Chris Potter: Raising the Bar
Such was my experience of first encountering tenor saxophonist Chris Potter's music. Having heard about his work relative to Steely Dan and Dave Holland's groups for a while before really establishing the pertinent connections made it all the more poignant. Groups of that disparate stature using the same tenor I'd never heard of made it all the more interesting. The ripple metaphor also extends beyond the connections Potter has made and is making throughout the creative music worldthemselves interrelatedbut also to the organic nature of music itself and how it affects others in that world.
Having worked extensively with creative units from the revamped Steely Dan to the disparate quintets of Dave Holland and Dave Douglas, to Paul Motian's trio and guitar icons Jim Hall and Larry Carlton, Potter is stands on the brink between seasoned and poised as a major new voice in both contemporary improvised music and composition. Frequenting the term "spontaneous composition" as a replacement for improvisation, Potter not only makes good on the claim in all the sub-genres he mines, but also attracts like minds to the synergistic constructs that they come to create.
Having just released Underground, his eleventh album in roughly as many years, and now touring Europe in support of it, Chris Potter finds himself involved in an incredibly concentrated creative period and resulting expanding circles of focus.
While his 2001 release, Gratitude, was a devotion to his influencesColtrane, Eddie Harris, Wayne Shorter, Miles, Sonny Rollins and othersUnderground is more an agile, funky blowing session with attitude which reflects where the live band is right now. The lineup includes fellow Steely Dan alumnus Wayne Krantz on guitar (plus Adam Rogers on two cuts), Craig Tayborn on Fender Rhodes and Nate Smith on drums. Since Krantz is again touring with the Donald Fagen band, only Rogers is making Potter's tour.
Days after this interview Potter had already started rehearsals with the newly reformed Stone Alliance, with world-renowned drummer Don Alias and bassist Gene Perla, for a tour of Japan. (Unfortunately, that was not meant to be; Alias passed away on March 28.)
All About Jazz: You're just about to leave on tour?
Chris Potter: Yeah, at the end of next week. There's some Dave Holland gigs and then we go to Europe. But we've been out for most of that past month. So this is sort of a little break.
AAJ: I know [guitarist] Adam Rogers is in the group. Who else is in the group this time?
CP: Nate Smith on drums, and Craig Taborn is playing Rhodes.
AAJ: What are the players' backgrounds?
CP: Craig played with James Carter. He plays with Tim Berne. Nate's been a member, with me, of the Dave Holland Quintet for a couple of years now, too.
AAJ: So how do you go about choosing your groups? I know that you and Wayne Krantz both played in Steely Dan.
CP: New York has sort of got a musical community of people who know each other and know what each other is up to, I guess. I mean, depending on the kind of project you want to do, some musicians are more into the same kind of music that you are. The thing about all these musicians is that they're open. Familiar with the whole jazz tradition but that's only a part of their musical knowledge; just a very wide frame of reference, which includes funk and rock and ethnic musics. And willingness to take risks as an improvisor is important to the kind of music I want to make, to make some kind of effort at spontaneously composing... collectively. And to do that you definitely need the kind of people who are willing to jump off a cliff every now and then.
AAJ: Do you find that there are some places where that actually goes over better than others?
CP: I think that in general audiences appreciate courage. Of course they appreciate musical skill and being able to present a set that makes some sort of sense, that's not all one texture or another. In general I try to give audiences a lot of credit in that they're going to respond to the creativity going on. It's obviously going to be different in different areas and from night to night. It's been interesting to watch the reaction to this band, too, because it's much louder, for one thing [laughs]. And the rhythmic language we use is more funk-oriented, and it's interesting to see how that resonates in a mainstream jazz club atmosphere. It sort of feels a little jarring for a minute but this is what we do, so...
AAJ: One of the reasons I ask is that I've had these Miles tapes for a while and there's one from Northern California and one from Rome, both from the same tourearly '80sand the way he'd play in San Francisco and the way he'd play in Rome were just vastly different within weeks or months of each other with the same lineup. You could really get this sense of taking chances when he's over there.
