I’m not playing, I stand next to him every night, transfixed, and hope some of it will sink in. Sometimes I think I understand it, then when I sit down at the drums, I can’t do it.”

On “Like A Rose,” the final track of Bar Talk, Brecker constructs an ingenious variation on a stutter-step rhythmic modulation that occurs after the bridge, a construction inspired by Meshuggah, a Swedish heavy metal band Watts admires. The leader brings forth his soulful alter ego, Juan Tainish, to sing an affecting lyric reflecting the side of Watts “that’s almost corny, that loves unapologetically sweet things, like Stevie Wonder and Elton John ballads.” He wrote it on the road last year after a nostalgic conversation with Sting – appropriately, at the bar – at the Central Park after-concert party during Sting’s Desert Rain tour.

Watts and Sting go back to Sting’s ‘80s quasi-jazz period with Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland, when Watts unsuccessfully auditioned for the band. “In those years, when I was immersed in jazz, I listened to a lot of things, but kept a mental log rather than actually address stuff I’d want to incorporate into a contemporary style down the road,” he says. “Branford had been telling me about the audition for months. But I was a wild and crazy guy, and as the months went by I was just in the street doing my thing and doing my jazz gigs. The night before, I went to Branford’s house, grabbed four Police records, put them on cassette, went to the rehearsal the next day and jammed with Sting, Darryl Jones and Branford. To make that transition at that point of my life, I would have had to spend some time.”

Fifteen years later, Watts remarks: “I want to practice a lot, and see what happens if I’m studious and conscientious. I might as well find out before I’m 50. Most of what I’ve done has been through musicianship as opposed to technique. I want to change my approach and get better purely in a drumming way; instrumentally, I want to refine everything and not be limited by lack of preparation.”

Well aware of what he’s accomplished, Watts anticipates his next phase. “Dave Holland said in Down Beat a few years ago that he writes tunes, records them and plays them on the road to find out what he can do on them. He uses that knowledge to determine what he writes later. I look forward to being in that artistic cycle. I get a percentage of it from my very close sideman associations, because I usually end up shaping the rhythm. But being able to write stuff, get it recorded and play it with people you choose—having control entirely over your musical world—is a cool thing.”

 

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Jeff Watts Blindfold Test (2004):

1. Chucho Valdes, “Sin Clave Para Con Swing” (from NEW CONCEPTION, Blue Note, 2002) (Valdes, piano, composer; Yaroldy Abreu Robles, congas; Lazaro Rivero Alarcón, bass; Ramses Rodriguez Baralt, trap drums) – (2-1/2 stars)

That’s like some quasi-progressive, Latin-based… I guess a lot of stuff that I began to become aware of maybe in the early ‘90s, people utilizing odd time signatures but still retaining clave structure. It comes into some of my writing, some arrangements I do, and of course, on “The Impaler.” It’s stuff I got from talking with various, mostly Cuban musicians, and also stuff that Danilo Perez started to experiment with, maybe in conjunction with but maybe as a reaction to stuff that was going on in Cuba. It’s a logical progression. If you have Latin jazz musicians listening to early jazz… It’s mostly a combination of fusion and what happened with jazz in New York in the ‘80s, stuff that we were experimenting with in Wynton’s group, and also Steve take on permutations of structure and time. So it’s a natural progression with Latin jazz musicians to try to use this to get to something else or whatever. Sometimes it really works and it feels natural; sometimes it can be kind of gimmicky. But I think that the end result of this experimentation will be down the road, probably in the next five or ten years.

But this particular one? It was cool. There’s kind of a problem that exists with…well, even in a lot of jazz tunes. Not enough of the material that’s used for the exposition is actually improvised on. And it’s cool. It’s not etched in stone. Something can be an introduction to something, to take you into a vibe, and then cats can solo on whatever material they choose. I kind of prefer when it actually uses some of the material that’s in the exposition. But it’s fine. I really don’t know who it is, though. Pianistically, it didn’t sound strong enough to be someone like Chucho, but then again, it could be. And I’m not familiar enough with his writing to say that it’s him. It’s definitely not Danilo. It didn’t strike me as being someone like Ed Simon or even Luis Perdomo. Those are the obvious culprits that come to mind. I’m not really sure who it is. It was just coming from a whole lot of places. Then there’s the little swinging kind of section on one chord that comes in, and it’s just kind of there… I’d be interested to know if this is part of a suite or if it’s just a straight-out composition.

The drums were fine. It’s not someone like El Negro, and I don’t think it’s Robbie Ameen, and I’m very sure that it’s not Dafnis. There’s like a couple of different schools of this type of drumming that are around. Those guys I just mentioned, even though they have very different styles, were they want the drumset to come from is more folkloric, as opposed to… From the sound and instrument choices, this feels like someone reinterpreting, for an example, I’ll say Dave Weckl’s contribution to that style or whatever. It’s more of a fusiony style, more somehow American-sounding than folkloric sounding, just from the choices of drums and cymbals and the way that they played. Do I have to give this stars? [LAUGHS] Unfortunately, 2 stars compositionally and 3 for the performance. So 2-1/2 stars. [AFTER] It was Chucho?!!? Sorry, bro. It’s from his last record ? I’ll pick it up. I know there’s some stuff on there somewhere.

2. Donald Harrison, “Heroes” (from HEROES, Nagel-Heyer, 2004) (Harrison, as, comp.; Ron Carter, b; Billy Cobham, d) (2-1/2 stars)

Kind of a little poem. The alto was the antithesis of a Kenny Garrett or someone like that. It’s kind of a folky and open vocal sound kind of thing. The approach reminds me of Miguel Zenon or someone like Myron Walden, but I don’t really think it’s either of them, and I can’t venture a guess on who it is. The drums? There’s more than a handful of guys now who are coming out of a Jack DeJohnette type of thing or whatever. When I hear that sound, I kind of grade it on a different scale. I look at it creatively as opposed to looking for a serious swinging thing. And I can safely say that this was not swinging at all, so I have to throw that out immediately. But it’s cool. Because a lot of stuff that I really, really enjoy by Keith Jarrett is not swinging in the traditional sense. So it doesn’t necessarily not mean a thing! Imagine playing that for Lou Donaldson!!! But anyway, it’s cool. It’s not my flavor. I probably would have played it like a little groovier or put some kind of thing on it. It kind of floats around, and then it starts walking. It never gets to a real THING, which is cool. It could be something from Europe that I haven’t heard, from the ‘70s or something like that, or it could be something from almost anywhere now that I haven’t heard. But it’s loose and open, and sound-wise and melody-wise it felt like it was trying to come from a folky kind of place—an earthy place. But whenever it was time for the drums to do something besides kind of swing, like to actually play some stuff, it felt like he was just trying to see what he could fit into that space as opposed to trying to speak or groove or whatever. But it’s cool. Should I try to be generous? I should be honest. 2-1/2 stars. [AFTER] Oh, Billy!!! No!!! No!!!! I didn’t say anything bad about Ron Carter. Donald Harrison? Are you serious? I’m glad you didn’t tell me before, because it would have influenced me, because I would have been merciful to Billy in some capacity. That just wasn’t it, man. And everybody knows he can do it. If he keeps doing this for a couple of years, it will be a whole nother thing. I love him so much. He’s so important to me, man. I can’t kiss his ass enough. But damn, Bill! He’s trying to do his thing, man. It’s cool.

3. Baby Dodds, “Spooky Drums, No. 2” (from TALKING AND DRUM SOLOS, Atavistic Unheard Music Series, 1946/2003) (Baby Dodds, solo drums) (3-1/2 stars)

Nice press roll. Felt pretty good. The character of it sounds like some early jazz stuff. My first thought was of somebody like a Baby Dodds vibe. I don’t think it’s Big Sid. Chick Webb came to mind, but it didn’t seem virtuosic enough for him. He feels a little more aggressive than that. It sounds like an older drummer, but something about the kit sounded like it was maybe something later in their career, because it sounded like there were at least three tom-toms. That’s about it. It was cute. It could easily be somebody I love, but it sounds like it’s later in their career or something like that. Or it could be Cyrille or someone like that, who is more associated with the avant-garde, kind of messing around with an older style. 3-1/2 stars. [AFTER] Oh, my first thought. Get down, Tainish!! Go ahead!! What year is it? So it’s late in his career. I’m BAD, man!!

