05/29/12

Chris Potter at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 5/5/12

The saxophonist invites a host of young players to join him for lunch

Colossus of contemporary sax Chris Potter got the Cheltenham Jazz Festival weekend off to a stunning start on May 5 with an intriguing new venture. Last seen at Cheltenham with the all-star Overtone Quartet, Potter returned with something very different, a performance of his chamber-jazz suite, the beautifully expansive album, A Song For Anyone. Alongside him sat nine of Birmingham Conservatoire’s top young musicians—three string players, three woodwinds, guitar, double bass and drums—specially assembled for the lunchtime concert.

The setting was very much “maestro-plus-students.” While the accomplished younger players were not quite starstruck, they were certainly keen to impress. Soaring above the richly textured score, it goes without saying that their American bandleader played brilliantly. With a prodigy like Potter in charge, the students’ offerings were more tentative, understandably. But Rebecca Woodcock on clarinet, clean-picking Gareth Fowler on guitar and, in particular, Pei Ann Yeoh on violin gave some spirited efforts. Dan Casimir was outstanding on bass too, responding to soloists, cruising with the band and dueting with verve alongside Potter in one piece.

The set opened with “The Absence,” framed by neo-classical interludes from the students and punctuated by some inspired solo flights and high-altitude harmonics by Potter—very much in the mode of Michael Brecker. “Chief Seattle” imbued some sly, rubbery funk to the proceedings fused with some compelling strings scoring, followed by sultry blues groove “Family Tree,” which pitted Woodcock’s clarinet alongside Potter’s smoldering tenor.

Potter presented the next four pieces as a suite. Lucy French’s solo cello opened “Estrellas Del Sur” before guitarist Fowler picked a folk-like melody and embarked on a solo, with Potter switching between tenor and bass clarinet. The schizophrenic “The Arc of a Day” began with solo drums and mournful cellos before shifting to something more angular and atonal. This flowed into “Against The Wind,” which saw Potter erupting in a stunning solo, reminiscent of Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek. And then came the swinging, gospel-esque encore, the irrepressible “All by All.” Casimir got stuck into some rootsy riffing, clearing the path for some of the most singing, heartfelt sax playing of the festival. Its simplicity contrasted with the rich complexity of what had gone before and worked a treat.

Potter is one of the most dazzling soloists, inspiring the listener to get lost in the music; his spontaneous phrasing arrives rounded, never clichéd. At times, the strings perhaps seemed a little grafted onto the original scoring. But this mild quibble seemed irrelevant in context of Potter’s own magnificent playing. Some of the audience said afterward they would have preferred Potter to play a more orthodox jazz set. But we had that last year with Overtone; 2012’s experimental instrumental fusion was compelling, to say the least. The gig was a fine example too of one of the giants of jazz giving something back, mentoring the next generation with some truly progressive sounds. Above all, it was a rare chance to see the accomplished composer and world-class soloist, straight from the lineage of Coltrane, Young and Rollins, perform some remarkable music. The icing on the cake, though, came later when Potter joined the late-night jam at Hotel Du Vin nearby, alongside bassist Casimir, Marcus Miller’s horn section and the Trondheim Jazz Exchange in a steaming bebop blow-out.

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