CP: Yeah. I would venture to say, not having heard it, it probably has less to do with what he expected of the audience, more like what energy he was feeling from the audience when he got onstage. Probably not a preconceived "we're going to do a certain thing because we're in Rome." Just in my personal experience, that's how it works.
If you're playing for like a dead audience, it's hard to hit the same levels of improvisation. If it's bouncing off and not going anywhere, it's a lot harder. But you also don't really know. I mean, sometimes there's those nights when you feel like playing it completely straight and others when it's completely left and you end up going with whatever the mood is and sort of trusting it and not fighting it too much.
AAJ: Absolutely. Speaking of Miles and 'Trane, who were some of your other more prominent influences and what did you learn from them?
CP: Oh boy, that's a large question.
AAJ: Yeah. Wayne Shorter, obviously.
CP: Definitely. Oh yeah.
AAJ: Joe Henderson?
CP: Sure. When I first started playing I guess like the first guys I studied the most were the guys who were in Ellington's band: Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster. Yeah, I just have a deep, abiding love for the way that they played. And then I got heavily into a Charlie Parker phase. So when I was twelve or thirteen, I was trying to figure out how on earth he put that language together.
AAJ: Pretty heavy for that age. Just like all twelve-year-olds.
CP: Yeah [laughs]. And I was also beginning to listen to other things like "The Rite of Spring" [Stravinsky] and trying to figure out what was going on in that music, also. How it was put together. Why it sounded different than other classical music that I heard. I was listening a lot to the Beatles. I was a huge Beatles fan, just the way they were able to be so creative within that very circumscribed pop song form. They really came up with some amazing melodies and harmonies within a small range of palette.
AAJ: And time period, too. It was like they were timeless, highly developed and just waiting to happen.
CP: Yeah. It's amazing. Them and Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan. I Remember listening to them when I was a kid. So I think it all came into what I was doing and when I first moved to New York I was playing more with straight-ahead situations, which was really great at that point. I liked to have a chance to play with someone like Red Rodney. To play bebop with someone who was, like, there, and to really get inside that language. And I've been fortunate over the years to be in a lot of situations that forced me to expand from that, musically. Playing a lot of free music, playing with Steely Dan, playing all sorts of stuff and also working with a lot of different leaders and watching how they lead, how they put a set together, how they look at music. I've been extremely fortunate to be in these situations and kind of get a broad overview of the scene.
AAJ: You've worked pretty extensively with both Dave Holland and Dave Douglas. Did you notice a fairly large difference in styles as leaders: how they approached music, what they expected of you, those kinds of things?
CP: I think you can kind of hear it in the music. I think they have very different approaches to making music. I would say in general, Dave Douglas approaches it more as a composer, and he has kind of something in mind that he's looking for as a composer, and he wants to get that sound out of the band. You know, sets up the improvisation and sets up the tunes so that he's able to get that. With Dave Holland's band, I'd say he's more improvisational process-oriented. He's more interested in looking for ways to improvise over different forms or different meters. Things of that nature. It's a little more of a collective feeling with Dave Holland's band.
AAJ: Yeah, that's what I was getting at.
CP: I mean they're both great musicians.
AAJ: Yeah, I had a conversation with Douglas a couple of years ago and he mentioned having toyed with notation software but prefers to write music by hand, which you probably know. And he mentioned that there's (more of a) a personal relationship when a score is written by hand. And i was wondering if you're affected that way by things?
CP: I know what he means. I personally choose to write on Sibelius because my handwriting is so bad. I can compose on the computer when I'm on the road and stuff like that.
AAJ: So you tend to record ideas and demos at a home studio before recording the actual tracks?
