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.”
“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.”
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.