Saturday, August 13, 2011

Chris Potter: A Saxophonist With His Own Voice

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

 "Chris was in my composition class at the New School [for Jazz and Contemporary Music, NYC] for about a year. When he called me for a private lesson, I had no idea how he played. We started with a bebop tune; but he went further out on the second thing we played, and on the third tune he was playing in the language of my contemporaries, guys who grew up following all of Miles' bands and aspiring to the kind of spiritual strivings that defined Coltrane's music. By the fourth tune, I wanted to take a lesson from Chris."
- Kenny Wheeler, Jazz pianist

“I try not to allow myself any preconceived ideas of what I should sound like, what kind of music I ought to be writing, or what I ought to be listening to. In this way I hope to discover what I actually do sound like, and what I enjoy in music. The moments of greatest beauty and originality always seem to happen when there's no agenda.”
- Chris Potter, Jazz saxophonist

“Potter is growing into one of the major saxophonists of today. [He is an] astonishingly confident and full-bodied player and shows prowess on any of his chosen horns, each of which he plays in a muscular post-bop manner that are full of surprising twists ….” [Paraphrase]
- Richard Cook, Brian Morton, Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“He’s something special. It’s funny. Of all the youngsters out there today, they didn’t find out about Chris until after all the ballyhoo. But he’s the man.”
- Red Rodney, Jazz trumpeter

I’ve always had a lot of respect for the late Jazz trumpeter, Red Rodney, both as a person and as a musician for reasons that will be discussed at length in a future JazzProfiles feature about him.

I’m also always on the lookout for “new voices” on the Jazz scene.

So when I heard Red Rodney declare during a radio interview words very similar to the ones in the following quotation, I paid attention.

I’m glad I did because it helped me discover the Jazz saxophone playing of Chris Potter sooner, rather than later, and I have really enjoyed making the journey “with him” over the past twenty years or so as he has become one of the premier saxophonists in today’s Jazz world.

Here’s what Red had to say about Chris:

“I first played with Chris Potter at the South Carolina Main Street Jazz Festival, an annual thing we do. Three years ago the producer said, we've got our young hot shot here. Every town has one so I said, yeah, OK. Not to be nasty I let him play a tune. Well he wound up playing the whole set.

This young kid knew everything, the entire repertoire. He was not quite eighteen then, but very mature. He went on to win a Presidential scholarship for academic and musical excellence. He also won the Zoot Sims scholarship for the New School, and the Hennesey Jazz Search scholarship. I told him, when you come to New York, call me and I would introduce him around.

Coincidentally, he called just as Dick Oatts was leaving. Dick Oatts had been in my band for five years after Ira Sullivan. So I asked this young man to come and play with us and he's been there ever since.

Everywhere we go, he just breaks it up. This young man is mature. I think with a young man like Chris, you have to let him alone. You have to nurture him but let him do it his way. Eventually he'll swallow the world. In addition, he's a great pianist. We could have recorded a piano solo by him and he would have played beautifully. And he's also a writer.

His style is highly original but, he absorbs something from everyone. He is not, however, like many young ones are, a Coltrane or Michael Brecker clone. That's very important because the main idea of Jazz is to become original, to gain your own style. This is the epitome of Jazz.

When you hear Clark Terry, in two bars or four bars, you know who it is. The same for Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker. There are so many others that you can tell within two or four bars, you know them immediately. That's what I've always tried to get in my playing. If it's original, you've succeeded.

So when you find a youngster like Chris Potter who develops his own style, it's wonderful.” – Red Rodney [as told to Bret Primack].

Following Red’s radio interview, I searched out Chris Potter’s first CD under his own name which Gerry Teekens appropriately entitled: Presenting Chris Potter [#1067].

Neil Tesser insert notes to the CD contain the following observations about Chris’ uniqueness:

“In the current proliferation of baby-faced jazz musicians — many of them gifted, and almost all of them hitting the ground with far more training than their counterparts of earlier generations — we can certainly grant the modern listener a certain skepticism. A well-earned reserve. An instinctive tendency to survey the landscape and wonder where the hell so many similarly skilled youngsters came from. Can they all be that good? What does it take for a musician to rise above the rest, to leave an imprint on the music as a whole? And how soon can such a player really establish himself as a leader of this pack?

At the heart of such conjecturing stands the unpretentious young saxophonist named Chris Potter, who with this album makes his five-star debut as a leader. …

"He's been with me three years now," brags [trumpeter] Red Rodney (warming to the role of surrogate father). "I watched him grow. When he got to New York, he went all over, listened to everybody, soaked it up like a sponge — then spit it out like Chris Potter.