4. Stefon Harris, “Red-Bone, Netti-Bone” (from EVOLUTION, Blue Note, 2004) (Harris, vibraphone; Marc Cary, keyboard; Casey Benjamin, as; Anne Drummond, fl.; Darryl Hall, bass; Terreon Gully, d; Pedro Martinez, percussion) (3 stars)

Lovely. Oh, yes, indeed, a very fine selection. I’m not really sure who it is. The Rhodes kind of puts it in a time space, but then as I listened to the drum sound, with the thicker hi-hats and higher snare, it put it later—like at least late ‘80s to today. The presence of the mallet instrument, the vibes or marimba or whatever, put me in mind of the Caribbean Jazz Project, but it doesn’t have to be that. At first the alto put me…it didn’t put me anywhere. It sounded like a few guys. But when he went to the altisimmo, then it put me in mind of Paquito, obviously. The tune is cool. It’s kind of good for summer festival listening, have a couple of rum drinks and walk around and look at some bikinis and stuff like that. It serves its function. The tune is cool. It’s fine. It’s not trying to be ground-breaking. It’s just an excuse to have a good time. The arrangement was cool. It was pretty much all in clave. And I have no idea who it is. There’s a lot of other Latin Jazz I would purchase first, but it’s fine. But maybe it’s the drummer’s thing. Then I would look at it differently. It’s not? Well, it could be Mark Walker or someone like that. That’s who I thought of. [You thought it was a Latin band.] Didn’t have to be. They had a couple of breaks that… I mean, I know them, so they can’t be that deeply folkloric! But it’s cool. A very hefty 3 stars. [AFTER] That’s Blackout? Really? Well, with those guys, that’s not bad. I’m sure there’s some funky stuff on the record and other stuff. Pedro Martinez sounded good, and for that to be Terreon, that’s really cool. He just called me right before you came. He’s up the street having some soul food. It was well done, and over the scope of the whole record and what Stefon is trying to do, it’s fine. Terreon took a lesson from me when he was in high school, and his attitude was really cool. He’s staying really open, and he functions pretty decently in a number of contexts. I guess his real strength right now is he can really play some up-to-the-minute hip-hop and funk and stuff like that. He checks out what people program, and also a lot of R&B, so he’s up on some Timbaland and stuff like that, trying to get that effect and those sounds on the drums. So this level of Latin drumming from him, that’s pretty good.

5. Cyrus Chestnut, “Minor Funk” (from SOUL FOOD, Atlantic, 2001) (Chestnut, p; Christian McBride, b; Lewis Nash, d) (3 stars)

That was cool. I’m a lot more liberal than in the past. Everybody has to do what they have to do to get to what they’re tryin’a do! Piano trio. Tasty. People that can all play. It was tight. I don’t know what to think about it. There’s something about that that’s cool. It was trying to have that standard of whatever it is that the piano trio has, that sound or whatever. It’s almost like it was trying to break through its traditional gloss and be a little bit modern at the same time. It didn’t really work like that, but I could feel it kind of trying to break out of those confines. Cool tune. Snappy. Peppy. I have no idea who the pianist is. But he sounded good. The bass player sounded good. The drummer’s like a younger person, but somebody that’s heard Philly Joe, knows about that, and has good hands. For some reason, I don’t think… It’s not Lewis Nash. Greg Hutchinson came immediately to mind for some reason. He came to mind, and with some of the stuff that was happening on the cymbals, I thought about Winard Harper, and at the beginning, before I heard the sound of the cymbals and the cymbal beat, I thought of Billy Drummond for just a second, but I don’t think it’s him. I dug the solo more than the actual stuff in the rhythm section. They were playing beboppy things, but once in a while, some of the independence would indicate someone has heard some stuff that’s more modern. But then at the same time, it had a skippy kind of cymbal beat, swinging, but it’s not completely laying it down at that tempo. But I’m sure it’s somebody I really like. I’m stuck in that 3 star zone. It’s cool. [AFTER] Wow! Nash. Okay. I guess I haven’t listened to Lewis in a long time. I thought it was him, but then I felt like it wasn’t. I knew it was somebody who good, though, professional and cool. There’s kind of a bouncy thing that drummers play whenever the tempo gets reasonably fast, and the challenge of it is to have… Even though you’re skipping in between the primary notes, the challenge is to have that quarter note really laying with the bass and stuff like that. And it didn’t seem like it was quite doing that. The grace notes were bounced out as opposed to being articulated. It makes you have to lean on the bass a little bit. I just didn’t associate that with Lewis. Well done. That makes me see the tune in a different way. It’s a good blowing tune, but the melody is actually almost like some funk or something like that. I guess you could put it in the hardbop zone.

6. James P. Johnson, “Victory Stride” (from THE BLUE NOTE JAZZMEN, Blue Note, 1944/1998) (James P. Johnson, p., comp; Ben Webster, ts; Vic Dickenson, tb; Sidney deParis, tp; John Simmons, b; Sid Catlett, d) (5 stars)

Early ‘50s? I don’t know what it is! The tenor player could be Coleman Hawkins. But I have glaring holes in my knowledge of early jazz. The drummer was great. He’s easily one of the great ones, whoever he is. When this vibe is on… Papa Jo comes to mind, even though a lot of the stuff I have him in, he’s already moved on to the ride cymbal as opposed to the hi-hat, so I don’t have enough examples of him wearing that thing out. But the touch and the wit reminded me of him. It could be some old guy from New Orleans that I haven’t really checked out. But it felt like that. The tune is fine. Just some real swingin’, swingin’ stuff, man. The cats are completely in control. The tune is cool. It could be a riff written on another tune. But that’s what it’s about. That shit was swingin’. I’m sure some people had fun dancing to it, too. The level is pretty obvious. I don’t want to be like because this is some old, bad shit, I’m going to give it 5 stars, but I know it’s on a certain level, so I’m just going to do it. [AFTER] That’s Big Sid?!! Damn. Well, I said somebody from New Orleans. He’s from Chicago!? Well, you got me. It’s somebody bad. Somebody playing the drums. Big Sid. Ben Webster!? Oh, man, I’m all jacked up. I’m all messed up. I have a good record with these things. I don’t like this. It’s fair game, though. The only recording I have with Big Sid is Pops’ Symphony Hall. I guess I’ve heard too much of Ben Webster playing ballads and not enough of him just all-out swinging. You got me. It’s cool.

7. Andrew Cyrille, “AM 2-1/2” (from C/D/E/, Jazz Magnet, 2001) (Cyrille, d; Marty Ehrlich, as; Mark Dresser, b) (3-1/2 stars)

Ah, tricky-tricky! I thought it was good! I thought that was kind of cool. Everybody sounded good, I thought. The obvious thing when you hear an alto and the piano isn’t there, you think of an Ornette vibe. But it had that vibe, in a more tonal kind of way. I liked everybody on there, and I thought the song was cool. It feels like it comes out of the Ornette kind of conception, but it’s more contemporary. But it had that sound. I liked the drummer. He was tasty and light and cool. He was playing some simple stuff that was cool. It reminded me of Higgins, in a way. It almost sounded like it could be him, but later. But something tells me it’s not. I don’t know who it is. 3-1/2 is not terrible, right? It was pretty good. A nice 3-1/2. [AFTER] Really? Wow, that’s cool. They had a nice vibe on it. The composition was cool. It was cool.

8. Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez & Robby Ameen, “The Moon Shows Red” (from EL NEGRO AND ROBBY AT THE THIRD WORLD WAR, American Clave, 2002) (Ameen & Hernandez, drums; Jerry Gonzalez, tp; Takuma Watanabe, arrangement, string direction; Hiroyuki Kolke String Quartet) (4 stars)

That was kind of fresh. The rhythm was interesting. Sounds like two drumsets playing together. The strings were kind of hip. It had an experimental quality to it. It would actually be nice in a film. I don’t know what kind of scene. But there’s a lot of activity. It’s pretty obviously Jerry Gonzalez! [LAUGHS] My teacher, who I love so much. It’s great. It’s finding more vehicles for expession, and it’s cool. Of course, he’s a master conguero and bandleader. But he has a distinctive trumpet tone and style. I’m not sure if this is his record or not, though. I haven’t heard how deep he’s gotten with his flamenco thing. But they were trying to do something. I liked it. There was a lot of stuff going on, but it wasn’t random, and it had a vibe. The two drumsets give it a looseness but also a steadines. I’ll give it 4 stars. [AFTER] Is it like “Deep Rumba”? Oh, it’s their record. I like those things Kip Hanrahan does with Robbie and Negro. I have a few of those “Deep Rumba” things. Nice piece of music.

9. Fly, “Child’s Play” (from FLY, Savoy, 2004) (Jeff Ballard, d; comp; Mark Turner, ts; Larry Grenadier, b) (4 stars)

Wow. That was very cool. Some more tasty, Latin-based music. He had a lot of stuff going on. I don’t know what to think about that. At the beginning, the horn had an alto type of flavor, but then as the solo went on, it sounded more like a tenor, and just the way he was playing reminded me, for some reason, of Joe Lovano, but I don’t think it was him. Somehow it could be David or someone like that. It sounds like this branch of that music. The drummer definitely reminded me of Antonio Sanchez, for some reason, in the choices that he makes. For that music, these days, he’s kind of like the Tony Williams of that school. He tends to play drums a bit more open-sounding, cymbals that are less dry, and he tries to control their attack with the stick pressure. I liked the stuff at the beginning, with the kalimba and things like that for texture. It was a really good performance, so 4 stars. [AFTER] Really! Wow, that’s Ballard! There you go. They made some music, it’s cool.

10. Marcus Roberts, “Cole After Midnight” (from COLE AFTER MIDNIGHT, Columbia, 2001) (Roberts, p; Thaddeus Exposé, b; Jason Marsalis, Leon Anderson, d) (3-1/2 stars)

Stumped once more. Not a clue. But it’s one of those things that’s in two places at the same time. The sound in most of the playing feels like an older guy, who’s pretty proficient on the piano, but the structure of it is kind of different from a time standpoint. It’s like they’respending 12 beats on each chord, which gives it a different feeling. It still has a nice feel to it. The drummer for the most part is functioning like a percussionist, just giving it little accents. He doesn’t really lay down very much functional time until right before the end. But it sounds like some kind of early experimental group. Sounds like early ‘60s, in a way. They were trying to mess around with some stuff. It’s an older vibe with a little twist on it. I enjoyed it. 3-1/2 stars. Who the hell is that?

