Although no longer considered the essential destination for working jazz groups that it once was, Philadelphia is still visited by high-level talent from New York that occasionally ventures south to perform in the city's one consistent jazz venue. Despite the current lack of mainstream interest in jazz, in Philadelphia or elsewhere, the Chris Potter Quartet performed two sets for a crowd which filled every seat, barstool, and available standing room well before show time.
Potter is known for offering a constantly evolving range of musical output. His individual projects often feature completely unique personnel choices, and each new recording seems to hint at a new overall musical direction. His latest recording, The Sirens (ECM, 2012), was inspired by Homer's "The Odyssey," and musically reflected the desire to fuse ethereal composition with strongly rooted post-bop sensibilities. Most of the band featured on the record joined Potter for both sets, including bassist Larry Grenadier
During the evening's performance, Potter displayed his well developed skills as a doubler, often playing the melody to certain tunes on tenor saxophone before switching to soprano saxophone for his solo. Potter began the Paul Motian composition "The Owl of Cranston" with a rubato bass clarinet introduction with the solidity of a classical soloist. His fiery tenor playing was in full form, displaying a more straight ahead style than the funk inspired, groove-based improvisations heard on albums such as Underground (Sunny Side, 2006).
One of the more striking features of the evening's performance was the ubiquitous nature of the band's interactions. Although Potter either composed or arranged all of the music, there were instances in which the band could have just as easily been following the musical direction of Virelles more so that Potter himself. Particularly during solos, Virelles seemed to coax more energy from the rhythm section than Potter, simultaneously weaving angular lines within knotty fragments of extended chordal passages. The dynamic variation was far more varied, and the group displayed a strongly noticeable musical empathy under Virelles' lead. His advanced rhythmic sensibilities were shown on his solo introduction to the new Chris Potter composition "Kalypso," a tune which also featured a solo from Harland.
Harland and Grenadier brought forth unique sides of their musicality, which are sometimes taken for granted, perhaps, given their strength as individual soloists. Both were able to accurately navigate charts which were still fairly new while retaining an artistically transcendental separation from the written music. Harland was twice featured as a soloist, drawing applause each time before the solo was even completed. Perhaps the highest compliment came from the attentiveness of his band mates, who appeared to be equally as engaged as the audience, rather than simply keeping track of the form. Harland proved that, despite his unbelievable technique, a devotion to the music at hand is far more important than displaying physical prowess. His ability to frame the work of the individual soloists perfectly complimented the raw energy put forth during his own solos.
With such a large crowd in attendance for a one-night-only performance, it is curious to see such a small number of New York-based groups making the trip south to Philadelphia. Whether it is an issue of finance, logistics, or simply conflicting schedules, Philadelphia has proven that, if given the chance, they can display their affinity for the music which the city was once known for. Perhaps more musicians will take notice and help in putting the city back on the map for today's most accomplished jazz musicians.