Tag Archives: Chris Potter

Mark Turner Blindfold Test, Uncut

It’s New York’s gain, if the world’s loss, that Paul Motian doesn’t like to leave the island of Manhattan. Fortunately, he doesn’t need to. In the latest iteration of his ongoing residence at the Village Vanguard, Motian will perform the sideman function in a new quartet led by the immensely influential tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, with pianist David Virelles and bassist Ben Street.  For a report on what Turner’s up to lately, read this recent interview with A-list altoist Jaleel Shaw. Then scan the uncut version of the Blindold Test that I conducted with him for DownBeat about five years ago.

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1.   George Coleman-Ron Blake, “Speak Low”(from Joey DeFrancesco, ORGANIC VIBES, Concord, 2006) (Coleman, Blake, tenor saxophone; DeFrancesco, organ; Byron Landham, drums)

I have an inkling of who it is, but I’m not exactly sure. But it’s very proficient playing.  I was  trying to see if I could recognize the drummer, and I wasn’t sure. It could be a few people. I’d like to hear what it is afterwards. I thought I’d figure that one out, but I’m stumped as to who it is. It’s an extremely hard tempo to play well on. But it’s well played. The rhythm section in particular was very proficient, very solid, forward-driving. That’s about it. [Anything about the lines or sound? Do you think it’s a younger player or older player?] It sounds like one of the saxophone players is older and one is younger. The first saxophone player I gathered was older (I’m not sure who it was) and the second one who soloed being younger. I’m don’t know whose record it is. Concept of sound is the first way I can tell, and the types of lines in general – without being too specific about it. Maybe to the point of the phrases, and when a given person decides to play a given phrase – and where. That was my general feeling. I don’t know whose record it is. I couldn’t quite tell. I was assuming maybe it was the organ player’s record. That was my first impression. Maybe the organ player wanted to get young and old together, or something like that, with maybe his rhythm section. Is it Joey DeFrancesco? I’m surprised I got it! But I don’t know who either saxophone player is. I think I could tell at a slower tempo, but at that tempo I can’t tell. 3 stars. [AFTER] I got it!! Well, I had an idea. As a whole, not their most individual playing.

2.   Joe Henderson, “Foresight and Afterthought” (from BLACK NARCISSUS, Milestone, 1968/1994) (Henderson, tenor saxophone; Ron Carter, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums)

Oh, you gave me an easy one. Joe Henderson, “Foresight and Afterthought,” with Jack DeJohnette and Ron Carter. This is one of my favorite Joe records. I have it on a compilation and also on the actual record. But I used to listen to this record every day for two or three years, I was so into it, and others by Joe Henderson around that period. That was around 1989-90-91. It’s just so incredible! I think of Joe as someone who brought together quite a bit of what happened before, so he brought together, say, a certain amount of free playing, a certain amount of saxophone tradition, like bebop playing and swing before that, and players of his generation and before. Also, from a saxophone player’s standpoint, he started a certain type of tune. For example, some tunes that have free playing, and a lot of tunes that have been written since, that are kind of like some through-composed, some not, with sort of compact, condensed areas of changes. That type of tune…he’s the one who started all that, basically. In this period it’s great, because his sound is maybe somewhat lighter than earlier records. It’s incredible, because he gets a feeling of playing live in the studio, which is extremely difficult to do. It sounds like other records that are live records from around the same period. He sort of wrapped together everything that he did before and sort of looking to what’s going to happen in the future, and it’s all done in the studio in one period. It’s incredible. Also, that recording and others around that period, it’s an excellent example for him of mystery and logic and rational playing brought together. He’s the master of that of the saxophone players I’m aware of. 5 stars.

3.  Jimmy Greene, “Take Advantage”(from TRUE LIFE-STORIES, Criss-Cross, 2005) (Greene, tenor saxophone; Xavier Davis, piano; Reuben Rogers, bass; Eric Harland, drums; Harry Connick, composer)

Nice tune. Nice form. It flows very nicely, it’s very melodic, nice motion between the sections. Very well played, very swinging and very well done. Very professional-sounding. Before I heard the solos, I thought it was John Ellis as a sideman on someone else’s record.  I don’t know who else it could be. I thought maybe Jimmy Greene because of some aspects of the size of his sound in the middle register, but the lines and phrasing didn’t quite sound like what I knew to be him from when I played with him and hearing him on other people’s records. I’m less familiar with his playing recently. Maybe Reuben Rogers on bass, and Eric Harland on drums. It’s a nice performance that rests on its own terms. It didn’t sound like a standard, or if it was, it was a pretty complex and obscure one. It didn’t sound like a normal standard. I thought it was an original written in a certain style. 4 stars.

4.   David Murray, “Steps” (from 4TET & STRINGS, Justin Time, 2006) (Murray, tenor saxophone, composer; Lafayette Gilchrist, piano)

I thought it was Sam Rivers for the first few  seconds because of the sound and vibrato, but as soon as I listened a little more, I knew it wasn’t. I don’t know who it is. I especially liked the section during the piano player’s solo. Wow, that was beautiful. I really loved that. I liked especially certain sections of the arrangement with the strings. I liked the tenor player. To a certain extent I like that kind of playing over let’s say a string section or something where there’s some clear harmony written, but I’d say the soloist isn’t necessarily addressing tonality in a specific sense, maybe more like sounds and certain colors than addressing tonality. I enjoy that, because there’s a certain amount of mystery that it adds to music. I personally prefer also having that and really addressing the harmony in a specific way as well. I enjoy that even more. But I really like the mystery added, again, by that type of playing. Of course, part of the reason why I enjoyed the piano player’s solo more is because both of those elements were both in play, maybe because of the instruments played. 4 stars.

5.   Chris Byars, “The Lion of Yerevan” (from Ari Roland, SKETCHES FROM A BASSIST’S ALBUM, Smalls 2006) (Byars, tenor saxophone; Sacha Perry, piano; Ari Roland, bass; Danny Rosenfeld, drums)

I’m not sure who the saxophone player is. It sounds like Lucky Thompson, the saxophone player who did the record “Tricotism.”  There’s a tune of his that I play, too. I’m not sure if it’s him, but it sounds like he’s coming out of that tradition. I don’t think it’s him, but it sounds somewhere in that area. Otherwise, I can’t think of who it would be off the top of my head. It’s fantastic. I don’t know this recording. It sounds like it could be from the late ‘50s or early ‘60s; for example, a bass player from the late ‘30s or early ‘40s recording a record later, like maybe in the ‘50s. It’s the harmonic language and the sound of the recording. It sounds like something recorded in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s. That’s my guess. 4½ stars. [AFTER] I’m not surprised. I’ve heard those guys a fair amount of times. It sounded like someone from that period who had their own original material that I didn’t know of. It’s totally fresh. It sounds like they’re completely in it, and it sounds like that music is alive and they’re in that language, as if they were living then and playing it now. It’s amazing. It’s great.