11. Ramón Vallé, “Kimbara pá Ñico” (from NO ESCAPE, ACT, 2003) (Valle, p., comp; Omar Rodriguez-Calvo, b; Liber Torriente, d) (3-1/2 stars)

It’s a Latin fiesta here. The writing is kind of modern and cool. The playing is loose. It’s in clave, but it’s kind of loose, like a jazz kind of texture on it. Some of what the piano player is playing reminds me of Danilo, but for some reason I don’t feel it’s him. But the architecture of his solo reminds me of him. I don’t know who anybody is. But I liked it, and I’ll give it my hefty 3-1/2 star rating. [AFTER] More of them damn Cubans! He sounds like he’s listened to Danilo. Sounds like he checked him out, definitely.

12. Chick Corea & Three Quartets, “Quartet No.2, Part 1” (from RENDEZVOUS IN NEW YORK, Concord, 2001) (Corea, p, comp; Michael Brecker, ts; Eddie Gomez, b; Steve Gadd, d)

It’s a live recording. Pretty obviously Michael Brecker or someone who loves him deeply. So Mike is there. At first it sounded like a piano improvisation, then everything came in. There were some harmonies that were extracted from Monk, but then it went to a few different places. Other than that, the bass solo was somebody. I couldn’t really place them. At first, I thought it was Patitucci or someone like that, but as it went on… I have no idea who this could be. The only thing I could think of was perhaps a live version of Charlie Haden’s group or someone like that. [Any idea who the piano player is?] No, I don’t. I really have no idea. The drummer sounds like somebody I know and probably like, but as soon as they started swinging, he was playing kind of an open hi-hat on all four beats, and at that tempo, that’s kind of strange. So I’m thinking it’s a younger guy trying to do something to make it different. They were going for it, but something about it makes me want… Michael took a nice solo. The piano player can play. 3-1/2 stars. [AFTER] I should know that. And that did come to mind. That’s well within Gadd’s style. But it didn’t sound like Chick to me. Cool.

13. Dave Douglas, “Catalyst” (from STRANGE LIBERATION, RCA, 2003) (Douglas, tp., comp.; Bill Frisell, g; Chris Potter, ts; Uri Caine, keyboards; James Genus, b; Clarence Penn, d.)

The drums were cool. The drums were right in between kind of playing some fusiony rock influenced stuff, but kind of loose. It was never really like locked-in. But I think that’s the effect they were going for. Easily some Miles “Bitches Brew” influenced stuff. Obviously not Miles. The guitar reminded me of Scofield for a second. The tenor player reminded me of someone like Chris Potter, so my off the top of my head guess would be some Dave Douglas type stuff. But I’m not really sure. It could be a lot of people. I don’t have Dave’s records where he experiments with that; I’ve just been reading stuff about that direction being there in one of his many bands. I couldn’t guess as far as the drummer’s identity. It was kind of splashy and loose, and kind of in a groove—not really in a serious, serious groove. 3 stars. [AFTER] Clarence Penn. That would match my guess. The thing about the drums that made it contemporary, something as simple as hearing a splash cymbal. Clarence is cool. He usually plays the appropriate thing. He can be creative, but then he can play out of bags and stuff like that, and that’s cool. But the bass definitely sounded like James to me. It had that air, that little excitement that was around that period of Miles. It got that color.

14. Horace Silver, “The African Queen” (from THE CAPE VERDEAN BLUES, Blue Note, 1965/1989) (Silver, p., comp; Woody Shaw, tp; Joe Henderson, ts; Bob Cranshaw, b; Roger Humphries, d) (5 stars)

Thanks for the gift. That’s got to be Horace Silver with Joe Henderson, and I guess that’s Woody Shaw, and I’d think you’d give me some Roger Humphries. Something about the crispness and the different style of placed me in that direction. I only have SONG FOR MY FATHER, and I’m not sure if this is on that or CAPE VERDEAN BLUES or whatever else Roger recorded with him.it was good for me to grow up seeing somebody like Roger Humphries. At the time I grew up, there was a big separation between this mythological world of jazz musicians and what was actually going on at the time. Because a lot of people didn’t come through Pittsburgh then. Prior to my moving to Boston, Roger was the prime evidence of there being virtuosos in the world who played the music. Actually, right after I first found out who Bird was and who Trane was and started to listen to that stuff, my pianist, David Budway, told me, “Well, if you want to learn to play this stuff, there’s a guy who lives on the North Side who will take you as a student.” It was Roger Humphries. His number was in the phone book, and I called him, and I went to his house. Mostly we just talked, and he showed me a few things, and I’d practice and he’d be across the room shooting pool with his friends. Then I’d go to his gigs and watch him. He chose to be in Pittsburgh and deal with his family, and yet still, I can say that there’s no one substantially greater on the drums today. Roy Haynes sounds better than ever in his seventies, and Elvin Jones the same way, but there’s not a significant difference between them and Roger Humphries. He makes me proud to be from Pittsburgh and all that stuff. He’s a beautiful person. Very much involved in education today, making sure that people understand the essence of what the music is about and that they have a good time with it. He gives them a good reason to love it. I gave Sid Catlett 5 stars, right? I’ll give this 5 stars, just because!

You got me, bro. You got me a couple of times. That’s all right. I’ll be ready next time.

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For Chris Potter’s 45th Birthday, a Downbeat Feature From 2008, a Jazziz Feature From 2006, and an Uncut DB Blindfold Test From 2000

For the virtuoso saxophone maestro Chris Potter’s 45th birthday, I’ve posted a pair of articles —one from 2008 for DownBeat, the other from 2006 for Jazziz — and an uncut version of a DownBeat Blindfold Test from 2000. Here’s a link to a piece that appeared in the December 2014 edition of DownBeat to mark Potter’s award as Best Tenor Saxophonist in that year’s Critics Poll.

 

Chris Potter DownBeat Article, “No Going Back”:

“It’s interesting how different people think,” said Chris Potter, a day before leaving New York City, his home base, for a five-week world tour. “Or, how the same thought has a different feeling from one language to another and how it’s connected. Figures of speech that translate directly into different languages, and things that don’t, and why.”

Perhaps Potter developed this idea while anticipating his impending linguistic itinerary—two weeks with the Dave Holland Quintet in Japan, South Korea and Australia, then three weeks of one-nighters in Spain, Belgium and Scandinavia with his Underground quartet.

“The way you think is connected to the way you express it,” he said. “Language is a vehicle for thinking, and there are many thoughts that we can only think because we have this tool. It’s as much about the way you organize your thoughts as it is to communicate. I see a relationship between this and music, although music is much more abstract. Rimsky-Korsakov and Duke Ellington might express a similar mood and be thinking in a similar frame of mind, but the way they express that frame of mind is determined by the musical language they work in.”

Given the events of the previous 24 hours, it was admirable that Potter was awake and lucid for a lunchtime interview, much less honing in on abstract matters. First, he was a newlywed, having gotten married on the previous morning before a Manhattan magistrate. Then he’d risen at the crack of dawn to take his wife to Kennedy Airport for a 7 a.m. flight to Budapest, her hometown, where she stayed for the duration of the tour. He had yet to pack, and wanted to buy a few books for the road. He had a gig in the evening at Iridium with clarinetist Eddie Daniels, a friend since he heard Potter, then a teenage wunderkind out of Columbia, S.C., at a jazz camp two decades ago.

Around that time, Red Rodney, Charlie Parker’s trumpet foil at the cusp of the ’50s, did a one-nighter in Columbia, invited the local hero to sit in for a tune and wound up keeping him on the bandstand for an entire set. When Potter arrived in New York in 1989, on a scholarship to the New School, Rodney hired him to play alto saxophone.

To date, Potter, now primarily a tenor saxophonist, can boast a resumé citing 14 albums as a leader, dozens of one-off record dates as a sideman, and long hauls with the Mingus Orchestra and such stylistically diverse leaders as Holland, Paul Motian, Dave Douglas, Jim Hall, Renee Rosnes, Steve Swallow and, most recently, Herbie Hancock. He’s sustained close associations—and recorded frequently—with a cohort of New York cutting-edgers, among them David Binney, Adam Rogers, Scott Colley, Alex Sipiagin, Brian Blade and Jeff Ballard. A bandleader himself with increasing frequency over the last decade, Potter, at 36, seems to be an esthetic role model for an emerging generation of musicians who admire the way he frames his singular voice—constructed on a personal distillation of saxophone dialects spanning Bird to Michael Brecker—with a 21st century soundtrack.

“A lot of people come out to hear Chris when we play,” said vibraphonist Steve Nelson, Potter’s partner with Holland since 1997. “On the road people always want to study with him, and he does a lot of lessons.”

“Chris has a dedicated young following,” Holland said. “When we do workshops, the young musicians express a great deal of admiration for what he’s accomplished. He’s young enough for them to connect to him as a peer.”

Potter looks at his perch on a new branch of the saxophone with some curiosity.