He has his own sound, his own style, and his time is by God sensational. Every place I bring him all over the world, people just stand up and cheer, and he's not the kind of player who plays screech music for that kind of attention; he gets it by sheer artistry."

Ah, youth.

And yet, Potter invites and survives comparisons with musicians who have three times his experience. Two days shy of his 22nd birthday at the time of this recording, he shows a maturity in his improvising, as well as his writing, that obliterates the qualifiers attached to so many in jazz's youth movement. Potter doesn't play well "for a 22-year-old"; he plays well, period.

He brings to each of his saxes a separate personality and the makings of a distinct and recognizable tone, in each case descending from his first horn: his tenor work has a comparatively light timbre — more alto-like — and his soprano sounds rich and full. What's more, Potter doesn't restrict himself to the bebop and post-bop idioms favored by so many of his contemporaries; he frequently edges a solo outside the expected boundaries, yet always with ‘form and structure, and a melodic bent’ in the words of Red Rodney.

Beyond anything else, Potter improvises like someone with an ancient soul; on each tune, he spins a knowing, patient, and yet excited and exploratory solo. He finds deeply effective melodies everywhere and at any tempo, ….”

As is the case with many of today’s Jazz artists, Chris has his own website which you can locate by going here. It contains a full discography, a number of videos and photographs and lots more information about his career including the following overview of his career written by the highly respected Jazz writer, Bill Milkowski.

At the conclusion of Bill’s retrospective, you will find two videos containing audio tracks that provide samples of Chris’ powerful saxophone work. The first of these is a tribute to Chris which features him along with trumpeter Ryan Kisor on Charles Mingus’ Boogie Stop Shuffle.  The second has Chris performing his original composition Juggernaut with John Swana on trumpet as the audio track to a feature on The Art of Jazz Drumming, Part 2.

We’ve also included Bret Primack’s video “interview” with Chris entitled Way Out in the Southwest [you can close out of the commercial at the outset of the video by clicking on the “X” in the upper-right hand corner] and two videos from the Jazz Open Stuttgart concert of December 22, 2010 on which you can hear and see Chris performing Duke Ellington’s The Single Petal of a Rose and his own composition, The Wheel, with his current group, Underground.

 “A world-class soloist, accomplished composer and formidable bandleader, saxophonist Chris Potter has emerged as a leading light of his generation. Down Beat called him "One of the most studied (and copied) saxophonists on the planet" while Jazz Times identified him as "a figure of international renown." Jazz sax elder statesman Dave Liebman called him simply, "one of the best musicians around," a sentiment shared by the readers of Down Beat in voting him second only to tenor sax great Sonny Rollins in the magazine's 2008 Readers Poll.

A potent improviser and the youngest musician ever to win
Denmark's Jazzpar Prize, Potter's impressive discography includes 15 albums as a leader and sideman appearances on over 100 albums. He was nominated for a Grammy Award for his solo work on "In Vogue," a track from Joanne Brackeen’s 1999 album Pink Elephant Magic, and was prominently featured on Steely Dan’s Grammy-winning album from 2000, Two Against Nature. He has performed or recorded with many of the leading names in jazz, such as Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland, John Scofield, the Mingus Big Band, Jim Hall, Paul Motian, Dave Douglas, Ray Brown and many others. 

His most recent recording, Ultrahang, is the culmination thus far of five years’ work with his Underground quartet with Adam
Rogers on guitar, Craig Taborn on Fender Rhodes, and Nate Smith on drums. Recorded in the studio in January 2009 after extensive touring, it showcases the band at its freewheeling yet cohesive best.

Since bursting onto the
New York scene in 1989 as an 18-year-old prodigy with bebop icon Red Rodney (who himself had played as a young man alongside the legendary Charlie Parker), Potter has steered a steady course of growth as an instrumentalist and composer-arranger. Through the '90s, he continued to gain invaluable bandstand experience as a sideman while also making strong statements as a bandleader-composer-arranger. Acclaimed outings like 1997’s Unspoken (with bassist and mentor Dave Holland, drummer Jack DeJohnette and guitarist John Scofield), 1998’s Vertigo, 2001’s Gratitude and 2002’s Traveling Mercies showed a penchant for risk-taking and genre-bending. "For me, it just seemed like a way of opening up the music to some different things that I had been listening to but maybe hadn’t quite come out in my music before," he explains.

