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Chris Potter: Raising the Bar

By Published: April 17, 2006
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 tour—early '80s—and 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?

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