Chris Potter: Way Above Ground with Underground
"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 Davisrecords. Some Dave Brubeck records. Eddie Harris. Charles Lloyd. 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.
is a huge influence on everything I'm doing today, even if it's not so obvious. Wayne Shorter'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. John Coltrane. Sonny Rollins, his rhythmic feeling and drive. The first guys I listened to were Paul Gonsalves and Johnny Hodges. I still love listening to the Ellington band and the wonderful guys who came through that. Dewey Redman, I always loved his playing. Dexter Gordon, his beautiful sound and attitude. Lester Young. 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."
and the relationship was kept up into the early '90s. Pianist Marian McPartland noticed his playing as a teenager and stayed connected. In 1993, she included Potter on her In My Life album (Concord).
In college he started playing with trumpeter Red Rodney
"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."
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.
Drummer Paul Motian