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Chris Potter: Raising the Bar

By Published: April 17, 2006
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 to—a 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 best—when 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?

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