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A Modern Masterpiece: Chris Potter on Recording Lift

By Published: July 28, 2004

I believe its everyone's duty whether they are politically involved directly or not, to try and live in a way that brings more harmony to the world rather than less. —Chris Potter

Recorded live, Chris Potter's current release Lift reunites Potter with band mates Scott Colley, Kevin Hayes, and Bill Stewart, the same line-up who produced the 2002 release Traveling Mercies , and with whom Potter has recorded and performed with many times over the years, whether under his own leadership or as a member of the others' various trios and quartets.

Fully capturing the unique power and synergy these four master musician's produce on stage, Lift is an exemplar of live recording. Not only is the sound quality crystal clear, but Potter and company reach peaks of collective creativity one rarely hears, and even more rarely encounters on recordings.

Each known for their strong, immediately identifiable voices and consummate skill, Potter, Stewart, Hayes and Colley have all attained equal stature as some of the foremost players in modern jazz. So it is no surprise that they sound good together. The more remarkable thing—and what will make this album one of the year's top recordings, if not of contemporary jazz—is that as strong as they may be on their own, these four never sound better than when they are together. (With the possible exception of Colley who seems to sound equally expressive and inventive no matter where or with whom he's playing.)

It was my privilege to speak with Mr. Potter recently about the genesis of Lift , the unique relationship he shares with his fellow band mates, as well as many other topics.

All About Jazz: I want to jump right into the new album. This is a fantastic recording. I think this just might be the most powerful I've ever heard you. Why did you choose to do a live album?

Chris Potter: I felt it was important to document what we do live. The band had been out for a couple of months, and the whole year or two before that we'd done a whole lot of playing together. And we've been playing together off and on for years...I thought it would really makes sense to get down on tape what we sound like live. And not try to make the tunes short, or do studio versions. It didn't seem that was the way to best serve the music. The biggest draw back might have been that there was a lot more new material that we weren't able to get on the cd.

AAJ: You opted to do a lot longer takes?

CP: We just decided to forget the tape machine was on. To do what we usually do. It naturally ends up longer. But you also get the energy of the live performance and you get how we extend things, how the arc of a performance goes more than on any of the studio cds. I felt that it was time to show people that don't have the chance to see the band live what we are up to.

AAJ: You have a long history of playing with Bill [Stewart] and Scott [Colley], and Kevin Hayes. How did that come about?

CP: I met Bill the first night I was in New York. He was playing with Larry Goldings and Peter Bernstein. They were playing for tips. I recall thinking, 'Wow. New York is a really tough town if these guys are playing for tips.' They sounded amazing. I met Scott a couple of years later and we did a lot of playing together in various situations, really became good friends. I probably met Kevin around the same time and we performed together now and then. I guess we really started playing together as a band a lot more around the year 2000, there was a series of drummers that we were using, but there was always the trio with Scott and Bill, and I thought maybe I should keep this separate from the quartet. Eventually it was kind of obvious that it worked so well, and that Bill was the right guy. I'm just a huge fan of his playing.

We all have this long history together. We're all a similar age and have a similar jazz background. We all really grew up within the jazz tradition, learning to play bebop. We've all had experience working with the older generation of musicians, but also not wanting to do exactly what they did. We have a similar slant on being pretty familiar with the jazz tradition but not wanting to be locked in by it.

AAJ: What makes playing with them different or special?

CP: The level and ease of communication.

AAJ: Does that rapport stay steady when you haven't been playing together, can you drop right back into it?

CP: Seems like its fairly easy. Of course, the experiences you have when you're not playing together, you bring them into the situation. We're all doing lots of different things and growing, so whenever we do have a chance to play with each other we get the chance to bring those things into it. But we know each other's playing so well—and they are such great musicians. I feel like I can depend on them, and hopefully they feel they can depend on me. We can really play in such a way where we're not worried about playing the changes or keeping the form. It's about communication and trying to see what we can build on that particular night.

AAJ: I've seen all of you play together, and I've also seen each of you play with other groups and it's been very interesting to see how distinct your voices are as players and yet depending on who's taking the leadership role, you can end up with very different results. How does that creative process work? Is it always a smooth ride?

CP: Its pretty organic. We're all sufficiently secure enough that if somebody has a good idea, we want to listen. With each tune you just play it a bunch and maybe have a conversation after asking what people thought. But not that much of it is discussed. It just finds its vibe.

AAJ: To me that seems a hallmark and a difference of the jazz group compared to other forms of music.

