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Chris Potter: Raising the Bar

By Published: April 17, 2006
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?

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