6.   James Carter, “Blue Hawaiian” (from GOLD SOUNDS, Brown Brothers, 2005) (Carter, tenor saxophone; Cyrus Chestnut, keyboards; Reginald Veal, bass; Ali Jackson, drums)

It sounds like James Carter. Why did it take me so long? I’m not that familiar with his playing, and in the very beginning he didn’t play that much, he was introducing the melody, and it sounded like it could be some other people from, say, the Chicago school of saxophone players, if you want to call it that – the avant-garde, more or less, to some extent. I haven’t listened to them a lot; I’m aware of them and have listened to them to some extent. I need to check them out more, but I’m just aware of it. So at first I was wondering which one, but as it went on I was aware of James, one, because it sounded like a new recording, and two, because of the amount that he was playing – as in playing a lot and not leaving any space for anyone else, really. On a good note, as far as the amount of effects and facility on the instrument, it’s amazing. There are some things he was doing with sound that were incredible, very difficult to do. There’s one thing in particular, somewhere on the horn, maybe A-flat to B-flat, something like that, back and forth, and there were some kind of harmonics with something else going on. Sound-wise, it was kind of amazing. Really interesting. That ability is fantastic, and I enjoy that part. I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, there’s the prowess on the instrument, and the sound that the rhythm section was getting together. Even though it was a vamp, the relationship between the bass and keyboard – it was nice, what they had going. There was one little interlude between the solos, right after the tenor solos, that was really nice. My reservation is sometimes a little too much playing. If there was less, it would have been more pleasurable to listen to. I liked the song. It was a vamp more or less with some little interludes to break it up. 3stars.

7.   Greg Tardy, “As the World Rejoices” (from Greg Tardy, THE TRUTH, Steeplechase, 2005) (Tardy, tenor saxophone; Helen Sung, piano; Sean Conly, bass; Jaimeo Brown, drums)

That sounds like  Greg Tardy playing saxophone. I didn’t know if this was his record, because I haven’t heard any of his records or heard him write tunes like this. But I thought it was fantastic. It sounds really beautiful. It was an excellent composition, especially the relationship between bass and melody. It’s nice, because it’s the type of tune where you can hear the harmony just with bass and melody alone. That says a lot about the composer’s understanding of harmony. Also fantastic is the way that even though it was somewhat rubato in some sections, it still had a nice rhythmic tension, which is sometimes hard to get. It was very well done. The sound was great. I think Greg is playing a Radio-Improved that he’s shown me. Totally beautiful. 4½ stars. The only reason I don’t say 5 is just because I reserve 5 for established classics.

8.   Michael Brecker, “Prince Lasha” (from Odean Pope Saxophone Choir, LOCKED & LOADED: LIVE AT THE BLUE NOTE, Half-Note, 2006) (Brecker, tenor saxophone; Craig McIver, drums)

I don’t know what to say about that. I can’t say I liked it very much. Wow. I think I’ve heard the piece before, but I’m not sure. But on that performance the band was…wow. I mean “wow” in the negative sense. The band performance was a bit atrocious, I have to say. The time wasn’t quite happening. I don’t know what was going on. At first I thought the tenor player was Brecker, but it’s not what I’m used to. Maybe it’s other things…I don’t know what happened. It sounds like maybe someone else who sounds like him. There are certain lines that he was playing that I’m not used to hearing him play. Also, part of it is execution. I’m used to hearing even more immaculate execution and time. But on the other hand, if he’s dealing with the drummer, whoever it was, it would be hard to deal with that maybe even for him. So I don’t know. It could be someone else who sounds a lot like him, would be my guess. I was going to say maybe Tommy Smith or… I don’t know that many people. It could be Bob Mintzer, but I’m used to hearing him sound different. Or Bob Berg, But not quite. 1 star. One thing that made me think it was Brecker was sound, and there were other things he executed that were so him, that I haven’t heard anyone else do. Even for him, dealing with that, I can see why he was – for him – not as immaculate on phrases or time or whatever as he normally would be. It sounds like he’s trying to keep everyone together.

I love Michael Brecker. I think he’s fantastic. He’s an incredible saxophone player, musician, person. Musician in an ideal sense, in terms of work ethic, reason for playing, the feeling of emotion that he puts out and gives people. It’s sad for me to hear him in that situation, because it’s pulling him way down, way below what he can do. To me, he’s just keeping them together, baby-sitting them. That’s what I think. I’ll be flat-honest about it.

In terms of recordings, there are so many great ones, but one of my favorites is Brecker with strings, a Claus Ogermann date. Man, it’s super-bad. It’s an immaculate record. [Has he influenced you?] Yeah. He’s probably influenced everybody. Maybe some people would not like to admit it. But of course. Definitely. Absolutely. Yes, in many ways. Should I say how? I don’t know how to put it… Well, specifically, like many saxophone players, when I was in early college and high school, I spent a lot of time trying to sound like him. Actually, in certain ways… I did certain transcriptions, and had books with transcriptions where he kind of, among others, taught me how to play the saxophone, and certain things he could do with it… I mean, there are certain things that he’s done with the saxophone and taking, say, the language of Coltrane and people like that, and done certain things that are characteristically him. He’s not just let’s say a disciple of Trane or whatever. Not to me. He’s really added to the canon. Anyway, so he’s influenced me and maybe others in the sense that he’s kind of stretching certain ways of playing the saxophone very specifically, certain things that he can do on the saxophone. There are certain things that I didn’t realize you could do with it until I heard him play. They’re just technical things that are also musical. It’s hard to explain it. But certain things that are very difficult to do. Certain scalar things, certain patterns very, very fast to play within a range of 2½ to 3 octaves, using the upper register is a big one. The way he plays and improvises certain lines. Also the way he uses false fingerings, certain things he did that are very difficult to do, that are his. It’s his vocabulary. Out of a certain tradition, like all of us, but it’s his thing. And when he’s in an environment not like this one, it’s incredible. [Did you keep abreast of his later records?] Yeah, somewhat. Totally incredible. In fact, another thing that’s great about him is that he’s one of those people that I would like to be like, just continuing to blossom. Just better and better. It’s just incredible. Now it’s like he has all the technique and sound, deeper and more open. It seems on his last records, he’s had more opportunity to show various things he can do and changed his own playing even more. Still evolving.

