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Interviews

Chris Potter: Way Above Ground with Underground

By Published: June 29, 2009

"First of all, he's such a great bassist. To have a chance to work with someone who plays that well, it's always a joy. You communicate a very, very high level ... The way that Dave works, he's a force of nature. He's got a strong will. A big thing that I've learned from him is determination to bring the music to the highest level and to not try and take any shortcuts, to not let certain things go. Make every aspect as high-quality as possible."

"I've had a lot of experiences in my career that have helped to bring my own work up to a higher level," he adds.

His career began early, following an interest in music that took him from tinkering with piano and guitar to taking up the alto sax at age 10. His parents had a diverse collection of record albums and Potter investigated them.

"If I thought the cover looked interesting, I'd put the record on and check it out. They had some Miles Davis

Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
records. Some Dave Brubeck
Dave Brubeck
Dave Brubeck
1920 - 2012
piano
records. Eddie Harris
Eddie Harris
Eddie Harris
1934 - 1994
saxophone
. Charles Lloyd
Charles Lloyd
Charles Lloyd
b.1938
saxophone
. Stuff that drew me in and made me think maybe I could learn to play the saxophone. It went from there. I don't remember at any point deciding to be a professional musician. It's a phase I never outgrew."

Raised in Columbia, S.C., he got involved in music in school and was listening to the usual list of outstanding saxophone players. He moved to New York in 1989 to study at the New School, and then Manhattan School of Music. He's still listening and learning, and not just from sax players. "It's hard to separate myself as a composer, as a bandleader as a saxophonist. It's all part of the same thing," says Potter.



"Charlie Parker

Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
is a huge influence on everything I'm doing today, even if it's not so obvious. Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter
b.1933
saxophone
's approach to space and how to choose some notes that imply a whole universe of other notes. He's a genius at that," he says of his influences. "The freedom of Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
b.1930
sax, alto
. John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
. Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
b.1930
saxophone
, his rhythmic feeling and drive. The first guys I listened to were Paul Gonsalves
Paul Gonsalves
Paul Gonsalves
1920 - 1974
sax, tenor
and Johnny Hodges
Johnny Hodges
Johnny Hodges
1907 - 1970
sax, alto
. I still love listening to the Ellington band and the wonderful guys who came through that. Dewey Redman
Dewey Redman
Dewey Redman
b.1931
sax, tenor
, I always loved his playing. Dexter Gordon
Dexter Gordon
Dexter Gordon
1923 - 1990
sax, tenor
, his beautiful sound and attitude. Lester Young
Lester Young
Lester Young
1909 - 1959
saxophone
. There are a lot of people over the last 100 years who've made the instrument sing. There's a lot to learn."



What attracted Potter to jazz?



"The feeling of it. The rhythm. Rhythm is always the major thing that attracts me in music. It's something that happens once. It's really in the moment. The more I think about it now, it's such a deep thing. It's a very unique form of music in that way. It's all about the communication between the group of individuals performing, creating something that can't be duplicated. It will always be different the next time.



"There are a lot of valuable life lessons in there, too, that I don't think I appreciated on a conscious level when I first started listening to jazz. Now I do. I've learned a lot from seeing what works musically and what doesn't, and why. Having the opportunity to get to know a lot of musicians. There are a lot of really special people out there who have a very interesting and creative view of life that I've discovered on this road. I might not have had the chance to meet those kinds of individuals if I hadn't decided to do this."



In college he started playing with trumpeter Red Rodney

Red Rodney
Red Rodney
1927 - 1994
trumpet
and the relationship was kept up into the early '90s. Pianist Marian McPartland
Marian McPartland
Marian McPartland
1918 - 2013
piano
noticed his playing as a teenager and stayed connected. In 1993, she included Potter on her In My Life album (Concord).



"When I came to New York to go to school, it was kind of a blur," he admits. "At the same time I was going to school, I was also hanging out as much as I could. Seeing if I could get involved in the scene. After that I was working with the Mingus Big Band a lot, which was another side of things. There were a lot of guys at that time who had worked with Mingus and brought a certain aesthetic to it that you can't learn in school."



There were other relationships of importance, he says, noting "All the leaders I've had a chance to work with I've learned something from."



Drummer Paul Motian

Paul Motian
Paul Motian
1931 - 2011
drums
was among those leaders. "That was a very special time. He has such a free approach to music. He's so in touch with his own aesthetic sensibility. That's always what he's answering to, is his own sense of whether it's beautiful or not. He's so strong about it that even things kind of out of the ordinary are beautiful because of the way he plays it.



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