“Considering how I looked up to my heroes, and still do, it’s strange that I might occupy that place for someone,” Potter said. As he continued, he neither soft-pedaled nor overstated his talent. “I have an idea of what naturally comes easy for me, but I’ve taught enough people that I know those things don’t necessarily come as easily to them. But I also know that having natural ability is not a guarantee of making something of great artistic worth, and that not having it also won’t guarantee that you’ll make something of great artistic worth. No matter who you are, the big factor is how much work you put into it.”

Potter has emerged as a leading improvisation voice of his generation. He may or may not be any more accomplished an instrumental virtuoso than such tenorists as Joshua Redman and Eric Alexander (who won top and second prize to Potter’s third in the 1991 Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition), or David Sánchez, James Carter, Donny McCaslin, Ron Blake, Seamus Blake, and Tim Warfield. Either way, there’s almost nothing he cannot accomplish on the saxophone as he solves the gnarliest musical puzzles with a don’t-let-them-see-you-sweat sangfroid.

Drummer Ballard recalled a night, about a decade ago, when Potter subbed for tenor saxophonist Mark Turner in Kurt Rosenwinkel’s band at Smalls. “Kurt’s music isn’t something you can just read,” said Ballard, then Rosenwinkel’s regular drummer. “We rehearsed two tunes just before the gig, then Chris and Kurt went back to the kitchen and talked through the rest. Chris played the music better than we did, who had been playing it for years. He killed it! Then he was all over whatever I was inferring, whether it was Motian-esque or like Roy Haynes. He screwed me up for days afterward by being everywhere and taking what was just done, and doing everything that you could do with all of it. For the next few days, people would ask, ‘You OK?’ ‘I’m cool,’ I’d say, trying to digest what had happened.”

Veteran Potter observers like Marian McPartland and Jimmy Heath are on record that Potter displayed such legerdemain from his middle teens. Chris Cheek, Potter’s “dueling tenors” partner in Motian’s Bebop Band of ’90s, cosigns such recollections. He first heard Potter at age 16, at a Jamey Aebersold music camp, when he played duet with Dave Liebman on drums.

“We were all stunned,” Cheek said. “I remember being floored by his sound, technique, range and boundless ideas. He can play anything that comes to mind, and those things are soulful and sophisticated. He’s one of the most consistent musicians I’ve ever heard or been lucky enough to play with. During the time with Paul, we played bebop, mostly head arrangements, and he had complete command of the style rhythmically, harmonically and melodically, but without playing the licks—completely himself. He would take these incredible solos, and the place would go crazy. It was awful to follow him.”

Craig Taborn, Potter’s keyboardist in Underground, explained how Potter’s ceiling for solo development and technical command is higher than most saxophonists. “You can’t say he’s stretching his technique, because you don’t feel he’s traversed that line of technical proficiency,” he said. “It never feels like he’s showing off or always playing at that ceiling. It feels like your ideas can go beyond this point, that everything can be executed.”

Underground guitarist Adam Rogers remarked on Potter’s refusal to engage in “gratuitous technicality,” Underground drummer Nate Smith noted Potter’s willingness “to turn the beat around, play different meters over top of you,” and Holland emphasized the “clarity and continuity of his line; the thread through his solos that takes you from one statement to the next in a fluid, connected way. It’s not just a bunch of notes that are related to the song, but a story evolving.”

Trying to offer insight on how he does what he does, Potter mentioned his formative years in Columbia, where as a high schooler he participated on a small but competent local scene that included bebop jobs with trumpeter Johnny Helms, formerly with Woody Herman and Clark Terry, and guitarist Terry Rosen, a Harry James alumnus who had toured with various Rat Pack-era entertainers.

“Playing gigs in front of people from a young age gives you a certain perspective that someone who spends all their time practicing alone wouldn’t get,” he said. “The social aspect was a big part of what attracted me to jazz. Even when I was studying Charlie Parker records, I listened to how he hooked up with Max Roach. Not just the notes Miles Davis played, but the notes that Herbie Hancock responded with, and how Miles reacted to that, and it created this whole sound. I listen to music this way, and it influences how I react to situations.”

After adding that he is somewhat shy, Potter reflected that his ability to organize thoughts in musical language outpaces his verbal capabilities. “In music I can usually identify the pertinent aspects that sound correct stylistically, and then jump from one area to another,” he said. “When I was younger, I’d memorize phrases—what Ornette Coleman or Lester Young used to get that certain sound, or something that Stravinsky might write for solo saxophone—and then try to play my own thoughts that way. I don’t have the memory to learn every lick, and I don’t spend my time working like that. But it was natural for me to hear how melodies and phrasing work, to understand how harmony functions.

“I make the comparison to a great Olympic runner,” he continued. “You train for years on how to start the race, how to stride and so on. When the race happens, the muscles find a way to do it. I go from a sound, then try to figure out the specifics from looking at the big picture. I understand the idea, and then somehow in that moment I can see how to execute it, and the fingers go there, and the brain knows what to do. There are times I’ve listened back or seen a transcription, and thought, ‘Wow, that was hard.’ If I’d stopped to analyze what I played, I couldn’t have done it.”

On many of his ’90s recordings, Potter presented compositions that took him into a specific vibrational world. One tune would evoke a Brecker feel, another a Wayne Shorter ambiance, others the essence, but not the licks, of Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Joe Henderson and Eddie Harris. Each food group was a separate entity, upon which Potter wove original variations.

“I think that’s possible, but if it’s the case, it wasn’t a conscious decision,” he said. “I might have been figuring out what to do with this or that influence, and where to go from that. Perhaps it was a glimpse of the growth process, or it might be the way I am. But I hope, and have a feeling, that I’m entering a different phase where it won’t be so clear where everything is coming from, because I’ve had enough time and experience to figure out what I want to say.”

Potter used electric guitar on several of those ’90s recordings, but all were acoustic in flavor. Although odd meters entered the mix, they were swing-oriented. Underground, however, is an electric band. Taborn on Fender Rhodes electric piano and Rogers on electric guitar find resourceful ways to fulfill the bass function, while Smith anchors the flow from the drums. Potter writes scaled-down, open-ended pieces for the group—some documented on the eponymous 2006 studio recording Underground, and the 2007 location date Follow The Red Line: Live At The Vanguard (Sunnyside). Vamps, written forms and free sections serve as improvisational investigations propelled by kinetic African, Balkan, funk and hip-hop rhythms. They’re articulated with a textural palette that evokes those idioms as well as electronica, highbrow pop and ambient music.

“The sensibility that we bring to our playing—for instance, the volume or the shape of the improvisations—is not necessarily always selecting towards jazz,” Taborn said. “Different gestures enter from rock, electronic music or hip-hop—staying on grooves, but less development, or maybe no development. Maybe it gets bigger. Maybe it gets louder than normal. It goes into a sound world. It goes fully out of a sound world. A lot of this stuff is more common in the lexicon of contemporary popular music, and younger audiences instantly understand and relate to those decisions. Underground may be cast as jazz, but there are subtle differences between what we do and what would happened with the same species of musician playing the same species of music 15 years ago.”

“Chris is taking advantage of the instrumentation and strong individual styles of the players to give the band a unique sound,” Holland said. “The music has a cerebral, intellectual quality and is grounded in strong feelings and grooves, which encompasses a lot of what music should be about.”

Holland produced Potter’s other 2007 album, Song For Anyone (Sunnyside), a highly composed 10-piece suite for woodwinds, strings and rhythm section. Drawing deeply on classical music, Potter developed fugues, canons and difficult counterpoint. Rich colors abound in the voicings, and improvisations emerge organically from the flow.

“I’m influenced by classical music, and I learned a lot from the tentet,” Potter said. “It’s a big influence on the way jazz players manipulate notes, and it’s fun to explore other ways of doing it. As an improviser, thinking in this compositional way helps me take a more detailed, birds-eye view of where I want things to go. It was also a chance to experiment with some influences that might be less obvious in a jazz context—to create a fugue or employ 12-tone writing, or develop themes and figure out where to use them. I’ve studied some scores, but I’m a dilettante when it comes to classical composition. I picked and grabbed from Debussy, Berg, Stravinsky, Bartók, Bach—whomever.

“When I was 14 or 15, listening to Bird, [Stravinsky’s] “Rite Of Spring,” The Beatles and Stevie Wonder I heard that there had to be some way to make music that uses all that stuff,” he continued. “I’ve been hoping to find that thread for many years. This might be getting closer to that idea. If I wrote some more larger ensemble music, it might be more improvisational than what I did here. By the same token, I’m beginning to feel more comfortable using more compositional elements within this freer thing, too. Maybe I’m trying to fuse this language.”

As the ’90s progressed, Potter, like many of his cohort seeking to cut the umbilical cord of influence, embraced the challenge of finding rhythmic groupings that would make odd meters flow as organically as swing. At the decade’s end, he began to investigate these ideas with a working quartet of Kevin Hays on piano, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Bill Stewart. On various gigs at the 55 Bar in 2003 and 2004, he workshopped different combinations of musicians and instruments, one of which included Taborn. Hoping “to keep the group small to give everyone room to explore” and attracted to the Rhodes’ ability to project organ-like textures and a thick sonic blend with the guitar, Potter gradually coalesced Underground and wrote the music that comprises its eponymous debut.