9.   Ned Goold, “In The Still Of The Night” (from THE FLOWS, Smalls, 1999/2004) (Goold, tenor saxophone; Ben Wolfe, bass; Ron Steen, drums)

It’s Ned Goold. I don’t know the tune; I haven’t played it. I don’t know who’s in the rhythm section. He’s a great saxophone player. I could tell because his lines are very intervallic, but still in the ‘40s-‘50s vernacular. So that’s how I recognized him. It’s very interesting playing. It’s difficult to do that and still play the changes well. 3½ stars.

10. Chris Potter, “Morning Bell” (from UNDERGROUND, Sunnyside, 2006) (Potter, tenor saxophone; Wayne Krantz, guitar; Craig Taborn, fender rhodes; Nate Smith, drums; Thom Yorke, composer)

It sounds like Chris Potter. I’m not familiar with this tune, but it’s a great composition. I really enjoyed that. It sounds like a Radiohead tune or influenced by it. It’s the form and the harmony. There are certain basslines or certain parts of the harmony, certain things in minor thirds that make it sound like that. I don’t remember exactly, but some other spots that are like that. [Can you take a brief tangent and discuss what about Radiohead’s make them appealing to musicians in this period?] I don’t know actually. But there are a lot who are into it, including myself. Maybe because at least a fair amount of musicians are listening to other music besides jazz, and are into various popular musics, whatever they are, and then those that are of that genre, let’s say rock-influenced or whatever. I think that because the sound on their records is so great, and also they’re pretty meticulous about sounds – getting the sounds right, the sound of the record. Plus the tunes. The songs are great. It’s really good songwriting. I think a big part of it is that. Even if you just play the song without really soloing that much, like this one, they’re just nice forms to hear, and there seems to be something close about maybe what some of us are doing and what they’re doing that may be influencing us. Maybe it’s because a fair amount of us are willing to address popular music from our generation. That includes anything from something we listened in high school on – anything from the ‘80s and ‘90s. And Radiohead, among others, seems to be a good example of that. I thought that performance was fantastic, beautiful. I can’t say anything bad about it! It’s all great, fantastic. I wish I could play that well. He’s totally incredible. 4½ stars.

11.   Donny McCaslin, “Soar” (from SOAR, Sunnyside, 2006) (McCaslin, tenor saxophone; Ben Monder, guitar; Scott Colley, bass; Antonio Sanchez, drums; Pernell Saturnino, percussion; Shane Endsley, trumpet; Luis Bonilla, trombone)

It’s pretty bold to start that long with percussion. It’s interesting. I like that. I’m not sure who this is, but it sounds like an Avishai Cohen tune, or something in that scene – an active section of the tune, sort of syncopated in a scalar sense. It sounds like an Israeli vibe, or sounds influenced by it. I don’t know who it is, though. It’s a great song. I can’t quite place the guitar player. Tenor player sounds fantastic. Whoo! Killing. Sounds like some people I know, but I’m not sure if it’s them. Maybe younger people who sound like them. It sounds Latin-influenced, some type of Caribbean-Latin thing. This is a nice interlude section. It’s a great tune, a great composition. It’s really well-done. Beautiful. [FINAL SECTION] This last section is really nice! Wow. What a great arrangement. Great ending, too. Just falls right off. A little arrangement of whatever those revolving changes were. 4 stars. [AFTER] I thought it was Donny, but there was something about his sound that sounded different, so to be honest, I thought it was someone who was sounding like Donny, or checked him out.

12.   Branford Marsalis, “Laughin’ and Talkin’ with Higg” (from ROMARE BEARDEN REVEALED, Rounder, 2004) (Branford Marsalis, tenor saxophone; Wynton Marsalis, trumpet; Eric Revis, bass; Jeff Watts, drums)

Sounds like Wynton and Branford. I don’t know whose record this is, and I’m not sure if I’ve heard this record. Oh, I figured it would be Branford. I’m not sure if it’s recent or not. It’s Jeff Watts, and I would imagine Eric Revis or Reginald Veal depending on how recent it is. It’s incredible playing, understanding of swing rhythm and all those things – just the obvious things. But not only a great understanding of the swing tradition, but it’s their own language they’ve created. I’ve been influenced by it. Many people have. The way that they play that maybe objectively speaking or maybe, according to some who may be against them or not like what they’re doing, who think they’re too conservative or something… It seems like they have so much control, especially over this, that it sounds like they’re playing really free. They have a lot of creative ability. They’re  really connected, and really complementary to each other, not necessarily a thing where someone will play a certain phrase and someone else will play the same thing, but actually complementing – two different melodies that work together type of thing. They do it very well. And it’s improvised. That’s another thing that’s great, is they’re really improvising, really making up lines, but still in the whole vocabulary and vernacular of the tradition. Rhythmically it’s great, Jeff Watts’ innovations and the innovations of that group of people, whether it’s Branford’s bands or Wynton’s bands, especially Wynton’s band in the ‘80s, like ‘85, like J-Mood and Black Codes From The Underground. This was right before I went to college, so everybody was listening. Not everybody, but those that wanted to play mainstream jazz were into that, and so was I.  So yes, it’s totally incredible. 4½ stars.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Mark Turner, Tenor Saxophone

Chris Potter at the Village Vanguard This Week

On any given evening in New York City, jazzfolk possessing sufficient determination, logistical savoir faire, and funds can select from an embarrassment of riches. Last night, for example, I might have gone to the Jazz Standard to hear James Farm, the new collective “all star” group with Joshua Redman, Aaron Parks, Matt Penman, and Eric Harland. Could’ve gone to Birdland for Bill Charlap’s inimitable trio, or to Smoke, where the great tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander was swinging with piano maestro Harold Mabern.

Instead, I stayed in downtown Manhattan. Started off at the acoustically superb theater at the Rubin Museum, sited on the premises of the old Barney’s on 17th and 7th, to hear a solo concert by pianist Craig Taborn in celebration  of his new ECM release Avenging Angel, a recital constructed by Manfred Eicher from two days of in-studio improvisations. In person, Taborn compressed, presenting 8 or 9 tabula rasa improvs that showcased both his enviable interdependence,  rhythmic precision, and an array of attacks and pedaling techniques that exploited — and reveled in the harmonics of –  the full dynamic range of the Yamaha piano. It was a good reminder that Taborn — whose public profile  has become distorted by the amount of time he’s spent over the last decade playing keyboards in bands led by Tim Berne and, more visibly, Chris Potter — is anyone’s equal on the acoustic 88s.

