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Chris Potter Underground : Follow the Red Line: Live at the Village Vanguard

Chris Potter

These two albums do more than highlight different facets of Chris Potter’s musicianship. They also present his take on two idiomatic choices that are highly popular in current jazz. Follow the Red Line: Live at the Village Vanguard is the second outing by his unusual electric-funk combo Underground. Song for Anyone is a lushly orchestrated statement for 10-piece ensemble, using strings, woodwinds, acoustic guitar and rhythm section. While Underground has a snarling, pared-down quality, the tentet offers a web of bounteous and intricate color. But in various ways the two worlds commingle and collide, testifying to the coherence of Potter’s artistry.

Red Line is Potter’s second live recording from the Vanguard. The first, Lift (2004), had Kevin Hays playing both piano and Fender Rhodes. In the new quartet, the Rhodes replaces not just the piano but the bass as well. Craig Taborn handled this role brilliantly on Underground, the band’s 2006 studio release, and he’s no less effective on the live tracks. Drummer Nate Smith, another partner from the first album, brings versatility and ample groove-power to the second. Adam Rogers, who played just a bit of additional guitar on Underground, took over for a busy Wayne Krantz and did the Vanguard date, playing a solid-body axe instead of his usual Gibson ES-335. His sound may be less distinctive than Krantz’s, but his chops and musicality-not to mention his tight rapport with the prodigious Potter-make Red Line an absorbing experience.

All the material on Red Line is new. The takes are long, and we can hear Potter count off the tempos. His writing is full of tension and release, combining short, syncopated hooks and involved unison lines, open-ended vamps and passages of rippling harmonic complexity. The dialectic of loose and tight, of driving funk and softer lyricism, is quickly evident on the opening “Train.” It continues on “Arjuna,” which features a vicious Taborn solo on a minor-key ostinato. Rogers channels the mellower Hendrix on the first half of “Pop Tune #1,” before a vamp erupts and Potter takes the lead, blowing inspired tenor. “Viva Las Vilnius” heats up after a spacey interlude to highlight Rogers at his deadliest. The set concludes with “Togo,” an Ed Blackwell piece from Old and New Dreams that suits the band beautifully. Potter interprets this and the preceding track, “Zea,” a peaceful seven-minute tone poem, on bass clarinet. After Taborn’s gorgeous Rhodes setup, as “Zea” evolves, it hints at the evocative chamber jazz to be found on Song for Anyone.

There are hushed, intricate passages on Song for Anyone that could be properly described as classical. But Potter’s orchestral song cycle has a certain funkiness as well-credit bassist Scott Colley and drummer Adam Cruz for that. The arrangements are involved, precisely executed and often ingenious (headphones highly recommended). Yet this is an improviser’s band. Erica Von Kleist’s flute, Michael Rabinowitz’s bassoon, Greg Tardy’s clarinet and Mark Feldman’s violin are not simply background textures.

While Potter is easily the most prominent soloist, he often falls back to play parts, like the appetizing tenor/bassoon unison figures on “Against the Wind” and “Chief Seattle.” Steve Cardenas’s nylon-string guitar, featured so effectively on Not in Our Name by Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, functions here as both a rhythm and melody instrument. Woodwind-like single notes mesh with the ensemble on “Closer to the Sun”; fingerpicked arpeggios underscore the rock-based feel of “Family Tree”; a brief but bristling solo adds to the magic of “Estrellas del Sur.”

The writing on Song for Anyone covers a wide emotional terrain: from the subdued march tempo of “Cupid and Psyche” to the stark bass line and engrossing sectional counterpoint of the title track; from the fidgety drum break of “The Arc of a Day” to the simple, Haden-esque country mood of “All By All.” In addition to Haden’s group, one might hear echoes of Michael Brecker’s Quindectet or Maria Schneider’s orchestra. But Potter’s large-ensemble jazz has an ambience of its own.

Originally Published