“There was another side of my musical personality that I wasn’t letting show,” he said of Underground. “I have a conservative side that is useful in some situations, but I want to make sure that it doesn’t win out over the side that wants to stretch. I had a sound in my head that I wasn’t able to get with my other group, and felt I needed to take a chance and try to follow it. At the time, I wasn’t thinking about disbanding, but rather having more sides to what I was doing. At some point, when I can approach it with a fresh perspective, the other quartet might re-form. But Underground’s path has developed its own momentum, and it’s what I want to go with now.”

Uncorking a series of poetic, theme-and-variation declamations on bedrock jazz repertoire on Motian’s 2006 date On Broadway, Vol. 4 (Winter & Winter) and on Mark Soskin’s 2007 One Hopeful Day (Kind of Blue), Potter sounds anything but conservative. But he is adamant that the swing or mainstream context in which he established his early bona fides is no longer boundary-stretching terrain.

“The language is what it is,” Potter said. “There’s no way it’s going to go into certain areas that are interesting to me. It’s not going to be free. There’s always going to be a tempo. The harmony is going to keep moving, and you need to play over it. Not that there’s nothing to learn from it, and I enjoy being in that situation from time to time. Because I learned the underlying rules that made Charlie Parker’s music work, I bring a certain feeling to anything I play, even if the harmonic language is extended, or the actual notes I play aren’t what he would have chosen to play over standard tunes.”

“Chris is open to anything now,” Binney said. “From here on anything could happen.”

Potter does not disagree. “People are working with actual instruments and sounds that didn’t exist when I hit the scene,” he said. “They’ve internalized how to play over odd meters and are much freer with them than, say, Mahavishnu was in the early ’70s. Jazz musicians have a much more sophisticated knowledge of folk music from around the world than a few years ago, and it’s part of what they hear and draw on. All over the world, people are playing at a high level, within their frame of reference. It doesn’t matter whether it’s jazz or not. It just allows more possibilities for finding beautiful things that haven’t been explored.

“It took me a long time to realize how free I could be,” he said. “Things on the scene are much more open now than when I moved to New York, partially because of the demise of record companies. No one has any monopoly on anything; you go with what you hear. But then, I felt I needed to stick within certain boundaries to be accepted. I wasn’t trying to play bebop just like Charlie Parker. I was trying to stretch within the areas. But eventually I realized that I had created the boundaries for myself. If finding another way to approach my own music was my dream, then I should stop dreaming and make it happen.”

Four years into his Underground adventure, married and soon to be a father, Potter has weightier things on his mind than notes and tones, among them the proposition of sustaining a viable career while navigating uncharted terrain.

“Around all of the musicians who I admire, you think of a whole esthetic,” he said on a stopover in Genk, Belgium, following 10 days crisscrossing the highways of Spain with Rogers, Smith and Taborn. “You imagine their sound, you imagine everything about them. That’s dangerous in this day and age, because everything gets simplified into an image that can be easily understood. You can co-opt anything and still sell sneakers. Now, I’ve made a conscious decision to experiment and move more into exploring my own thing. If I give that up, then I’m not doing what I should.

“The best bandleaders are completely committed to their vision, and it won’t include everything,” he continued. “It’s impossible to be all things to all people. You have to find the things that turn you on the most, and not be afraid to follow them wherever they take you. I’ve felt this working with Motian and Dave [Holland], or on my more recent experiences with Herbie. But it’s different when it’s your name on the line and you’re the one stretching on the set. How can I define that to myself and establish it on my own terms so that people know, ‘That’s Chris’ sound’?”

Consistent with his practice, Potter looks to the big picture. “It’s important to remember what gave the music of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong its power. It was connected to something beyond itself, to forces bigger than we can control,” he said. “As artists, we have to respond to what’s going on and react as best we can. The technical things—theory, odd meters—are interesting, but as a means to an end. That brings us to the question of what is music about. Why are we playing it? I devote all this time to it. I lose so much sleep. I’m not home for months at a time. Why?

“Music is a mystery,” he continued. “People watch a bunch of people on a stage, making noise in an organized fashion and for some reason everyone can feel something from it. I am trying to think when I go on stage: What do I want to do? What I really want to do is get the room vibrating in a certain way that everyone experiences something together—something positive, negative, scary or enjoyable—but something real that only being in a room with people making music can do.”

In Spain the previous week, Potter had faced some challenges in realizing this aspiration. “We did several gigs sponsored by a bank that sponsors cultural events in arts centers in some of the smaller towns,” he recounted. “Most of the people in the audience were Spanish ladies in their 60s. We felt completely like fish out of water.”

Wouldn’t this be a moment for Potter to dip into his Johnny Hodges bag?

“There’s no going back,” he said. “One night I tried to play something pretty in a certain style, but it felt wrong. The band has its own energy to go a certain way. You have to follow that.”

 

———–

Chris Potter (Jazziz Article, 2007):

On consecutive Fridays in June, saxophonist Chris Potter booked himself at 55 Bar in Greenwich Village. For the second Friday, he convened guitarist Adam Rogers and drummer Nate Smith, both touring partners from February through May with Underground, Potter’s current band, and bassist Joe Martin. Toward midnight, as a long line of fans filed into the low-ceilinged ex-speakeasy for the second set, Potter unwound, sipping a beer as he chatted with drummer Billy Hart. When the leader descended to the basement to prepare, Hart moved to the bar, and, with little prompting, recalled his first Potter sighting.

The occasion was a straightahead August 1995 recording session for bassist Ray Drummond’s Vignettes, on which Potter played tenor saxophone alongside altoist Gary Bartz. “When I heard the CD, I noticed that Potter played so much better than everyone else,” Hart said with a smile. “I told Ray, ‘It was nice that you gave him extra time to rehearse,’ but Ray answered that Chris had the same three hours as everyone else. Then Chris called me for a date [Moving In (Concord-1996)] with Brad Mehldau and Larry Grenadier, and sent me a tape with the music. At the session, I asked Chris why he wasn’t using the drummer who played on the tape, who was terrific. Chris looked at me like I was nuts. Later, Larry Grenadier told me that Chris had played the drum, piano and bass parts. I was shocked. A few months later, he brought a tune called ‘Tosh’ for my record, Oceans of Time, and I asked him to rework a section. He came in the next day with a completely rewritten chart, on which the violin and guitar shared the melody with two saxophones playing a counter-melody underneath it. He did that after working late the previous evening with the Mingus Orchestra. I said, ‘How did you do this? Didn’t you sleep?’ He said, ‘It’s no problem; I’m only 26 years old.’”

A week after this conversation, Jimmy Heath, a tough critic, related meeting Potter at 15, in a Heath-conducted high school all star band. “Chris asked, ‘Mr. Heath, do you know the chords to ‘Yesterdays’?’,” Heath said. “I wrote them out, and he went on stage and killed it. We were playing in a yard as tourists walked by. Each time he soloed, everybody stopped. When the rest of us soloed, they kept walking. I said, ‘Boy, you’re E.F. Hutton; when you play, everybody listens.’”

Heath has never heard a name he couldn’t pun on, but he jested not: From 1989, when Potter arrived in New York on a Zoot Sims Scholarship to the New School, and joined former Charlie Parker sideman, trumpeter Red Rodney (who occasionally featured his saxophone wunderkind as a trio pianist during sets), everybody—elders and peers, beboppers and postmodernists, traditionalists and visionaries—pays attention when Potter plays. Now 35, he’s led dozen albums; sidemanned consequentially with Dave Holland, Dave Douglas, Paul Motian, Jim Hall, Renee Rosnes, Steve Swallow, and Rodney; and sustained close, enduring associations with such same-generation cutting-edgers as Rogers, Colley, Dave Binney, Alex Sipiagin, and Brian Blade, all 55 Bar regulars.

There are good reasons why Potter has earned such respect, among them his blend of technical derring-do, emotional projection, creative spirit and work ethic. “Chris is at the forefront of pushing the saxophone to the next level,” Binney says. “But he wants to keep stretching, even though he came up in this sort of young star thing and could easily have gotten stuck.” Rogers refers to Potter’s “endless wellspring of ideas,” while Colley mentions his “directness, his ability to focus that allows him to get incredibly deep into a tune, exploring different sounds, different textures, timbrally changing up, using the extreme range of his instrument.”

Also factoring into Potter’s transgenerational appeal is the deep-rooted jazz bedrock upon which he builds his investigations. In the liner notes to Moving In, he stated his desire to find new ways to address “the possibilities that lie in the relationship of harmony to rhythm, the way Charlie Parker put together a language that depended on landing on certain notes on certain parts of the beat.”

A few hours before his first 55 Bar appearance, he elaborated on his aesthetic: “I spent the ages 11 to 17 completely devoting myself to learning how Charlie Parker made his sounds, and I always feel I’m coming from the jazz language. But at the same time, I was listening to my parents’ records of the Beatles and Stevie Wonder, records of Chicago blues, Balinese music, Stravinsky and Bach.”

During those formative years, Potter lived—and gigged frequently—in Columbia, South Carolina, no jazz mecca, where his parents, both educators, relocated with him from Chicago in 1975. “I had certain advantages growing up there that I wouldn’t have had, say, if I’d grown up in New York,” Potter says. “There weren’t too many jazz gigs, but I was doing a fair amount of them by high school.” These included bebop jobs with trumpeter Johnny Helms, formerly with Woody Herman and Clark Terry, and guitarist Terry Rosen, a Harry James alumnus who had previously toured with various Rat Pack era entertainers. He also played with a more contemporary band whose repertoire ranged from standards to Rock to free jazz.