Later, I walked down 7th Avenue to the Village Vanguard to hear the final half-hour of the first set by Chris Potter,  with whom, for the last 8 years, Taborn has played keyboards in the “Underground Quartet.” Earlier this year, Potter presented a thrilling new band with Cuban pianist David Virelles, bassist Larry Grenadier, and Harland, performing original music inspired by a reading of The Odyssey. This week — the gig runs through tomorrow — Potter is working with a stringcentric quintet that features the protean guitarist Adam Rogers and drummer Nate Smith from the Underground group, acoustic bassist Scott Colley from his acoustic quartet of the late  ’90s and early ’00s, and electric bassist Fima Ephron, a master of texture and pulse. The music was technically challenging, but also episodic, melodic, and collectively oriented. It took me on a journey.

My last stop was the Jazz Gallery, where trumpeter Ralph Alessi led as individualistic a quartet as you could think of — Jason Moran on piano, Drew Gress on bass, Nasheet Waits on drums, which performs on the 2010 release (though it was recorded in 20040, Cognitive Dissonance [CAM Jazz]. I was tired, and had to leave after three tunes (looks like I missed Ravi Coltrane sitting in; he was coming up the stairs with his saxophone). Wish I could have hung in there, though, as Alessi’s music is brilliant — highbrow, witty, rhythmically intoxicating — and the cats played it with such conversational sangfroid…

On the way home, though, Potter’s set stayed in my mind. I’ve had the privilege of getting to know him a bit over the years, both through conducting a number of public interviews on WKCR, but also in the course of writing several pieces — a blindfold test 10-11 years ago, a 2006 feature article for Jazziz, a 2008 (I think it was) cover story for DownBeat. In the 2006 piece, Potter talked about themes that seem quite pertinent to the next step that he seems to be taking.

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On consecutive Fridays last June, saxophonist Chris Potter booked himself at 55 Bar in Greenwich Village. For week number-two, 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), until the present, everybody—elders and peers, beboppers and postmodernists, traditionalists and visionaries—pays attention  when Potter plays. Now 35, he’s led a 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.”

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Filed under Article, Chris Potter, Jazziz, Review, Tenor Saxophone

Blindfold Test: Paul Motian About Ten Years Ago

It’s been a thrill to get to know Paul Motian — who ends his MJQ Tribute week at the Village Vanguard tonight –  a little bit over the last 12-13 years.  He joined me on numerous occasions while I was at WKCR, and I’ve written three pieces about him — a long DownBeat feature in 2001,  a verbatim WKCR interview on  the now-defunct jazz.com website, and the blindfold test that I’ll paste below. We did this in the Carmine Street apartment of a friend of Paul’s (I could kill myself for not remembering his name right now, as he’s a nice, extremely knowledgeable guy and facilitated the encounter). This is the raw, unexpurgated pre-edit copy.

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Paul Motian Blindfold Test:

1.    Keith Jarrett-Peacock-deJohnette, “Hallucinations”,  Whisper Not, (ECM, 2000) – (5 stars)

I’m familiar with all the players.  I don’t know who it is.  It’s not Bud Powell, obviously. …For a minute, I thought it was Keith Jarrett. [JARRETT GRUNTS] Okay, it’s Keith.  I know who the drummer is, but I can’t… I could guess and say it’s Keith’s current trio, with Jack DeJohnette and Peacock.  Five stars.  They sounded nice, man.  Good players.  Taking care of business.  I haven’t heard Keith play in that style since I don’t know when.  So for a minute I was thinking that maybe it’s a really early Keith Jarrett record from when he was going to Berklee in Boston or something.  I did think that.  I met him when he was playing… Tony Scott called me up.  He said, “Hey, man, I’ve got a gig for you at the Dom,” which was on 8th Street.  I went down there with him and Keith was playing piano.  That’s when I met him.  I said, “Wow, the piano player is great.  Who’s that?”  He said, “Keith Jarrett.  I just discovered him.” [LAUGHS] Henry Grimes was playing bass.  And I played with him that night.  That’s when I met him.  But I thought that might be early because… Well, it took me a minute to recognize DeJohnette. [What didn't you recognize?] Sort of his style of playing and not the sound.  From what I heard from the sound, I didn’t know who it was.  It sounded familiar, but I didn’t know who it was. [Maybe he wasn't playing his drums.] Could have been.  I’m pretty much going to give five stars to everybody.  I think everybody sounds great.  Why not? [But if you don't think something sounds great, it would devalue the stuff to which you give five stars.] Okay, that’s all right.  If I don’t give something 5 stars, does that mean I have go and buy the record?

2.    Paul Bley, “Ida Lupino”, Plays Carla Bley (Steeplechase, 1991) [Bley, piano; Marc Johnson, bass; Jeff Williams, drums] – (5 stars)

[AFTER A FEW NOTES OF IMPROV]  That’s Paul Bley.  I wish I knew who the bass player was.  That’s “Ida Lupino.”  Paul Bley, five stars, man.  Why not?  He sounds great.  I don’t think it’s me on drums, but it could be!  I don’t know if I can get the bassist.  Charlie Haden and I played with Paul Bley in  Montreal.  I’m wondering if this is that!  Those ain’t my cymbals. [You played with the bass player.] [AFTER] Wow.  Man, I left Bill Evans to play with Paul Bley.  And when he heard about that, he was very happy.  At that time, there was a lot happening.  I’m talking about 1964.  There was a lot going on in New York.  The music was changing, there was some interesting stuff, and things were heading out into the future.  And I felt like I was stuck with Bill and that it wasn’t happening with Bill out in California.  So I just quit.  I left the poor guy out there.  What a drag I was.  I left the guy on the road like that.  My friend, my closest friend and companion and musician. [But you had to go.] Yeah, I wasn’t happy.  I came back and got into stuff with Paul Bley. [Can you  say what it is about Paul Bley that makes you recognize him quickly?  Is it his touch?]  Well, it’s everything.  It’s the sound.  Mostly sound, I guess.  Style, touch, everything.  [So you knew it was Jack DeJohnette because of his style, but with Paul here you knew...] No, I was more sure about it being Paul than I was sure about it being Jack.