CP: I think we all have respect for each others playing. No one feels they have to carry the other person. And this is the approach I like to take as a leader. I really want to be able to get the best out of the people I'm working with, which just involves letting them do what they do. If I tried to box Bill and Scott in I can't imagine—they'd just laugh at me first of all—but it just wouldn't be as great as letting them figure it out themselves.

AAJ: How would you describe Bill and Scott and Kevin' styles to a non-musicians who was interested in getting into the music?

CP: A big hallmark of Bill's playing is his clarity. He's playing all these polyrhythmic ideas. Ideas on top of ideas, all these elements are happening, but it never sounds cluttered, it never sounds half-baked. It always sounds as if he's really thought it through. He has a language and he's worked on extending that language and he's very clear in his thinking. And his time feel. It's very easy to hook-up with.

AAJ: I think, as you said, that even though there's all that complexity, for the listener there's always this stable net back there that helps give access not only to what he's doing, but what everyone else is playing.

CP: Right. It effects how everyone else plays. Definitely. It gives us the freedom too. You just know there's a groove there that's not going to let up no matter how abstract it gets.

Scott. He's just a natural on the bass... It's always easy to recognize that it's Scott when you hear him. You really understand it when you see him play and know him, see how he's moving and how he's getting that sound. It's very light and flowing, but also definitely grooving. That is a difficult thing. There are people who have one or the other. But Scott has both, and brings them together organically. He hears these floating melodies, all these divisions of bar lines, but it's always about the groove.

AAJ: When it comes to recording live, do you approach it differently? How do you guarantee your going to get what you want that night?

CP: (Laughing) You really don't know. Obviously, it's never going to be perfect. It's never going to be a performance where every second of it you go 'Oh, yeah, I did exactly what I wanted there' Very rarely would that happen. But you just go and hope for the best really. I remember after the week was over, I tried to just leave it alone and not listen to it for awhile so I could come back later, after I'd forgotten all the particulars, and hear it again.

AAJ: When you look back at it now, are there any moments that stand out, like if you were directing listeners, is there something you'd want them to listen for?

CP: The things I'm most proud of are when you can really tell everyone is playing together. Of course, we're playing together all the time, but there are moments that are more collected and you can hear that. It's hard for me to think of any specific moments.

AAJ: I was just curious because there's always the process when you've created something you can sometimes zero in on something that for one reason or another, sometimes just for personal reasons, you're proud of or particularly happy with.

CP: I'm actually a fan of the quieter moments on the album. I like that. I like how "Okinawa" builds and stays within a certain key and grooves there for awhile which is in contrast to a lot of the other stuff on the record. A lot of what I like is the energy—like you were saying—the live energy, the way it doesn't let up.

AAJ: Is there anything you're not happy with?

CP: Oh well, yeah sure.

AAJ: That's the easier part? Finding the things you'd like to improve?

CP: Again, I'd have to think about it to come up with specifics, but that's part of the process too. When you make a recording, part of what that does is to get it out of your system so you can say, 'what am I going to do next?'

AAJ: It always seems like it's easier to find the things you want to improve than the things you're happy with.

CP: Yeah, yeah. That's always the way it seems to be.

AAJ: When do you think you are at your best? When you are practicing or when you are performing?

CP: Hopefully when I'm playing live. That's when the energy comes back, when I get something back from the audience. When you are playing in front of an audience there are definitely things you end up doing that you can't when you are practicing. I guess there's a level of relaxation when you are practicing that can be good. You're not trying to impress anyone, you're just trying to practice. It would be hard for me to say. I definitely get more enjoyment—I don't know, sometimes I really enjoy practicing too—but the enjoyment level when you are playing in front of a really good audience and the band is together, that's just such a high. It's a great feeling. It would be hard for practicing by yourself to compare to that feeling.

AAJ: I want to rewind for a minute to you previous album Traveling Mercies. Another album with the same crew. In the liner notes you very pointedly referenced the events of 9/11. In the years since then, has your perspective changed? Have any of the ensuing events changed the way you were thinking about those issues, and is that reflected in your music?

CP: I'm sure it's reflected in my music because it's how I think about things. In a lot of ways, many of my worst fears were confirmed. I knew it was going to go that way, but realizing now that this has happened you know there's going to be more war and more killing. And there has been. The only thing I can hope is that it ends as soon as possible and that there's the least amount of damage done. 'Cause I have a feeling the policies that the U.S. has been following will just ensure the cycle of violence keeps on going.