CP: I tend to come up with a lot of tracks that never get used. For every tune I write, there may be another one that I kind of worked on and decided not to pursue. I don't get to do this as often as I would like, but I really enjoy it because I get to play all the instruments... electric bass, guitar, keyboards. If I can actually play the music I'm writing, then I can kind of see it from the standpoint of what exactly am I hearing from the drums, the guitar etc. And kind of get a handle for what feels comfortable on each instrument.
AAJ: I guess early on you were playing guitar and keyboards. Did you keep up with any of that?
CP: Yeah. I never really got that good at the guitar. I've been messing around with it more lately. Piano I always used a lot as sort of a compositional tool and actually when I was in South Carolina and still in high school, every now and then I would do gigs on piano. It's been a major tool for me to understand the architecture of music, and I've gone through a lot of periods where I've worked more on the piano than on the horn, getting sounds in my head. It's kind of the idea where you've got a fully formed idea in your head of what you want to do, then the mechanics are the easy part. You just have to get the stuff under your fingers. But the important and maybe harder part is getting a concept of what you're trying to do, and I've found that using the piano was often a helpful way to get there.
AAJ: Do you feel that the fact that you play the piano and some of these other instruments has affected the way you play the horn... maybe more harmonically?
CP: Yeah, Oh, yeah, definitely. I'll be thinking in terms of voicings or if I'm playing one note I'll hear a whole voicing underneath it and try and find a way to imply it.
AAJ: How do you actually go about composing music? Do you have certain routines you go through? Is it different every time?
CP: I guess it's different every time. I've figured out that if I want to write I should just sit down and start writing, for the most part. And I don't always come up with something I like, but I definitely believe that if you leave the faucet turned on, you're going to get more good stuff than if you only write when inspiration strikes you. Like when you get those tunes that just write themselves in a heartbeat.
AAJ: Oh yeah, You've just got to keep open to it and be present.
CP: Yeah, that's actually a good word to use. If you're just present then they're more likely to come to you than not. But then there's a lot of other tunes that require a lot more work, like it just takes a lot of time. And the things that you learn when you're putting in that kind of work just makes you a better composer. It's like practicing anything else.
And lately there's been another project that I'm hoping to record later in the year, which is kind of a ten-piece group which did a couple gigs in the spring of last year. We did a weekend at the Jazz Standard and it was like, violin, viola, cello, flute, clarinet, bassoon, nylon string guitar, drums, bass and me. And just giving myself that range of colors and that size of an ensemble made me really just write a whole lot more, to really develop the composition, not just writing a tune. I feel that that's kind of helped me as an improviser also; being able to see the music from a bird's-eye view and what does it need now? How long should this texture last before it should move on to something else. Just those sort of decision making things that an improvisor does.
AAJ: Had you written for those kinds of situations prior to this?
CP: Maybe a little bit for strings. Bassoon is probably the one that I've never really written for before.
AAJ: So how did you go about recording and writing for the new album [Underground]? Was there anything different about this one?
CP: That was a much more process-oriented kind of approach. I had these tunes which I made sure not to write all that much because I wanted the tunes to develop as the band played and figure out where they wanted to go. So a fair amount of the tunes started out as a shell and we developed it from that. If you really want to get some high level improvisors to do what they do then you have to kind of build in some room for them to experiment with. There's definitely certain arrangements, but a lot of them kind of groove from having played them a lot, too. That was a thing, the fact that we had had the luxury of being able to go out on tour sometimes before going in the studio, so we were able to get comfortable with the music and there's really no substitute for that. It was just really becoming a band.
AAJ: So is that kind of a Holland kind of thing to do?
CP: In general his music is form-based. Some of the music on Underground is also based on forms, but a lot of it might be less structured. But I was trying to use a combination of different techniques. There's certain points that are really free. Maybe it's over some kind of funk groove and it's got some kind of tonality, but it's pretty free as to what the harmony actually is. So then, on a cue it goes into a form, or something like that. It's kind of hybrid forms where part of the tune is using this technique and part of the tune is using another technique.
AAJ: Right. Do you guys have certain cues you use?
