Chris Potter: Raising the Bar
Sometimes it takes quite a while to register a tick on the jazz richter scale. For the fortunate few, the payoff comes more suddenly. Like bonus babies in pro sports, they get signed out of high school and hyped overnight. The corporate machine rolls swiftly for them, opening up doors (radioplay) and creating the kind of visibility (festival appearances, endorsements) that might be unattainable to the average struggling jazz musician. They get featured prominently in jazz magazines and inevitably place high in the readers polls. Their latest cds are automatically included at the listening stations in Tower, HMV and Virgin and their product is stocked deeply in the bins at K-Mart, Walmart and all the marts across America.
Others take a more circuitous route to notoriety. They sign with lower profile record companies and quietly go about the business of developing their craft while scoring invaluable sideman gigs along the way. Their CDs are not readily available at record stores outside major metropolitan areas and their names are not exactly on the lips of even the most astute jazz fan, let alone the casual listener.
Saxophonist Chris Potter is one such case.
He has gradually been making his presence felt on the jazz scene since moving to New York from South Carolina in 1989 and landing a key gig with bop trumpeter Red Rodney. Subsequent gigs with Kenny Werner, Marian McPartland, Jim Hall, Paul Motian’s Electric Bebop Band, Freddie Hubbard, Steve Swallow, tours with Steely Dan and the Joe Henderson Big Band as well as a featured spot in the Mingus Big Band further established his rep as a player to be reckoned with.
Three days before his 22nd birthday, Potter made his debut as a leader with Presenting Chris Potter for the Dutch Criss Cross label. His subsequent projects for Concord—1994’s Concentric Circles, 1995’s Pure and 1996’s Moving In—have shown a startling maturity, fertile imagination and fervent sense of swing. (In retrospect, I regret not placing Chris at the top of my “Underrated” list in that recent, notorious writers poll that JazzTimes conducted.)
On his latest for Concord, Unspoken, Potter leaps to another level. Different influences are beginning to creep into both his playing and writing on this superb outing. There’s a looseness and a spirit of adventure that one did not necessarily encounter in his earlier efforts. Perhaps inspired by the stellar company he keeps on his sixth CD as a leader—John Scofield on guitar, Dave Holland on bass, Jack DeJohnette on drums—Chris executes at an extremely high level while introducing more provocative elements into the mix. His playing on a spate of recent recordings—John Patitucci’s One More Angel (Concord), Scott Colley’s Portable Universe (Freelance) and Steve Swallow’s Deconstructed (ECM) as well as upcoming as-yet-untitled releases by Billy Hart, Renee Rosnes, Dave Douglas and Paul Motian—maintains that same level of excellence and daring. Now at 26, the ubiquitous young tenor man is in the midst of a fertile period that parallels the creative output of a young Hank Mobley, Joe Henderson or Wayne Shorter. And yet, he takes it all in stride, chalking it up to experience.
“I think part of it is just growing up a little bit,” he says of this new spirit of adventurousness heard in his playing. “I was 18 when I first started playing with Red and at that point there was a lot that I just hadn’t listened to yet. I was sort of out there on the scene and had maybe checked out a little bit of one Ornette Coleman record. I just really didn’t know. Now I think he’s an important influence but that’s just a normal function of being in New York and being bombarded with so much information. As soon as I got here everyone was into everything. It was exactly the thing that I needed.”
Potter played with Rodney from 1989 until 1993, around the time that Red began showing signs of the illness that would eventually take him a year later. “Red was was extremely nice from the very beginning,” says Chris. “He seemed to go out of his way to mention me to people. It was really flattering. I think he saw in me someone who was willing to work and at least make an attempt to maybe reach beyond what I knew at the time.”
As his work with Red began slowing down, Potter began filling in with other gigs that helped catapult him to another level. Regular Thursday nights at the Time Cafe with the Mingus Big Band helped to hone his chops and toughen his attitude.
He continues an off-and-on connection with that repertory group. “There’s something about it that I don’t want to do it all the time now,” he confides, “because it would drive me nuts. There’s a competitive edge to what’s going on in that band. It’s not like all the solos are specified. You sort of have to jump up and start playing at times if you want to be heard. Everyone in the band wants to be soloing and everyone can, but it takes a certain amount of confidence to stand up and be heard, which is good. I guess that’s the closest thing I’ve had to a big band experience and I can see why it’s valuable. The main problem with a big band, obviously, is just lack of room. You don’t really have a chance to really say anywhere near all that you wanted to say, so you just have to approach it from a different angle.”