Potter explored new territory on 2004’s partly electric Lift: Live at the Village Vanguard (with bassist Scott Colley, drummer Bill Stewart and keyboardist Kevin Hays) then pushed the envelope a bit further on 2006’s Underground (with guitarist Wayne Krantz, electric pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Nate Smith). As he told Jazz Times: "I've wanted to do something more that seems to be in the air, all around us. But also keep it as free as the freest jazz conception."

He continued in this electrified, groove-oriented vein with 2007’s Follow The Red Line: Live at the Village Vanguard (with guitarist Adam
Rogers replacing Krantz in the lineup). Says Potter of the adventurous new path he’s carved out for himself with his bass-less Underground quartet: “There was a point where I felt like the context I had been using before wasn’t quite working to express what I wanted or to move forward in some kind of way. My aesthetic as a saxophonist has always been based in Bird and Lester Young and Sonny Rollins and all the other greats on the instrument. What I’ve learned from them in terms of phrasing, sound, and approach to rhythm I’ll never outgrow. However music’s a living thing; it has to keep moving. I’ve been touched by many forms of music, like funk, hip hop, country, folk music, classical music, etc., and for me not to allow these influences into my music would be unnecessarily self-limiting. The difficulty is incorporating these sounds in an organic, unforced way. It helps me to remember I want people to feel the music, even be able to dance to it, and not think of it as complicated or forbidding. If I can play something that has meaning for me, maybe I’ll be able to communicate that meaning to other people, and the stylistic questions will answer themselves.”

With the ambitious Song For Anyone (released in 2007 also and dedicated to the memory of Michael Brecker), Potter flexes his muscles as an arranger on original material for an expanded ensemble featuring strings and woodwinds. "That was a learning process," he says of this triumphant tentet project, "because I hadn’t done anything on that scale before. I just decided to sit down and write, and it was extremely gratifying to see how it translated into live performance."

Looking back over his 20 years since arriving in
New York, Potter says, “I’ve had the chance to learn a lot from all the leaders that I’ve worked with. Each gave me another perspective on how to organize a band and make a statement. It’s taught me that any approach can work, as long as you have a strong vision of what you want to do.”

His initial gig with Red Rodney was an eye-opening and educational experience for the 18-year-old saxophonist. “I wish I had had the perspective I have now to appreciate what a larger-than-life character Red was.” Potter's years with Paul Motian's Electric Bebop Band represented a wholly different approach from Rodney’s old school bebop aesthetic on stage. “Motian has really had a big affect on the way that I think about music,” says the saxophonist. “He approaches things from such an anti-analytical way. It’s so different than so many of the other musicians that I’ve had a chance to work with. Motian more relies on his aesthetic sensibility and his instinct. He’s basically just trusting his gut and he’s so strong about it that he can make it work. And it takes a lot of courage to do that.”

From bassist-bandleader
Dave Holland he learned about the importance of focus and willpower. "Dave is determined to make his music as strong as possible and present it in the best way," says Potter, who has been a member of Holland's groups for the past 10 years. "Playing with him, you have the feeling there’s this mountain standing behind you that you can completely rely on. Working with him over the years has helped me see the true value of believing in what you’re doing.”

Potter also cites his time on the bandstand with guitar legend Jim Hall as inspirational. “The way that he can be both melodic and sweet and deeply inventive and open-minded at the same time made a big impression on me," he says. Touring and recording with the enigmatic duo of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker (Steely Dan) offered further insights into the artistic process. “They totally went their own way," says Potter. “I have a lot of respect for them and their commitment to their art.”

And Potter has remained committed to his art since his formative years. Born in
Chicago on Jan.1, 1971, his family moved to Columbia, South Carolina when he was 3. There he started playing guitar and piano before taking up the alto saxophone at age 10, playing his first gig at 13. When piano legend Marian McPartland first heard Chris at 15 years old, she told his father that Chris was ready for the road with a unit such as Woody Herman’s band, but finishing school was a priority. At age 18, Potter moved to New York to study at the New School and Manhattan School of Music, while also immersing himself in New York’s jazz scene and beginning his lifelong path as a professional musician.

Now a respected veteran (as well as a new father), Potter continues to work as a bandleader and featured sideman. Surely many interesting chapters await. As his longtime colleague, alto saxophonist-composer
Dave Binney, told Down Beat, “Chris is open to anything now. From here on anything could happen.” -Bill Milkowski