CP: Yeah, there's a lot of cueing going on.
AAJ: I was going to ask you about the Steely Dan experience. How were things different than what you were used toa larger band, larger crowds, more of a rock/pop influence, etc.? What did you take away from that experience?
CP: It was really, really interesting. As I said, I was a fan of that music when I was a kid.
AAJ: That must be incredible to have a band that you're into and never expected to be a part of and then you are.
CP: Right. Which was also true with getting to play with Red, having heard him on Charlie Parker records and there I am working with him. It's kind of similar, really. But obviously on a much larger scale, commercially, which was something that I never really aspired to finding out about. Just never expected to be onstage at Madison Square Garden playing to a sold-out crowd. And I kind of suspect that Walter [Becker] and Donald [Fagen] never expected that either. They actually probably had the least performance experience of all of us, 'cause they weren't used to playing gigs. They really never did, they just made those really highly crafted records in the studio. And there we were out on the road doing all those amazing tunes.
AAJ: I hadn't thought about it but I know that's true. Did that cause any kind of growing pains?
CP: No, it was basically a lot of fun. It started to feel kind of confining to me as an improviser, because there's not that much room. There's a lot of musicians and a lot of soloists and it's very, very arranged and you have a certain amount of solo room here and then you're playing parts. I mean it's a really, really good kind of pop gig, but as a saxophonist that's what it is. And that's the reason I stopped doing it after a couple of years.
I had an opportunity to go to Europe with Paul Motian's band for a fraction of the money but I knew that that was the right decision to make. I learned a ton from him. I was in the Electric Bebop Band for a couple of years, and since then there's been other ensembles that we've done. We've gone out as a trio with Steve Swallow and another tour with Marc Johnson.
There's actually a record coming out soon that's kind of based around a trio with me and Paul and Larry Grenadier. And half the record is with a pianist and the other half is with vocalist Rebecca Martin, doing standards. I think it came out really, really well. I haven't had a chance to hear it. But Paul's approach is so organic/non-intellectual. It's kind of related to the way he plays drums now. He's pared everything down now so he doesn't require a lot of technique, or maybe it's more accurate to say the technique he uses isn't like based around playing fast or clean all the time. It's a lot of intentionally rough edges. But it's all about being aesthetically in tune with what the moment needs and then just going for it. But that had a lot to do with how I approach music, too. Just being around someone who was that unafraid to trust his instincts.
AAJ: That's when people tend to be at their bestwhen they drop the pretenses and just go for it.
CP: That's what we're all looking for, is a way to get to that place where we're not playing in a self-conscious way. When you're practicing, it's about being self-conscious. You want to be conscious of what you're doing and make it better but when you actually get in an improvisational context you want to be able to throw all that away and enter some kind of other state. I think it depends a lot on the person and how they practice and approach performance. There is a certain idea about submitting yourself to really learning a craft and really understanding how everything's put together and executing everything very well. Hopefully, that means when you get onstage you can let all that go but then you have all that knowledge behind you that you don't even have to think about... that it's there. And that the real art of it shines through.
AAJ: Do you have time to practice much anymore?
CP: Never as much as I'd like. When you're on the road a lot you really don't get a chance to play except at the gig you get to play and that's also another kind of practicing, in a way. It's like getting used to that performance feeling and reacting to the moment other than reacting to the other guys in the band. That can be more important to making really satisfying music than to use a certain kind of scale you've been working on. But yeah, I'm always practicing. Every time I pick up the horn for a minute I find a bunch of stuff I can't do, so I try to work on that.
AAJ: Is there anything that you do to prepare for a tour, to take care of yourself or take care of your chops... any kind of routines you're aware of?
