Potter’s Field

Late February isn’t the best time to stand on a sidewalk in Greenwich Village, but that didn’t stop a crowd from queuing up one Friday night outside the 55 Bar, a proudly scuffed Prohibition-era boite. We were there for a late set by the Chris Potter Quartet, which had memorably packed the room in the past. While we waited, an emissary of the club walked down the line with a disclaimer: Potter, who’d just had an appendectomy, would be taking a doctor-ordered respite from the saxophone and playing Fender Rhodes. The set sold out regardless, well before my party reached the door.

I’ve since regretted missing that gig, since it’s more than possible that Potter, one of the finest saxophonists of our era, could also be a passable pianist. More pointedly, I’ve wondered whether his turn at the keyboard might have offered a glimpse at an unpolished persona-the musical equivalent of a cinematic storyboard or a painter’s preparatory sketch. Such musings are, to some degree, a natural response to Potter’s instrumental prowess. It’s tempting to believe that his main aesthetic quest is the ongoing effort to humanize technique.

That’s not to say the saxophonist has a grandstanding bone in his body. Like Sonny Rollins, Potter has tempered his alpha-male heroics with an extravagant and genuine humility. His solo albums have always been impressive but not immodest. He was surefooted enough in his mid-20s to pull off Unspoken (Concord), on which he led an assembly of avuncular all-stars (John Scofield, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette) in a way that gracefully balanced deference and self-assurance. A subsequent bout with Meniere’s disease damaged his hearing but couldn’t keep him from recording Vertigo (Concord)-which, notwithstanding a Joe Lovano cameo, featured peers like guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, who was then a cohort in Paul Motian’s Electric Bebop Band.

Motian had to have been an instructive influence on Potter, especially where melodic distillations are concerned. The saxophonist never sounded misplaced in the Electric Bebop Band, which can be heard on a succession of excellent Winter & Winter albums. (Potter has offered his personal approximation of Motian’s style with “Modeen’s Mood,” one of the Vertigo tracks he cut with Lovano.) Then again, Potter has rarely sounded misplaced in any of his sideman contexts-certainly not with the lauded Dave Holland Quintet. Even a relationship with rock avatars Steely Dan proved useful, demanding from Potter the sort of bracketed, concentrated eight-bar breaks that were commonplace in the big-band era and have all but disappeared in modern jazz. It’s no wonder he manages to bring coherent shapes to his better improvisations. The last time I heard him at the Village Vanguard with the Dave Douglas Quintet, his solos were compact revelations: sturdy, surprising and incandescent.

As a leader, Potter is still finding his voice. There are no duds in his solo discography, but neither are there any titles that tap his full potential. His two Verve albums, 2001’s Gratitude and 2002’s Traveling Mercies, are satisfying outings that find Potter covering an expansive comfort zone. Last year’s Lift: Live at the Village Vanguard (Sunnyside), which was actually recorded late in 2002, documents a less cautious dynamic; Potter and drummer Bill Stewart share an appealingly edge-of-the-seat rhythmic savvy. There’s potential for a great record by this quartet, should Potter choose to pursue it. At the moment, however, he’s more focused on an electro-acoustic outfit featuring Wayne Krantz on guitar, Craig Taborn on Fender Rhodes and Nate Smith on drums. It may turn out to be Potter’s most gripping project yet.

Underground, as the group is tentatively called, first took root in the narrow confines of the 55 Bar-where Krantz, another former Steely Dan ringer, has long held regular court. The signature vibe at 55 is an aggressive but consonant progressivism, often but not always rock-infused. (Saxophonist David Binney, another club regular, recently released a representative-sounding album called Bastion of Sanity on Criss Cross; Potter is a prominent guest presence throughout.) A musician friend who caught Potter’s ad hoc crew last year called afterward with a glowing report, and I made a note to go if they ever regrouped. I ended up catching them in September at Galapagos in Brooklyn, on the heels of a brief tour that turned them into a band. They’re slated for a longer tour in early 2006, which is when Sunnyside will release their first CD.

It’s no surprise that Potter’s Underground bears traces of early-’70s Miles Davis, but the group’s more recent influences are intriguing. Most directly, I hear alto saxophonist-composer Tim Berne, who for the past several years has led Science Friction, a bass-less electric foursome featuring Taborn and a bristling electric guitarist (not Krantz, but Marc Ducret). Potter has adapted Berne’s invention-more science, less friction-for his own creative purposes, and will hopefully give credit where it’s due. Whether he does or not, the jagged intensity of Krantz and Smith and the shadowy mystique of Taborn now have Potter skating on the edge. It’s right where he ought to be.