“I got both sides early on,” Potter said. “I also did a lot of weddings. I rented a tuxedo, sang Yesterday, and shlepped around a DX-7, which I played. I had great experiences playing gospel gigs in black churches, where I’d be the one white kid. It was a low pressure environment, and I grew up with the idea of being a working musician. I definitely think of myself as an artist. I’m trying to create something meaningful to me and hopefully to other people. But my view is also that at the end of the day, hey, it’s a gig! People should be enjoying themselves. Because I started so young, I caught the tail end of some stuff that I don’t see much any more.”

Perhaps those experiences—not to mention several years of steady work in the Mingus Orchestra next to old-school outcats like John Stubblefield and Frank Lacy—account for the go-for-broke quality that infuses Potter’s playing at brisk tempos, whether swinging as a sideman on a straight-ahead date, flowing lyrically over Motian’s ametric sound-painting, or molding his phrasing to synchronize with Dave Holland’s interlocking time signatures, or Nate Smith’s unleashed inventions with Underground. Indeed, at 55 Bar, he played structural ideas with a spontaneous elan that reminded me of an earlier Potter remark that, Sonny Rollins’ reputation as a thematic improviser notwithstanding, he considered Rollins “one of the most instinctual improvisers that there ever was; it’s like an unbroken line, like he’s not planning his next move at all, and that’s how he’s able to keep your interest.”

I asked Potter if he considered that comment to be a self-description. “Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses,” he responded. “It depends how you end up using them. Things didn’t come easy to Coltrane as a kid, but he achieved an incredible amount because he worked so diligently, and he knew his weaknesses. From everything I can tell, Sonny was a real natural and automatically got things. I think I’m a little closer to the natural thing. But that can be a trap—if you do a lot instinctually, you may have less reason to dig deeper. I’ve found that I need to put in the work, that it makes a difference to the energy you get from the end product. Even if you don’t know the particular harmonic idea I’m working with or what I’m trying to get under my fingers, you hear the dedication to achieving this level.”

[BREAK]

“My generation grew up listening a lot to jazz and spent a lot of time working on the jazz language,” says Potter, referring not only to the 55 Bar clique, but also such old friends as Mehldau, Grenadier, Kevin Hays, Bill Stewart, and Kurt Rosenwinkel. “Some of us have been able to work with the greats. But I don’t think any of us feels bound to try to recreate the past. After Wynton came on the scene, there was a resurgence in people playing straight ahead and realizing how much depth it takes to do that. A few years later, the idea was, ‘Okay, we’ve gotten back to at least this; now where can we take THAT?’”

Addressing that question, Potter, like many among his cohort, landed on the challenge of making odd meters flow as organically as four-four swing.

“In the generation after Charlie Parker, everyone suddenly understood something about the bebop language, whereas a few years before hardly anyone could execute anything like that,” he says. “Now a jazz musician is expected to be able to improvise in 13 or in 11, know something about how Indian and African and Cuban music are put together and be familiar with the sound. I wouldn’t pretend expertise in any of those fields, but I feel those influences come out—in a layman’s kind of way—when I play. I don’t have a big theoretical underpinning, though I wish I could come up with one. My approach to music has always been to learn as much as possible by ear and to experiment—and have fun. It’s more about what feels right, what feels like a way to unify all the things that turn me on, all the different music I enjoy listening to.”

Potter displayed his swing fluency on the first tune during his first Friday at 55 Bar, launching an extemporaneous, explosive theme-and-variation improvisation on “How Deep Is The Ocean” with Colley on bass and Jeff Ballard on drums. Deploying his play-anything-he-hears technique, he executed intervallic zigzags and surprising resolutions with vigorous authority reminiscent of Sonny Rollins circa 1965. Like Rollins, Potter put his virtuosity at the service of a story, deploying tension-and-release strategies to construct a dramatic arc that got under the skin of his listeners.

But in conceptualizing original music, Potter these days is inclined to sublimate his swing roots. In Underground, Potter develops ideas that he began to state systematically on Traveling Mercies, his second studio date with Hays, Colley and Stewart, his working quartet from 1999 to 2003. He eschews the bass, instead utilizing keyboardist Craig Taborn to sound-paint textures and kinetic grooves over a beat palette drawn from funk, hip-hop and world sources. These propel lean-meat structures in which vamps, written forms and free sections serve as improvisational launch pads.

“It’s very difficult for me right now to make swing feel completely personal,” he says. “This is going to sound wrong, but it’s related to the cultural relevance of swinging as a rhythmic form. With Underground I think about music that sounds relevant to how I and everyone I know are actually living, the sounds you have in your head just from walking down the street in New York City. That’s not to say that swing can’t express that. But it almost feels like there’s too little space between beats. Though it doesn’t really make sense that a rhythm should have relevance or non-relevance. It’s just a pattern of sound.

“In 13, you can’t play the same safe stuff you know. To paint inside the lines, you have to place different rhythmic patterns, use different numbers of notes in the phrase. That’s one way I practice—to set up some kind of obstacle so I can’t just do what I already know. It’s like, okay, I’m only going to use triplets, or work with just groups of 5 or 7, or only play within a fifth range of the horn. I use whatever idea I can come up with that limits me, so that I have to find something that works.”

Emulating ex-employer Douglas’ proclivity for mixing and matching various musical styles, Potter will soon release an album of original music for a 10-piece strings-and-woodwinds ensemble that debuted at the Jazz Standard in May 2005. “I listen to a lot of classical music, and this gave me a chance to explore those influences and spell out my ideas completely,” he says. “In almost all the contexts that I work in, I don’t want to write too much, though. I want the band to find something.”

Which is what both of Potter’s bands did at 55 Bar, and what Underground has done during throughout its two-year history. According to Potter, there’s more to come. “Underground works for me because these guys are so wide-open,” he said. “Actually, the aesthetic isn’t so different than playing with any other group. The building blocks are different, but it’s still about improvisation and creativity and seeing what you can find every night. I’m really grooving on it.”

[—30—]

SIDEBAR:

Around 1997, when he began to play the vertiginous music of Dave Holland, Potter began to experience periodic dizzy spells that came on without warning and lasted for hours. It was diagnosed as Meniere’s Disease, an inner ear condition, and made Potter—who gave the title Vertigo to a 1998 two-tenor date with Joe Lovano, and a Kurt Rosenwinkel-Scott Colley-Billy Drummond collaboration—almost completely deaf in his left ear.

“It was an extremely stressful time, a nightmare both from the stress of, ‘Wow, I’m a musician, and I’m losing hearing,’ and, ‘Okay, I’m a traveling musician, and I have to leave at 5:30 in the morning here to travel from Umbria to Finland, and I can’t even get out of bed because I’m nauseous and the room is spinning,’” Potter says.

“I got treated, had a couple of different surgeries, but I don’t think they really helped. I think the illness took its course, and after a certain point I also realized that I somehow had to take responsibility for it myself. I decided, ‘Okay, I’m going to be cool. This isn’t going to ruin everything. I’ve lost what I’ve lost, but I’m not going to let it stop me.’ I think it’s one of those tests that we all have in various ways at various points of our lives. Something happens that isn’t exactly what you want, and you have to figure out how you want to react to it. These are the things that end up defining who you are, and although I’m not glad it happened, I think I derived some strength out of it in a way that I wouldn’t have without it. It even has its advantages. I put the drums on my left, and I can sleep through stuff.”

——————-

Chris Potter Blindfold Test:

1. Charlie Parker, “Lester Leaps In,” THE COMPLETE LEGENDARY ROCKLAND PALACE CONCERT (Jazz Classics, 1952/1996) (5 stars)

Bird! [LAUGHS] Wow. Where is that from? [The Rockland Palace, a benefit for Paul Robeson in 1952 with dancers.] Wow. That’s great. Man, that’s some unbelievable Bird. I have to check that out. There’s so much available, you never know what’s going to be what. Bird’s probably the biggest influence that I feel I have. He’s such a big figure in my way of thinking about playing the saxophone, it’s hard to even know how to start. But the thing that always gets me about it, besides just his obviously genius way of figuring out how to incorporate rhythms and harmony and make them all sort of work in harmony with each other, there’s such a joyous kind of vibe about it. That’s something I feel isn’t… You always hear about how much of a genius he was. But just the pure enjoyment of hearing that much joy. It sounded just like he was having so much fun that he was able to do that, just singing out. It’s like a kid playing in the sandbox. It’s got that kind of naive almost kind of quality to it. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing. 5 stars, if that’s all I can give. I remember when I was first playing the saxophone, I was 11 or 12. Everyone said, “Man, you’ve got to check out Charlie Parker.” At that time I was totally into Johnny Hodges. I just didn’t hear it. He’s sort of out of tune and he’s playing all these notes — what’s going on? Then one day I was ready. One day again someone said, “Bird, that’s it.” So I put it back on, and all of a sudden it was like a light went off.” It was like, “Oh, that’s what they’re talking about.” Then that was it. I’m sure at least a year out of my life almost everything I listened to was Bird.