3.    Scott Colley, “Segment”, …subliminal (Criss-Cross 1997) [Colley, bass; Bill Stewart, drums; Chris Potter, tenor sax; Bill Carrothers, piano) -  (5 stars)

[ON DRUM SOLO] Nice drums, whoever it is.  I like it.  I like it a lot.  It’s 5 stars.  But I don’t know who it is. [You have no idea who the tenor player is?] No.  The first two or three notes I said, “Gee, maybe it’s Joe Lovano, but it’s not.  I feel like I should know who they all are.  But I don’t. [LAUGHS] I like the tune.  What’s that tune called? ["Segment."] Oh.  I think I played that tune. [LAUGHS] [Yes, with Geri Allen and Charlie Haden.] No wonder.  Wow.  Nice. Nice sound, the drums and everything. [AFTER] Potter?  No kidding.  That sounded really good.  Very together.  Nice sound.  I liked the sound on the drums, the way they’re tuned.  I liked it.

4.    Joey Baron, “Slow Charleston”, We’ll Soon Find Out (Intuition, 1999) [Baron, drums, composer; Arthur Blythe, alto sax; Bill Frisell, guitar; Ron Carter, bass] – (5 stars)

I have no idea who this is, but I still want to give this five stars.  They’re all playing, they’re good musicians, and it’s great! [LAUGHS]  Nice groove. [Any idea who the guitar player is?] No.  I like it, though. [AFTER] I didn’t know Frisell could do that.  He played with me for twenty years.  I didn’t know he could do that.  See, I don’t know if I would ever recognize Joey anyway.  It’s good for me to find out stuff about these guys.  I can put it to good use!  I haven’t heard Arthur Blythe much at all.

5.    Warne Marsh, “Victory Ball”, Star Highs (Criss Cross, 1982) [Marsh, tenor saxophone; Mel Lewis, drums; Hank Jones, piano; George Mraz, bass] – (5 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] Warne Marsh.  There was one particular night at the Half Note playing with Lennie Tristano, with Warne playing… He played some shit that night that was incredible!  I’ll never forget it.  That record came out a few years ago.  Tuesday night was Lennie’s night off, and we played with no piano player or a substitute piano player, and that night it was Bill. [Any idea who the piano player is?] The way the piano player was comping, for a minute I said, “maybe it’s Lennie Tristano,” but it’s not.  Everybody sounds so good!  It’s great.  I have a feeling the piano player is going to surprise me.  Five stars.  I should know who the drummer is, but I don’t. [AFTER] Wow.  I am surprised at Hank Jones.  He usually plays with more space.  It was a great experience playing with Lennie Tristano.  I had a great time.  It was a period in my life when I was playing with a lot of people, and that was a little different than what I was used to doing, and it was very enjoyable, man.  I was playing almost every night.

6.    Satoko Fujii, “Then I Met You” , Toward, “To West” (Enja, 2000) [Fujii, piano, composer; Jim Black, drums; Mark Dresser, bass] – (5 stars)

It’s worth five stars just because of all the study the bass player had to do.  There are more players playing now than when I got to New York, and at a good level.  What I’m trying to say is that the music I listened to in the ’50s and stuff came from that time, and you listened to Prez and Bird and Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday and Max and Clifford Brown and Bud Powell.  I could recognize any of that in a second.  Now there are so many players and so many good ones.  One thing that’s… I heard a few things in the piano sound that I know it’s a digital recording, which kind of bugs me.  I still hear that kind of tingy thing… I’m almost 99% sure I can tell when it’s a digital recording or whether it’s a CD, or whether it’s an analog recording from an old LP.  I mean, there’s a solo Monk record I bought when CDs first came out.  I played it once and threw it away, man.  It sounded like an electric piano.  Five stars.  One time I was playing at the Village Vanguard with Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro, and we were playing opposite Stiller and Meara.  Stiller came up to me afterwards and said, “You guys are really brave with the music you’re playing, that you would get out in front of an audience and play that music.  There’s a lot of heart in that, and you’re really brave to be doing that.  I feel that’s five stars for these guys, with what they’re doing and where they want to take the music. [AFTER] I’ve never heard of her.  I love what they’re trying to do.

7.    Ornette Coleman, “Word For Bird”,  In All Languages (Harmolodic-Verve, 1987) [Coleman, alto sax, composer; Billy Higgins, drums; Charlie Haden, bass; Don Cherry, tp.] – (5 stars)

Ornette.  Sounds like Charlie on bass.  Blackwell on drums.  Oh.  Higgins, I guess.  Well, Charlie for sure!  Couldn’t miss that.  That’s not Cherry either, is it?  It sounds like he’s playing the trumpet!  It’s not that tiny pocket trumpet sound.   It sounds like a regular trumpet.  Now that I’ve stopped and thought about it and listened, it’s Cherry, all right.  Five stars.  More if there are any.

8.    Lee Konitz, “Movin’ Around” , Very Cool (Verve 1957) [Shadow Wilson, drums, Konitz, as, Don Ferrara, tp, composer;  Sal Mosca, piano; Peter Ind, bass]  – (5 stars)

[I want you to get the drummer on this.] [LAUGHS] I recognize the beat. [SHRUGS] Lee Konitz.  It’s got to have 5 stars right there.  It’s always great when a drummer can play the cymbal and just from the feel of the beat make music out of it.   With the trumpeter, I hear something like that, I hear a specific note, and I see a person’s face that I recognize, but I don’t know who it is! [LAUGHS] That means that I know who it is…but I don’t. [LAUGHS] The style is recognizable.  It’s beautiful.  I KNOW that drummer.  Can I guess?  how about the piano player being Sal Mosca?   Oh, Jesus.  Is the drummer Nick Stabulas, by any chance? [AFTER] Wow!  I hung out with Shadow, but… [LAUGHS] No wonder there was so much music in just playing the cymbal!  You dig? [LAUGHS] That’s great.  That means the trumpet player might be Tony Fruscella, someone like that.  Someone like Don…what was his name… [It's Don Ferrara.] Yeah, so there you go.  I don’t think I ever played with Don Ferrara.  Is the bass player Peter Ind?  So it’s an older record.  Shadow was one of my favorite drummers, and to hear him play now after so many years and to see all the music that he played, just playing a cymbal!  Shadow was a motherfucker.  20 stars.  Shadow Wilson.  Shit.  That’s Shadow Wilson on that Count Basie record, “Queer Street,” where he plays that 4-bar introduction.

