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Extended Analysis

Chris Potter: Underground

By Published: March 17, 2006
Chris Potter


Sunnyside Records


Consensus is always the sought-after ideal in criticism. When writers can line up behind an artist and declare his or her greatness, the health of an art form is reinforced. We need to ordain geniuses to be reassured that this love of ours is still valid, and that our scribblings, you know, mean something.

Jazz hasn't had a young mobilizing figure like this for quite some time, which motivates all the moaning about the death of the form. Many critics have placed moderate bets on saxophonist Chris Potter, whose solid new slab, Underground, is drawing raves from all quarters. He won't outsell Monk and Coltrane's exhumed output, but he'll at least sell out his run at the Jazz Standard.

Having honed his chops the old fashioned way as a sideman with Red Rodney, Dave Douglas and Dave Holland, among others, Potter's new album is heavy on group interaction. It's not a Potter album, though, it's a Potter/Krantz/Taborn/Smith album. It's based on grooves that draw heavily from funk styles (Krantz's bright guitar work is more indebted to Eddie Hazel than Pat Martino). The verse-chorus-verse structure is replaced by riding the vamp throughout, building structures around it—a jam band aesthetic really, but focused on fleshing out the tune instead of using it as a launching pad for mindless noodling.

This music, accessible and danceable, with a true respect for its P-Funk forebears, should sell out college auditoriums nationwide. The band should share a bill with The Roots, wean the kids off of bores like Soulive, and point them towards brighter jazz pastures. That's a hope anyway, and along with the minor crossover appeal of The Bad Plus, maybe some inroads are being made into the mainstream. Baby steps, but still steps.

The musicianship is unimpeachable, and many of the tunes, including the thunderous title track, are marvels of sustained and multi-faceted groove, but the overall impression is of Potter spinning his highly talented wheels. "Next Best Western (great title) boasts a serviceable vamp, an appropriately jagged guitar solo from Krantz, and fine soulful stuttering from Potter—but it never goes unhinged, making its attempt at a funk freak-out a bit staid. It's solid but doesn't linger in the ear long.

Morning Bell is an atmospheric cover of the all-atmosphere Radiohead tune, and Potter wails and mutters amid shimmering cymbal splashes from Smith and heart-beating Fender Rhodes from Taborn. It's all airy diffusion, aiming for a reflective grandeur that it never quite reaches, despite their best efforts. On the ravishing cover of Billy Strayhorn's "Lotus Blossom, though, they reach the sublime. Opening with a delicately ringing bell buffeted by gentle Rhodes flourishes, the palate is cleansed and Potter digs in with crystal clear lines, lucidly delineating the heartbreaking melody. Krantz and Taborn bubble up during the peaks with waves of chiming notes as Smith adds further lift with plashing rides. It's short, sweet and beautiful.

The Wheel kicks off with hesistant, fractured takes on the melody, the group mobilizing around it with a thick buzz, until they nail it down and establish the most memorable riff on the album. On the break, Rogers offers quick, reverberating chords that float over Taborn's burble, until Potter takes over with an extended circuitous solo that efficiently builds the anticipation for the return of the melody. It's a neat, effective piece, like the album as a whole—a breezy ride that's short on innovation but filled with small pleasures.

Tracks: Next Best Western; Morning Bell; Nudnik; Lotus Blossom; Big Top; The Wheel; Celestial Nomad; Underground; Yesterday.

Personnel: Chris Potter: tenor saxophone; Wayne Krantz: electric guitar; Craig Taborn: Fender Rhodes; Nate Smith: drums; Adam Rogers: electric guitar (6,9).

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