2. Ellery Eskelin/Han Bennink, “Let’s Cool One,” DISSONANT CHARACTERS (hatOLOGY, 1998) [4 stars]

So far I think it’s Johnny Griffin, but we’ll see. Okay, definitely not Johnny Griffin. There’s something about his sound… It’s that Monk tune, “Let’s Call This” or… “Let’s Cool One.” I always get them confused. Wow. I really don’t know who it is. [He’s a little older than you, though he came to town around the same time.] Wow! [And he’s not necessarily known for playing tunes in public persona and reputation.] He sort of sounds like he might play a lot of freer music, to me. I was almost thinking of someone like Jim Pepper, because there’s something about his sound that was similar to Jim Pepper, too. But it’s not him either. [AFTER] That was very nice. It was interesting to me just to hear him play a tune. That’s tricky. I’ll say 4 stars. The only thing is, I sort of wanted it to go on longer and develop more even. Who was playing drums? Han Bennink? That makes sense. I’ve actually never heard Han play time either. But I know that’s how he started.

3. Mark Turner & Josh Redman, “317 E. 32nd St.,” MARK TURNER (Warner Bros, 1994/1998) [4 stars]

Sort of a Lennie vibe. Warne and Lee? It’s a little soon. It’s a great head. Real Warne-ish on the first solo. But it sounds like a newer record; this is obviously not from the ’50s. I’m confused. Mark and Josh? It sounds like Max Bolleman engineered it. I think it’s Lennie’s head; it’s on “Out Of Nowhere,” but I can’t place it. [AFTER] That was interesting, because I actually did think it was Warne at first, when it was Mark, and I found myself thinking, “Man, Mark really borrowed some stuff from Warne!” It was actually recorded a few years ago, right? That’s another reason I didn’t think it was Mark. I can tell from hearing him more recently, he’s sort of developed his thing a little more. It was interesting when the second solo came in. It sounded like Josh was doing the Warne kind of thing, too. Then after a couple of choruses his essential Joshness started to come out. These are obviously guys who are the same age as I am, and I can feel a certain sympathy in the fact that they’re being judged by me of all people especially! But I think that’s a good example of some early Mark and Josh. It’s interesting to me after I figured out to think about how they sound now and how they sound then. They’re more themselves now, more developed, surer of themselves, I think. That’s a natural process that hopefully happens as you get older, if you don’t lose your way. That’s just what’s going to happen. 4 stars. It was a good job, guys.

4. Wayne Shorter, “Wayne’s World,” HEROES (Verve, 1999) [J.J. Johnson, composer] [5 stars]

Wayne. I’m going to go on a limb and guess this is the J.J. Johnson record, which I haven’t heard, but I know it exists. And it’s a modern record, and it’s Wayne, and it sounds like it’s probably J.J. This might be the solo that meant that I didn’t win a Grammy! Well, that’s not exactly true. But I think this was up in the same category. [AFTER] [It sounded like it deserved a Grammy.] It did. I mean, Wayne doesn’t even have to sound good with all the stuff he’s given us. [You’re only as good as your last solo.] Well, that was a great solo. He definitely sustained his reputation on that one, I thought. That was great. I’m always looking for new Wayne to check out. He’s up there with Bird as a huge influence on the way I think. There’s something about him that I always totally dug, that he seems totally unafraid to be an individual. I mean, he’ll do just some weird stuff, and somehow it just resonates the right way. He’s obviously telling the truth about what he’s like, and you get that. 5 stars. [How is Wayne Shorter different now from 10-15 years ago?] It’s hard to really say. I think as it’s gone on, as he’s done records like Highlife and Atlantis, which I love… His thing has definitely progressed from the beginning of his career, from like a great tenor soloist… It doesn’t seem like he’s thinking in those kind of terms any more. He’s hearing everything. That’s something I always dug about him. He always had that, but I think he keeps bringing that out more and more. It always seemed to me that it almost didn’t matter that he was playing the saxophone, that he was playing jazz — that it was music even. It seems like that’s just his way of communicating what he has to communicate, and he can do it through any medium. There some sort of non-attachment or something that I get from it. It’s just the expression that I get from him. It sounds to me like he might not play as much as he did in those… I mean, he was playing with Blakey every night and with Miles. So I can hear that that level of playing comfort maybe isn’t there. But in its place is some really deep thought that keeps getting deeper for me. He’s a hero of mine, too, in that he hasn’t rested on his laurels. He keeps working on stuff, and I think we’re all richer for it.

5. Bennie Wallace, “Moon Song,” BENNIE WALLACE (AudioQuest, 1998) [Tommy Flanagan, piano] [4 stars]

It’s Coleman Hawkins. Let’s see. I’ll take a guess and say it’s Bennie Wallace. But let’s let the record state that he gave me too good of a hint. [AFTER] At first his sound seriously reminded me of Coleman Hawkins, then when he started blowing he was sort of using those arpeggiated things like Coleman Hawkins would do, but further out. So I thought, I don’t know, maybe Don Byas or someone like that. Then it got further and further out, and I went, “Whoa, this is not of that generation.” [Are you familiar enough with the way Bennie Wallace plays that you’d have known it was him?] I might not have known. I sort of have an idea of what he sounds like — and that’s what he sounds like! [LAUGHS] But I’m not that familiar with his work. I liked the song, though I don’t know what the tune is. [Who is the pianist?] It sounded like an older guy. It’s often harder for me to tell who’s playing if it’s a pretty inside kind of thing, if it’s sort of sticking to the conventional language. That can make it harder, in a way, because there’s certain conventions everyone uses to make it sound like jazz, but that can make it harder to identify, too. [AFTER] That would have been my first guess, but it’s too late now! 4 stars. I enjoyed it. This is actually something I’ve found myself working on now that I’m off the road for a few weeks. I’ve actually been trying to investigate ways you can bend the notes, shape every note so it has a character, which the old guys did. And it seems like Bennie has really checked that out. It’s not even totally in tune. It’s like out of tune in a cool way that gives it a vocal kind of quality that… It’s something I’m working on, so it’s nice to hear someone else’s approach to that, which obviously comes from the old-old-old school as far as tenor playing goes.

6. George Garzone, “I’ll Remember April,” MOODIOLOGY (NYC, 1999) [Ken Werner, piano] (3 stars)

It’s obviously a younger musician. No? I’m really not sure. I have to confess I didn’t like this as much as the other stuff you’ve had on so far. What I’d say against it is the fact that it’s “I’ll Remember April” just sort of played without an arrangement, and it was a sort of jam session sounding thing, which is cool if it’s a jam session, but if you have a chance to make a record, try to do something to enliven the arrangement a bit. And there was something about the saxophone player… What I did like about the whole thing is that the energy was really strong. It felt like everyone was sort of going for it and enjoying themselves, which obviously is a huge thing. It can be a great musician, and if it doesn’t have that, it’s not going to have anything that sort of draws you in. But it sounded a little unfocused to me, too, in terms of a conception. It sounded to me there were certain things he was going for that he doesn’t have thought out yet. [Do you know who the pianist was?] (I’m not sure who the pianist was, but I actually really enjoyed the piano solo. It was a little busy at times, too, but it seemed much more focused to me. Very smart. 3 stars. [AFTER] I’m surprised. I totally did not get Ken Werner. I would not have thought that.

7. World Saxophone Quartet, “Requiem for Julius,” REQUIEM FOR JULIUS (Just-In Time, 2000).

The only saxophone group like that I’m familiar with is the World Saxophone Quartet, so that would be my guess. I guess that’s Oliver Lake playing soprano? [That was John Purcell on saxello.] Playing the melody? [On this record they each stick to one instrument, and the instrument you heard was saxello.] Wow, that’s a cool sound. That’s really cool. It sounded a little more in, I guess (I hate to use those kind of terms), than I expected. It had more of a compositional thing. It was like a nice tune, first of all, and nice voicings for all the instruments. I was almost thinking it wasn’t them, because it was so structured, in a way. But it sounded like Hamiet Bluiett’s sound down there. That was sort of the first recognizable thing. Nice. There’s something about the sound of the saxello — obviously it’s the way Purcell is playing it — that’s really cool. Its pitch is funny, and his approach to things is sort of out there, but it sort of hits me the right way. It’s nice. It sounds human. Animal, in a way. It’s cool. 4 stars. I enjoyed it.

8. Johnny Griffin, “All Too Soon,” THE REV AND I (Blue Note, 1999) [Phil Woods, alto sax] [5 stars]

I think it’s Phil Woods. I’m assuming this is Phil’s latest record on Blue Note, which has Johnny Griffin. Griffin sounds great. That was a great performance. I’d say that was a 5 star performance there. The way that I first heard Johnny Griffin’s playing, and probably the way a lot of people did was those Monk records at the Five Spot. I heard those all the time. It’s interesting to see how he sort of changed. He always had that thing. He was playing all the bebop stuff; something about his sound, it’s sort of similar to what I was talking about earlier, bending the notes and being a little out of tune here, and a little low here and a little high there… [He’s a blues guy.] Right. He has that real vocal thing. And now that he’s older, too, to be able to play a melody and just play that simply on a ballad and have it be that much of a voice is a beautiful thing. Man, saxophone can be a beautiful thing. That’s great.