9.    Billy Hart, “Mindreader”, Oceans of Time (Arabesque, 1996) – (5 stars) [Hart, drums; Santi DeBriano, bass, composer; Chris Potter, tenor saxophone; John Stubblefield, tenor saxophone; Mark Feldman, violin; David Fiuczynski, guitar; Dave Kikoski, piano]

The piano and drums sound like they’re in tune with each other.  I’ll try to take a guess and say that bass player is Mraz. [It's the drummer's record.] Yeah, I figured that out.  I didn’t say anything, but… He’s the one who’s out front.  Whoever did the composition and arrangement, it’s great.  It reminds me of back in the ’60s when we were doing stuff with Jazz Composers Orchestra.  This sounds like it could be something that came out of that.  But this is more complicated somehow, more written stuff.  There’s a lot of people involved, and it’s very good.  So who’s the drummer?  Nice drum sound.  Nice tunings.  Very melodic.  Nice ideas.  He deserves some credit, man, a big organization like that.  There are a lot of good drummers out there now.  I don’t know who it is. [This drummer is close to your generation.] He sounds like he’s been around the block a few times! [LAUGHS] [AFTER] I would never recognize any of that.  The vibe is great.  The record is great.  Good for Billy.  Five stars for sure.  Look at all the work that went into that.  That was great.

10.    Danilo Perez, “Panama Libre”, Motherland (Verve 2000) [Perez, piano; Brian Blade, drums, Kurt Rosenwinkel, guitar; John Patitucci, bass] – (5 stars)

If the drummer isn’t Max Roach, Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Philly Joe, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, I’m not going to know them.  Five stars just because of the way they’re fucking with the time.  It’s not Pat Metheny, is it?  He sounds familiar, too! [Well, there's 2 degrees of separation of everybody in jazz with you.] I like people who play with dynamics.  You don’t hear it very much!  Another reason for five stars.  I think I’ve played with this guitar player too.  Are you sure I hired them?  Another thing about drums… I don’t know who the drummer is, but on recordings, did you notice how Billy Hart was so much in front, and now this guy is mixed so far back?  I guess I’m not going to get this either.  It sounds so familiar, man! [AFTER] Kurt Rosenwinkel keeps improving.  He started with me ten years ago, and now he’s out there on his own, he’s got his own band and everything.  He’s writing nice stuff and playing better.  I recorded with Danilo Perez way back, but I wouldn’t recognize him.  But that’s why the guitar player sounded so familiar.  I should have known that sound.  I said that sound was so familiar!

11.    Joe Lovano-Gonzalo Rubalcaba, “Ugly Beauty”, Flying Colors (Blue Note, 1997) -  (5 stars) [Lovano, tenor saxophone; Rubalcaba, piano; Monk, composer]

Someone said that this was the only waltz that Monk ever wrote.  Okay, let’s figure out who this is.  Okay, Lovano. [But you've also played and recorded with the pianist.] Oh, Gonzalo.  I recognized Lovano.  But when I was in England recently on tour with an English band, and I walked into the club to set up, and they were playing a CD, and I heard the saxophone and I heard it for two or three notes, and I said, “That’s Lovano.”  The engineer said, “No, it’s not.”  I said, “Oh yes, it is.”  “No, it’s not.”  “Oh, yes, it is.”  And it wasn’t.  I don’t know if I would have recognized Gonzalo except for the fact that I knew Joe had done a duo record with him.  Man, five stars.  Are you kidding?  Everything’s going to be five stars.  I can’t renege now.  Joe’s great, man.  So’s Gonzalo.  They sound nice together.

12.    Joanne Brackeen, “Tico, Tico”, Pink Elephant Magic (Arkadia, 1998) [Brackeen, piano; Horacio 'El Negro' Hernandez, drums; John Patitucci, bass] – (5 stars)

“Tico, Tico” in 5/4 time.  Five-four, five stars!  No idea who the drummer is.  Maybe I should listen a little bit! [AFTER] That was interesting.  They deserve five stars for sure.  Was it Al Foster?  I’m just guessing. [Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez.] I’ve never heard of him.

13.    Ralph Peterson, “Skippy”, Fotet Plays Monk (Evidence, 1997) [Peterson, drums; Steve Wilson, soprano sax; Brian Carrott, vibes; Belden Bullock, bass] – (5 stars)

“Skippy” by Thelonious Monk.  I was going to say Steve Lacy, but no, it’s not his sound.  Five stars just for playing a Monk tune! [AFTER] I would never have known them.  The treatment was okay.  It seemed like they just went straight-ahead and played the tune.  That’s a hard tune, man.  Even anybody to attempt that tune deserves five stars, for Chrissake.  Steve Lacy says all you have to do is know how to play “Tea For Two” and you can play “Skippy,” but I don’t believe him.  I said, “Man, ‘Skippy,’ that’s a hard tune.”  He said, ‘Well, it’s ‘Tea for Two.’”  I tried to sing “Tea For Two” along with it, but… [LAUGHS]

14.    Bud Powell-Oscar Pettiford-Kenny Clarke, “Salt Peanuts”, The Complete Essen Jazz Festival Concert (Black Lion, 1960) [start with 3:46 left] – (5 stars)

That’s “Salt Peanuts” and it was a nice drum solo, but I don’t know who the players are. [You played with one of them.] You keep saying that!  I guess it wasn’t the drummer.  It probably was the bass player.  I don’t know the piano player.  I guess because of the live recording, the sound wasn’t as great as it could have been. [Play "Blues In The Closet."] This is the same piano player?  Almost sounds like Oscar Pettiford.  I played with him in 1957 at Small’s Paradise for a couple of weeks.  I went down south with him with his big band to Florida and Virginia.  1957, man!  Wow, that was something else.  Mostly black cats; Dick Katz was playing piano and Dave Amram was in the band.  Jesus, maybe it is Bud Powell.  Is it?  So it’s a later Bud Powell.  The drummer is Kenny Clarke.  That’s the same people as on “Salt Peanuts”?  That’s not really Kenny Clarke’s drum sound. [Maybe it wasn't his drums] It didn’t sound like it.  It sounded kind of dead.  Max Roach got a lot from Kenny Clarke.  All those cats got shit from Sid Catlett, too.  He was a motherfucker, Sid Catlett.  Five stars.  Oscar Pettiford, man!  After I was playing with Oscar, he split and went to Europe and was playing there, and I got a telegram from his wife saying “Oscar sent me a telegram and said I should call you and get in touch with you, and you should go right away to Baden-Baden, Germany, and play with Oscar.”  I was playing with Lennie Tristano at the Half Note.  I couldn’t get up and leave.  There was no plane ticket!  But he liked me.  I was quite honored.  People said, “You played with OP?  Man, he’s death on drummers.  How are you doing that?”  I had at the time 7A drumsticks.  After one set one time, Oscar came over and looked at my drumstick and started bending it.  He said, “Man, what the fuck kind of stick is that?  Go get you some sticks!”