CP: Not really a routine. I've never been that methodical, in a lot of ways, in my approach to practicing or writing. I have a feeling of saving up my energy because i know I'm going to be out there working very hard. It's important to get away from music, and when you're on tour, you're either trying to work or you're trying to to sleep. You're just in motion to the next gig so you start to feel like a music machine. That's all that you do is manage to crank it up every night and make a bunch of sound and they wheel you out and the next night they do it again. It can begin to feel a little claustrophobic and a little like not really a life. It's important to have other things going on. I like to read a lot and just normal life stuff.
AAJ: Do you feel like some of the tour ends up giving you energy and some ends up taking it away?
CP: [laughs] Yeah, the travelling part is really not a lot of fun. You get up and get in the van and get in the planewhatever. It's not what I feel like doing. At the end of the day, when you get to play and you feel like you've really made some sort of a connection with the other members of the band with the audience, with yourself it feels amazing. Like the best job in the world. So it depends on what time of the day you would ask me, whether it's worth it or not [laughs].
AAJ: Would you say you have a definable philosophy of music?
CP: I try to think about what exactly is the function of music. Why do people listen to music? It's a pretty irrational activity, in a way. It's just sound waves vibrating, but clearly it kind of brings a vine together in some kind of way. Or it has that kind of ability. It's just amazing to me all the kind of feelings and subtlety and emotions that you're able to convey from sound. And there's something that I really like, too, about the way the music doesn't have words. If you add words that's a whole other level of being able to evoke things. I really love lyricists that are at a high level. I really appreciate that art form.
But for me I feel that's not what I'm working with. So it's just sound. And the way that it can mean one thing for one person at one time and something else for someone else at another time... I guess that's actually the same as with lyrics... it can mean one thing at one time in your life and another at another time. That's what the art is about... it's a way of sharing the experience of your life with other people.
AAJ: I know exactly what you're saying and I think you said it well. It's like when you're reading a book and then you finally go to see the movie
CP: Yeah, right.
AAJ: And you see one person's vision of what that book was, and you're thinking all kinds of things... "well, I didn't see it that way the first time..." and you come away with "well, the book's better, of course." And they left this out and changed that. All the editing you can see, and you can become kind of hyper aware of that. Do you think that musicians these days have any sort of social responsibility or responsibility beyond the music?
CP: Hm. I think it's up to every individual musician to decide how they want to live as a person and what they want to say. The way that I see it is that the music itself involves a sort of social vision. Like the kind of music that I want to make has a lot to do with group interaction and trying to find that balance between the individual and the group, and how much ego is going to be submerged for the good of the group. When you should step out and say something. I think that a well-functioning jazz group is an idealized form of society. Like there's some project you're working onthis tuneand then how you go about negotiating it is a pretty democratic process once you're in the middle of it. A lot of improvisation... a lot of different ways it can go.
AAJ: So when do you get back from tour?
CP: We get back in April, then we go out with Dave Holland's band for a while, then come back from that, then my band goes back to Europe in the summer.
AAJ: What are the future projects in the works?
CP: There's already probably an album's worth of material in the band's book that we've been developing, so I'm hoping at some point to get that documented and get that out there, too. Because the band is really on kind of a high at the moment.
AAJ: Are there plans to tour the States again soon?
CP: Probably not until this time next year.
AAJ: Well, try to get down to Texas. It's not all Republicans, I promise.
CP: [laughs] Well, I'll have to come there and see for myself.
Chris Potter, Underground (Sunnyside, 2006)
Chris Potter, Lift: Live at the Village Vanguard (Sunnyside, 2004)
Chris Potter, Traveling Mercies (Verve, 2002)
Chris Potter, Gratitude (Verve, 2001)
Chris Potter, Vertigo (Concord, 1998)
Chris Potter, Unspoken (Concord, 1997)
Chris Potter, Moving In (Concord, 1996)
Chris Potter, Sundiata (Criss Cross, 1995)
Chris Potter, Pure (Concord, 1995)
Chris Potter, Concentric Circles (Concord, 1994)
Chris Potter, Presenting Chris Potter (Criss Cross, 1994)
Top Photo: Drew Goren
Middle Photo: Lourdes Delgado