AAJ: Before these events, was this something you were tapped into? Following international politics?

CP: Yes and no. I'm not really the kind of person that is obsessed with it. I don't get The Nation. But I do try and know what's happening on some level. I think the thing about it is that when I start reading about it too much, it becomes overwhelming. And depressing. I feel my energy would be better spent trying to make something positive. But I do want to know what's going on, and hopefully try with my music—and how I live, I believe its everyone's duty whether they are politically involved directly or not, to try and live in a way that brings more harmony to the world rather than less. That's how I look at it.

AAJ: I'm always interested in not only how art interacts with itself—which I think is what we usually look at—but also how it interacts with the broader environment. Most of the people in a room listening to music, or consuming any art form, are not practitioners. In your opinion, is your music more descriptive, more introspective , or is it an attempt to send a message out there, to really shift people's opinions and feelings?

CP: Well, you definitely want to effect people. One big function of art is your trying to communicate something that you can't just say in words. You're trying to communicate an experience. This is what it feels like to me. This is what being alive feels like to me and let me share it with you. And that radiates out, and being able to communicate that is kind of a magical thing, and somehow art is able to do that. Music is an amazing phenomenon. It's an amazing phenomenon that you go up there and play an instrument and people feel something. They can recognize something in themselves that can relate to what you are doing. That's the real magic of it.

And it can change how you feel. It's obvious. Every great musician I've listened to—my life is definitely different and richer for having listened to Charlie Parker. Definitely changed my reality of how I think about the world. For him it was probably about exploring what ever he wanted to explore and to express himself. But you put that out in the world and it ripples out and hopefully it can change people's lives in some way.

I'm not a huge fan of trying to cram a message down people's throats. I really would prefer to put it out there and have people think about it.

AAJ: Obviously you're not up there playing folk music with political lyrics.

CP: Right. Right.

AAJ: Which is a more direct way to link your politics with your art.

CP: I feel like if tried to be that direct it would detract rather than add to the music. And that's not worth it to me. I would rather someone from any political stripe—if they're able to get something out of it, maybe that's more important to me. Hopefully I can help change someone's mind in some way, or just effect people in a way to make them care more about their fellow human beings.

AAJ: A longer perspective.

CP: Yeah. Longer, but maybe a little deeper.

AAJ: Do you pursue any other art forms?

CP: Really, really, as a hobby that I don't really have a chance to do that much, every now and then I'll draw. I think as a kid I did a lot more visual art type of things. It's actually something I'd love to do if I had more time.

AAJ: Do you see any connection between the visual aspects and your music?

CP: Yeah, oh yeah. When you are improvising, hopefully you can keep a big enough picture in mind that you realize with every note you play, with every phrase your choosing you are painting a picture. You're saying, 'I'm gonna put this here, and I'm gonna put this here, and I'm gonna balance this off with this.' A very similar type of thing to 'It's very busy in the right hand corner over here so I'm going to do something in the opposite corner to balance that and maybe cool things out in the middle.' It's that same type of process. Art seems to tend to all boil down to that same type of thing, to express human experience.

AAJ: O.K. I think its time to shift things outside of music for the last few minutes.

CP: Shoot.

AAJ: How do you unwind?

CP: Hang out. Make some food. Go to a movie. Probably what everyone else does. I went on a nice bike-ride today.

AAJ: Favorite book?

CP: No. It's always impossible for me to choose a favorite anything. The book I read most recently that I found really interesting was this book called "Guns, Germs, and Steel".

AAJ: Favorite T.V. show?

CP: I don't watch enough TV to have a favorite. I can't really remember—I guess I watch it when I'm on the road sometimes and fall asleep.

AAJ: O.K. Good endorsement for T.V.! 'I use it as a sleep aid.'

Do you have an album or a song that influenced you the most because it was so awful you never wanted to sound like that?

CP: (Laughing) Wow. My least favorite tune. That's a great question. It's funny, if there's ever anything that really turned me off that much, if I went back and listened to it again there might be something I kind of liked about it. I remember everyone hated the Bee-Gees, you know? Now when I listen back to some of it, there's something I kind of like about it? It's extremely cheesy, I know this...

AAJ: O.K. I'm putting that answer down as, 'the Bee-Gees, but I kind of like it'.

CP: Fair enough.

AAJ: If you were a Looney Tunes character, who would you be?

CP: I'd want to be Bugs. I always kind of related.

Related Link
Chris Potter Fan Site

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