9. James Carter, “Drafedelic In D-Flat,” LAYIN’ IN THE CUT (Atlantic, 2000)

Albert Ayler? Okay, it’s got to be James Carter. This must be that new record that just came out. The intro was amazing. I sometimes get the feeling that he might be playing music for different reasons than I’m playing music — or not very similar. It’s a different way of thinking about what we think is beautiful. Especially after the band came in, I felt like he… I liked the fact that it’s at least a very strong statement in one direction or another, which I respect, but a lot of it doesn’t seem that beautiful to me. It’s not coming from a place of trying to make a beautiful thing. And I was not expecting that sound to come in after that intro. I actually dug the texture of it. I liked the sound of the tenor with an almost jam band kind of thing. There wasn’t really much of a melody or anything. That I sort of liked about it. But I probably wouldn’t choose to listen to it at home. There’s something about it that makes me feel that’s not what I want to have in my head. I won’t rate it.

10. Sonny Stitt, “I Got Rhythm,” TUNE UP (32 Jazz, 1972/1997) [Stitt, alto and tenor sax] (4½ stars)

This is the slowest “I’ve Got Rhythm” I’ve ever heard in my life. I’m assuming it goes into double time! My first thought was Gene Ammons, but I’m not sure now. Nice sound. [AFTER] Well, I actually did end up getting it. Sonny Stitt on alto. But I could not tell if it was him on tenor. I really did not think that it was him. Because his sound sounded a lot more full and focused. His sound on the alto was really recognizable, certain things in certain registers — okay, that’s got to be him. But on the tenor he didn’t sound like he usually does. He sounds great! He was always sort of… If you think about walking into a jazz club somewhere and hearing someone burn, that was him. I never got a chance to see him, but that’s always the sense I have, is just like state of the art bebop — flawless. [Talk about playing on the two horns.] That’s sort of a tough thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, too. Something about the alto, and switching to the tenor… It’s hard to feel comfortable on both horns at the same time, and it’s hard to feel comfortable on both horns, period. I’m not sure why that is, even, that it’s that similar and that different. You really have to think about it. [People say the alto needs more control.] Maybe so. Obviously, the smaller the horn, the smaller the mouthpiece… I think smaller differences in embrochure and all that are going to make bigger changes in the sound and the way that the pitch is. But it’s fairly similar. So to feel comfortable knowing what to do, how to change, how to… I mean, it’s really subtle embrochure change kind of stuff. And also the amount of air that you blow, it’s not that much more on the tenor, but it’s a little bit more. You have to be a little bit looser, but not that much looser. You have to know how to do it. It’s really difficult to feel comfortable doing both. There’s something about the register for me, too, the way that you hear the alto clearer when you play it, I feel it. Because it’s higher, and also because the bell is pointing more towards you. It’s sort of right here, whereas if you’re playing tenor it’s going out that way more and a little further down. So you’re getting a different sonic thing back when you’re playing, too, I find. 4½ stars. I don’t think you could possibly play bebop rhythm changes any better than that. That was like it.

11. Joe Lovano, “The Scene Is Clean,” 52nd STREET THEMES (Blue Note, 2000) (4½ stars)

Lovano maybe. “The Scene is Clean.” I recorded this. Lewis Nash on drums. I guess I started hearing Lovano right around the time I moved to New York, like 1990, which is when he signed with Blue Note and started to be sort of an influence on younger saxophone players. It’s been interesting to see how he has been very influential on sort of the younger generation of saxophonists. There’s someone you can really look at who is very strong about what he wants to do, and he’s put in the work to be able to do it. He’s obviously thought about having an original kind of sound. He had his own approach to things, but totally grounded in history from early infancy, I guess. It’s been a good influence, I think, on younger musicians, because it is someone who is that grounded in the whole history of it. It’s been a positive thing. But I also think it’s interesting now to hear younger players trying to sound like him. As someone in that generation, he’d definitely be one person I don’t want to sound just like. Because he has a lot of influences that I have and I think that’s the way it is for all of the younger saxophonists. So in a way, I don’t end up listening to him all that much any more, because I don’t want to have that in my head too much. I want to have sort of a different thing. 4½ stars.

12. Joe Henderson, “Portrait,” THE STATE OF THE TENOR (VOL.2) (Blue Note, 1985/1994) [5 stars]

Well, I guess, that’s Joe Henderson. This is a Billy Strayhorn tune that I can’t remember the name of. Oops! Sorry. It’s a Mingus tune. I think it’s called “Portrait.” It’s Al Foster on drums, and I’m guessing Mraz on bass. [AFTER] I have to give that five stars, too, just in terms of how big an influence he’s been on me. I don’t even know how to start. Sound, phrasing, his own language, his approach to rhythm. Hugely influential on me, and I’m not the only one. Just a master. And it was interesting for me to see him the first time. I remember seeing him probably a few years after this was recorded, and I was surprised at how soft he plays. He never seems to have to try and get beyond that. There’s something about people who play really quietly in… My own most personal experience would be similar to the way it feels to play with Jim Hall. It’s like you play that quietly, you bring people in. The fact that he seems so much like such a wise gnome — a short guy kind of hunched over — sort of brings people in, I think. That’s part of his mystique. Which is something beyond just playing the saxophone great, obviously. That’s something all these great musicians share, too. I was talking about Bird sounding just like a genius kid at play in the sandbox. Lovano has a whole different thing. He’s like BIG. He’s this big guy and he’s got this big presence With Joe-Hen it’s almost the opposite kind of thing, very soft, very quiet, and it makes everyone listen in. That’s something worthy of study, along with the way they use notes and that kind of thing, is the kind of vibe that these great musicians give out. It’s like they’re so themselves, and they never stop being themselves. 100 percent of the time you’re seeing exactly what they mean to express. Even if they mess up, it’s still them messing up.

13. Ralph Moore, “Crazeology,” SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS ARE…THE SAX PLAYERS (Telarc, 1996) [3½ stars]

Eric Alexander? This is sort of a tough one to figure, which I think is also related to that thing I was talking about earlier. It’s such a standard kind of thing. Which is sort of a criticism I have of it, too… [Well, it’s not the type of Bird tune that everybody plays.] No. There was something sort of conservative about it that I didn’t dig, but it was played really-really well. I really don’t know who it was. My next guess would be like Ralph Moore, just because of his sound. But I know his playing more in other contexts. And it could be Benny Green. It’s sort of hard to find grounds to criticize it in terms of what was actually played. It sounded great. [AFTER] Oh, that’s Ray’s record! Well, then it’s no criticism at all of anyone really, because if anyone has the right to make that kind of record, it’s Ray Brown. [Why shouldn’t people stand in there with the… It’s an interesting question for a guy who started with Red Rodney. You’ve played a lot of this music. Why do you find it a little objectionable for people to make their own statement on it?] It’s not that I find it objectionable. It’s more that I’m not interested in hearing it myself. I’d much rather hear someone do something else. Just because it’s so hard to compete with how great those original records were. Unless you’re going to really do something in a different way, have a totally different concept… I mean it’s really enjoyable to listen to. There’s nothing I can object to except to say that I’d rather hear younger players do something else, even if it doesn’t work as well. Because that’s obviously going to work. But there’s something a bit safe about it that I don’t dig. 3½ stars.

14. David Berkman, “Blue Poles,” COMMUNICATION THEORY (Palmetto, 2000) [Chris Cheek, ts] [4½ stars]

I definitely know this guy’s playing. I’ve played with him. Chris Cheek maybe. I’m not sure who everyone else is. But that was really nice. That was sort of a good thing to play after we were just done talking about I’d rather hear younger players do something else than just play tunes. That was a really good example, a well thought out compositional kind of thing which had a different kind of feel, and wasn’t just simply like swinging. Very, very nice. I know Chris’ sound so well from playing next to him with Paul Motian. I definitely learned a lot from him. He’s someone who I can obviously recognize. He definitely does things that I don’t hear other people do. He has his language which he seems… It seems like he’s not trying to do everything all the time. He’s just trying to do his thing, which is something I have a lot of respect for. And he obviously has a really strong command of the horn, too. [AFTER] I really liked what Brian did on that. I was wondering if it was him. Because it was very, very nice. He really made the tune in a lot of ways, too, the whole feel of it, changing the textures up — really nice. 4½ stars.

15. Sonny Rollins-Coleman Hawkins, “All The Things You Are,” SONNY MEETS HAWK (RCA, 1963/1997) [5 stars]

Sonny and Coleman Hawkins. That’s an immediate 5 stars. That’s a fascinating record from a psychological angle, too; what was going on in the studio, what… I do have a feeling Sonny was making sure he didn’t sound like Coleman Hawkins, and I’m also fairly sure that Coleman Hawkins was out for blood! [LAUGHS] It’s just amazing to hear that much personality in one record. That just jumps out at you. That’s some living music there. I recently rented a video of Sonny, and I noticed how unafraid he is when he’s playing. It seems to be an unbroken line. Like, he’s not planning his next move at all. It’s sort of interesting that he got so well known for being a thematic improviser, but it always seemed to me he’s one of the most instinctual improvisers that there ever was. He’s really in that moment, and it just works out to being a thematic kind of thing. That’s what he hears to play right at that moment. But that’s sort of how he’s able to keep your interest, is just because he’s on that line. He has no idea really what he’s going to play next. It sounds to me that he’s consciously trying to be out, in a way, on this record. Which could be seen as a criticism, but I actually dig it. It sounds right to me, especially in that context, as we were saying, of that psychological drama that unfolds. That makes perfect sense. It was a smart move. Because you’re not going to out-Coleman Hawkins Coleman Hawkins. He sounds great on that, too. It was sort of a good day for everyone.

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