I think it’s great that there’s really quite a few good young players on the scene now.  It’s quite encouraging.  I think it’s good for jazz.  There may be a lot of them around.  It’s great.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Drummer, Paul Motian, Vibraphone

Paul Motian & Steve Nelson

Not saying I’ll make it (the best laid plans and all that), but it’s my intention to go to the Village Vanguard this evening to hear the final night of  Paul Motian’s week-long MJQ homage with Steve Nelson, Craig Taborn and Thomas Morgan. I’m very curious about this gig. This collection of personalities can play it straight or deconstruct – what will they do? With no disrespect to any other vibraphonist on the scene, Steve Nelson is my favorite on the instrument amongst a cohort of equals — everything is taste, after all. Comparing him to Joe Locke or Bobby Hutcherson or Gary Burton, or Stefon Harris (wunderkind Warren Wolf is getting there, and Tyler Blanton…and let’s not get into an hierarchical name game anyway, or I might get a mallet upside my head) is an endeavor about as useful it was for Robert Friedlander and I when, during games of baseball card war in the mid ’60s, we’d fight over whether Willie Mays trumped Hank Aaron or Roberto Clemente or Frank Robinson. Steve plays with such freshness in so many contexts, and his snaky rhythmic feel  is singular. So for my first post, I’ll  paste below a piece I wrote about Steve for DownBeat in 2007 that never made it into print. Now, this is a penultimate final draft, not the FINAL-final draft, and I would have worked more on the ending. But anyway, here it is.

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“The next young cat is going to play inside, outside, jazz, classical, play the blues, be a good reader, play with everybody—a total command,” said vibraphonist Steve Nelson last October, reflecting on the future of his instrument. “It might be a she, I don’t know. But somebody is going to take the vibraphone to a different level.”

More than a few distinguished members of Nelson’s peer group opine that although Nelson, 53, is neither a serial poll-winner nor a frequent leader of sessions, he himself is the most completely realized and original performer on the vibraphone and marimba to emerge in the wake of ’50s and ’60s pioneers like Milt Jackson, Cal Tjader, Bobby Hutcherson, Gary Burton, Walt Dickerson, and Cal Tjader. One such is Dave Holland, Nelson’s employer since 1996, with whom Nelson was preparing to embark to Asia and Australia for two weeks of gigs.

“I’ve always looked for players who are very deeply rooted in the tradition, who can move the tradition into new, contemporary areas, and Steve is one of those people,” Holland said. “The reason I use a vibraphone in my quintet and big band is because he exists. He’s an original thinker who comes to conclusions one wouldn’t expect, and he’s used our compositions as a vehicle to break new ground for the instrument.”

Upon his return, Nelson would enter Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola for a week with Wingspan, pianist Mulgrew Miller’s sextet, adding another chapter to a two-decade tenure with the band. Asked to describe Nelson’s qualities, Miller was effusive. “Steve has no limitations,” he remarked. “I can write just about anything, and he’ll make it sound beautiful. He’s definitely a swinger, but even more important is his creative fire. Like Kenny Garrett, he was already an individualist early on; they played like they were old souls already.”

Joining A-team bass-drum tandem Peter Washington and Lewis Nash, Miller plays piano on Sound-Effects [High Note], an inexorably propulsive, blues-tinged eight-tune recital that is Nelson’s first leader date since 1999. The repertoire, recorded over the course of an evening and realized mostly as first takes, includes three Nelson originals and five jazz standards, including “Night Mist Blues,” by Ahmad Jamal,” “Up Jumped Spring,” by Freddie Hubbard, and “Arioso” by the late James Williams, another frequent Nelson partner and employer throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Others who recruited Nelson for record dates or retained him for consequential tours of duty during those years include Kirk Lightsey, George Shearing, Kenny Barron, Donald Brown, Geoff Keezer, David “Fathead” Newman, and Nash.

“It was happening from the first beat,” Nash recalled of the session, which could stand as a contemporary paradigm of 21st century hardcore jazz aesthetics. “It expresses how Steve felt right then. He could easily make a record of very adventurous, modern things which are pushing the envelope in various ways, but a musician like him doesn’t feel he HAS to do that. He can go into the studio and play how he wants to play.”

“It’s a matter of the highest difficulty to play those tempos and get that kind of flow and phrasing and interplay and sound, to make the vibraphone breathe and sustain that good, swinging groove,” Nelson said in response to a comment that perhaps, given the opportunity to conduct a few pre-studio rehearsals, he might have recorded the “adventurous, modern things” to which Nash referred. “It’s not as basic as some might think. Milt Jackson did it very well, but very few people have done it, including myself. I’m trying to get to it.”|

Nelson’s protests to the contrary, his colleagues are emphatic that the 53-year-old vibraphonist-marimbist has “it” in abundance. “Steve is one of the great improvisers I’ve played with in the sense of taking chances and breaking new ground,” Holland stated over the phone from Japan. “I’ve played with him night after night, year after year, and he never fails to surprise me. Last night, for example, he did something I’ve never heard him do before, which was to use a very fast tremolo and play the voicings percussively around the rhythms that [drummer] Nate Smith was playing, which created an amazing effect. He finds so many different ways to create tonal textures with mallet combinations—we all turn our heads sideways to see the voicings he’s playing, because we can feel them. He has roots in the blues which always seem to come through somewhere, no matter what we’re playing, and he grasps all the great traditions of accompaniment through having played with so many of the great piano players.”

“I almost put him in another category than other musicians I play with,” said Chris Potter, Nelson’s bandmate with Dave Holland since 1997. “I don’t know where he channels from, or how he conceptualizes all this stuff, but I’ve played countless gigs with Steve, and I never know what he’s going to play. He’ll go along normally, then turn completely left. Or not. You just don’t know. It’s true improvisation, reacting to some inner dictates that he has access to.”

“He’s a wonderfully economical player who can say a lot with very little,” said Smith. “He’s a very abstract thinker in his comping, his rhythmic responses to odd meters, but it all makes sense, and he paints beautiful pictures with the soft and beautiful tunes he brings to the band. They say still waters run deep, and he’s the perfect example of that saying.”

The still waters metaphor also applies to Nelson’s gestural vocabulary—he coils over the keyboard, jabbing and weaving with an economy of moves to create asynchronous punctuations that bring to mind Thelonious Monk’s pouncing comp, or Muhammad’s Ali’s motto, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” “The only thing that touches the vibraphone when you’re playing is one little piece of your foot, so you use all the wide space around you,” Nelson explained.