Potter says plenty on Unspoken. The music swings hard but is often rather abrasive and “out” by comparison to the rather polite, straightahead offerings generally associated with the Concord label. DeJohnette is turned loose on several tracks, whirling around the kit with typical polyrhythmic aplomb while making no apologies for the power of his backbeat. And Scofield summons up some of his nastier statements on tunes like “Seven Eleven,” the fiercely swinging “Amsterdam Blues” and the edgy “Time Zone.” Holland remains the steadfast eye of the hurricane while Potter responds to the fray with an edginess of his own. Elsewhere, he plays eloquently on the lightly swinging opener “Wistful” and on the balladic title track, goes toe-to-toe with Sco’ on the turbulent “Time Zone” and stretches mightily on soprano on the mysterious “Hieroglyph,” one of two trio numbers on the record.
“For me, this project was a chance to play with some guys I had always dreamed of playing with,” says Potter. “You always wonder, ‘Huh, what if I wrote a bunch of tunes and got Scofield and Dave and Jack...how would it sound?’ And I’m glad I had a chance to find out. They came in with a great attitude too, they were really helpful. And I was sort of nervous going in. I mean, what exactly do you do if Jack DeJohnette isn’t playing the right feel, you know? Yell at him or what? But they were easy to work with, just like anyone else.”
Chris says all the material was composed with these great players in mind. “I really keyed in on just the way that Jack plays is so free. He doesn’t have a lot of sharp edges to his playing, he just kind of floats around the beat. I don’t know how he does it. I don’t even know if he knows how he does it. He always knows where one is somehow but in the process of getting there he takes such a convoluted route.”
In Scofield, he had a guitarist at his service who could blow intuitively and with horn-like fluidity while also providing that gritty blues bite he was looking for on tunes like “Seven Eleven” and the tango-flavored “Et Tu, Brute?” As he explains, “I sort of wanted to get away from the sound of the piano. I had already done that on all my previous albums. But having John, it was sort of a cross between having a quartet with two horn players but then also having the capability of having some harmony stated directly. There’s not too many chordal things written into ‘Amsterdam Blues’ or ‘Seven Eleven.’ So for those pieces I was trying to think almost in an Ornette-Don Cherry kind of way as far as the linear writing, knowing that John could also hit some chords if he wanted to.”
While Potter continues to gig with Jim Hall’s quartet, Dave Douglas’ quartet and in an open-ended trio context with Steve Swallow and Paul Motian, he seems resigned to investing more time on composing and fronting his own group. “I’ve been working so much as a sideman, I’ve hardly ever worked as a leader. It’s nice to show up at the gig just to get called as a sideman to do it but I’m really feeling now like I really want to play my own music, present it in the way that I want to. And I guess that it’s time I start doing that. I’m 26 now and I’m not into any real big rush but I guess I wanna at least begin doing that.”
Meanwhile, he’s digging deeper than ever before on the bandstand. “I think maybe three or four years ago I had sort of a revelation,” he says. “I realized the level that the real great players are playing on is a direct result of the amount of work they put in. It’s given me a larger appreciation for the value of work. It’s a funny thing...as soon as you’re up there on the bandstand the ideal is to just not be thinking at all. And to get there is a direct result of spending time working on the things that you’ve listened to. And as you learn more and more things you sort of have to dig deeper to learn something new. Then you have to make the decision to dig deeper and deeper and deeper...and there’s no end, really.”
Chris’ tenor sax is a Selmer Mark VI 86000 he got from Michael Brecker earlier in the year and his soprano sax is a Yamaha YSS62. He uses Otto Link #9 rubber mouthpieces and #4 Rico Royal reeds. Says Chris, “I’ve actually pretty much given up playing on alto, although I’ll do it every now and then…Mingus band, whatever. But I’ve pretty much decided to concentrate on the tenor. I don’t see how it would really be possible to work on developing the voice I want to develop on more than one horn at a time. Plus, carrying it around would be a drag. When I go on tour I can just bring the tenor and soprano. A lot of tours I’ll just bring tenor.”
“I’ve been listening to a lot of Messiaen lately, trying to dig my way through his musical methods. I went through that phase a few months ago with the Bartok string quartets...bought a bunch of his scores and listened to them and really tried to follow along with what’s going on. As far as jazz things, I’ve sort of been going back and trying to fill in knowledge about saxophone players that I hadn’t checked out as much. Currently, I’m just listening to a ton of Lester Young...a perfect way to play the saxophone. He’s so intuitive. I listen to anything I can get my hands on by him. I’m also checking out Lockjaw Davis, Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons...guys that I had heard and maybe would be able to recognize even but didn’t really know all that well.”
Originally published in December 1997