Nelson brings to bear a full complement of rhythmic acumen on Stompin’ at the Savoy and It Don’t Mean A Thing [M&I], both inventive Nash-led trio dates for the Japanese market on which Peter Washington plays bass. “Steve understands that the vibes are melodic as well as percussive,” Nash remarks. “He builds ideas not only harmonically or linearly, but through dynamics—he knows when to strike the bar to make it speak in a certain way. He double-times and plays across the barline; the shapes of his lines give the illusion that you’re hearing polyrhythms, because his rhythm fits on top of the primary pulse, which creates a tension. He’s extremely knowledgeable about chord structure and harmonic theory, which allows him to be free even on the most basic harmonic structures. He makes even the most tried-and-true songs sound fresh. But when he plays in situations with different meters and uncharacteristic harmonies, or vamps and ostinatos over one harmonic framework, he makes that work, too.”

The sum result, stated Keezer, who deployed Nelson on four of his ‘90s dates, is “a completely original voice—home-made might be the word. I don’t hear him coming heavily out of Milt Jackson or Bobby Hutcherson, or any other vibraphonist, but more taking that postmodern language that Woody Shaw, Mulgrew, and Kenny Garrett use, and translating it onto the vibes. His free time sense is the quality I hear now in Herbie Hancock or Wayne Shorter, which suggests that they could play anything at any time and it would sound right. It’s hard to quantify, but it’s a mark of mastery in playing.”

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There are reasons why Nelson, a virtuoso musician who has made consequential contributions both to the development of speculative improvising and the tradition, is less visible to the broader jazz audience than his talent warrants. For one thing, as Nash comments, “People see with their eyes, but they don’t hear with them, and you don’t necessarily match Steve’s reticence and understated personality with this kind of musicianship. He’s not jumping up and turning somersaults and flips.”

Another reason is timing. Like Bobby Watson, Brian Lynch, Fred Hersch, Steve Coleman, Joe Locke, and David Hazeltine, all tradition-to-the-future virtuosos born in the middle to late ‘50s, Nelson cut his hardcore jazz teeth with local mentors on his home-town’s indigenous jazz scene. For Nelson, out of Pittsburgh, this occurred at the cusp of the plugged-in ‘70s, with such local heros as drummers Roger Humphries, Joe Harris, and J.C. Moses, trumpeter Tommy Turrentine, saxophonists Eric Kloss, Nathan Davis, and Kenny Fisher, guitarist Jerry Byrd, and Nelson’s direct influence, a steelworker named George A. Monroe who played vibraphone in the Milt Jackson style.

“The guys in Pittsburgh were great musicians, and I could use everything they taught me when I went to college,” Nelson recalled. “Mr. Monroe was the father of my high school buddy. I heard him play one day, and I fell in love with the sound of the vibes. He started teaching me, and thought I had some talent, so he kept on teaching me. Taught me things on piano that I could copy directly—lines and so on—and a lot of tunes. Coming up in Pittsburgh, you learned your standards, and I still enjoy playing them.”

“Steve was an amazing younger player, perhaps the brightest student I ever had,” recalled Kenny Barron, who taught Nelson at Rutgers, where he earned the nickname “absent-minded professor,” during the ‘70s. “He came to Rutgers being able to play—he knew all my tunes, and I started using him in my group.”

“We were trying to be dedicated, but it was a difficult time to maintain your focus,” Nelson recalled. “But as we moved along, we got caught in the whole Young Lions thing of the early ‘80s—we weren’t older, established guys either at the time, and we never really got a chance to expand as leaders and get our names pushed out there.”

In a certain sense, Nelson’s versatility and open attitude, his dedication to serving the dictates of the moment without concern for their “progressive” or “conservative” implication, may also work against his recognition quotient in a climate when complexity and genre coalescence are in high regard.

“It wouldn’t be that different,” Nelson said in response to an observation that, given several preparatory gigs and rehearsals, Sound-Effects might have explored some different areas. “I might write a 12-bar blues with different harmonies and extensions, but it would still be a nice, medium tempo blues. I think the most important thing you can do is to play what you love. If that happens to be ultra-modern or ragtime, or something in between, that’s great. But if it’s from your heart and it’s honest, then you’re contributing to the music. Herbie Hancock was always one of my favorite musicians, because if you put him in a blues band, or a funk band, or a straight-ahead band, he’ll play the heck out of all of them. A really good musician can contribute, no matter where they go.

“When I joined Dave, I was starting to think about the unique qualities of the vibraphone. Rather than transfer piano chords or guitar chords to the vibes, what intervals can I create? How can I space things to exploit the vibraphone as a percussive instrument? On piano, you have all 10 fingers. The shape of the vibraphone keyboard gives you different intervallic ideas; with the four mallets, you can get different ways to voice chords—I guess you could call them dissonant—that you might not otherwise think of. Those intervals allow you to use space more effectively than with other instruments. I can hit a chord, and let it ring out over the band, which leaves a lot of air for the drums, with their advanced rhythmic concept, to respond to, then the soloist puts something on top.”

Nelson added: “Although we’ve had a lot of impact on other bands playing in odd meters, to me, the real important aspect of Dave’s thing is the interplay and free flowing of ideas that his structures encourage.”

He recalled an early 2007 engagement with Kirk Lightsey at Manhattan’s Jazz Standard that provided an opportunities for conversation in notes and tones. “We played ‘Temptation,’ which contained wide-open areas between the melody for segues, and we had to listen hard,” he said. “Now, Kirk has a different tone and touch on the piano than Mulgrew Miller does, but I don’t make conscious adjustments for either of them. Now, with George Shearing, the concept was the sound of the band, rather than interplay. You’re playing at a such a soft dynamic level with the guitar and piano, that you’re inside each other’s sound—it’s like a spiritual happening. Truth is, I loved it. With any musician, if you play what you hear, it magically works. If you have the basic building blocks of musicianship together, you’ll be able to play with anybody.”

Which provoked a final question on this ideal sideman’s future plans.

“It’s becoming more important to me to be a leader, because you develop your own ideas, and want to put them out there,” he responded. “But the truth is that learning how to play that instrument is my central focus. Not many of us play vibraphone. There aren’t a lot of method books to go through. You wind up trying to play like saxophone or trumpet, or do other things that people ask, but I don’t know that we always think so much about how to create a language and a sound for the vibraphone itself. If I ever figure it out, I’ll write a book!”

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Filed under DownBeat, Drummer, Paul Motian, Steve Nelson