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A Fireside Chat With Chris Potter


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...but once you are actually playing, the music is what you are there for and it's what gets you through. It is still great. So in that sense, I guess I haven't lost my innocence. I just love playing. It has it's ups and downs, but I am even grateful for.
This article was originally published in December 2001.

I remember first seeing Chris Potter playing with Paul Motian and most recently with the highly regarded Dave Holland Quintet. His improvement in the two or so years time is nothing short of remarkable. I can only compare his development with Scott Colley, who happens (and not just by chance) to appear on Potter's Verve debut, Gratitude, a tribute/dedication/thank you to a who's who of saxophonists. Potter has had one hell of year thus far and the year ain't over yet. Must be nice. I spoke with Potter in between tours, his own and Holland's from his home. It is insight into one of today's most in demand sax players, unedited and in his own words.

All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning.

Chris Potter: I started playing saxophone when I was ten or eleven. There were a few records that my parents had. They had a couple of Miles Davis records like Workin' and Steamin' with the Miles Davis Quintet. They had a couple of Dave Brubeck records with Paul Desmond on them. Charles Lloyd, they had, I remember there was an Eddie Harris record. There were just a few records around that I listened to. I just really was drawn to the music for whatever reasons. I'm not sure, but I just sort of bugged them until they got me a saxophone. I started taking lessons and I just immediately got interested in it. I guess it was a phase that I still haven't grown out of.

AAJ: Think you'll ever grow out of it?

CP: (Laughing) At this point, no.

AAJ: You moved to New York to pursue it, did your parents move as well?

CP: No, no, I started going to the New School for one year and then I went to the Manhattan School of Music for a couple of years. But I really just knew that I wanted to move to New York and be in the middle of the jazz scene. New York is really where most of the great jazz musicians are living in this area. There is nowhere like New York as far as the energy of the jazz scene.

AAJ: Must have been a culture shock.

CP: I grew up in Columbia, South Carolina. So yeah, it was extremely different, but the thing that I found and that I found pretty early on was that there is a community of musicians. It is almost a small town within a town. Everyone knows each other and it sort of feels like there is a sense of community here that exists within this huge city. It can seem sort of disorienting if you haven't found your way, but it feels like home now. It felt like home for a while now.

AAJ: Influences?

CP: I had been listening to many different people in the history of the saxophone and jazz and also, Stravinsky and Bartok, all this stuff. I was listening to all this stuff while I was in high school and learning and trying to digest the language of the masters and I just sort of continued that when I moved to New York. I was playing professionally. I think I played my gig when I was maybe thirteen. Playing professionally in South Carolina wasn't, the thing about moving to New York is all of the sudden, I didn't have any work. Actually, I remember that around the time I moved to New York, there was a Miles Davis record called Amanda that came out. I remember thinking that that sounded like New York. That's the sound that I was looking for. But I mean, I was listening to a bunch of different things and trying to absorb as many influences as I could.

AAJ: Any favorites?

CP: Favorite records, OK, this is asking me on this particular day at this particular time, but there is a Wayne Shorter record called Atlantis (Columbia), which I have always really loved, which people don't really talk about all that much, amazing writing. What else? Sketches of Spain (Miles Davis), I love that. Miles.

AAJ: Has there ever been a time when you had to supplement your income as an artist with a day gig?

CP: I actually haven't. I've been very, very fortunate. When I first moved to New York, I was going to school, so my folks were helping me out and I was starting to work too. I started playing with Red Rodney, pretty much as soon as I moved to New York. That grew into other gigs, playing with the Mingus Big Band, playing with Motian. So I never did find myself in a situation where I needed to and I am just really, really fortunate that I've been able to focus on music.

AAJ: I ask because I do not create anything in daily life, nor do I have a secret identity as a mild-mannered superhero, so I often am humbled by how arduous it must be to have to constantly craft something from nothing.

CP: I have no perspective on it. But I think I am extremely fortunate. Obviously, you have to give up certain things. Whatever choice you decide to make in life, you gain something and you lose something and I end up having to travel a lot of times even when I don't want to. There is a certain level of stress in just having to come up with creativity on a regular basis. You have to keep digging and digging, even if you'd rather just go hangout and play pool.

AAJ: As a fairly young musician, with all the traveling that is involved, is it problematical to hold down any form of a relationship outside of the music?

CP: I guess apparently so, seeing as I am not in one at the moment (laughing). I think it does take a special kind of person who is willing to deal with that, the fact that I am out of town so much. That is just the way it is. And it takes a lot of maturity on my part also, I think, to really know what I want enough that even though I am in a million different places, there is that centered kind of thing. It is definitely a challenge, Fred. It is just a challenge for everyone right, no matter how their life is. It does seem to pose a specific, different set of challenges.

AAJ: Let's touch on your work with Paul Motian.

CP: Paul Motian, he's a one of a kind. He has an almost anti-technical approach. He really doesn't want to think about the how of music. He has a way of sitting behind the drums and he looks like a little kid who has never seen a set of drums before. I think that's what he's looking for, is that sort of freshness every time he plays. And the way he can get away with it is just because, well, for one thing, he does have a great command of the instrument from years and years and years of playing, but also, he has an amazing sense of time and an amazing sense of timing also. He just goes on instinct, I think. He just has great musical instincts. He knows where to put an accent so that it means a specific thing. He's one of those musicians that is almost hard to breakdown into parts why it works. It's just sort of a whole. I think he just hears it and goes for it. I think I started playing with him seven years, off and on. As with most of my associations, you don't end up playing with them all year. I think he has some courage to play the way he does and not rely on any kind of gimmick or any kind of tried and true thing. He's just going for it whenever he plays.

AAJ: John Patitucci?

CP: I think I first started playing with him probably around the same time, maybe even earlier in '93. I forget, '93, '94. I've just watched him progress too, I think. He's playing much different music now then when I was first playing with him. He's always been amazing. He was living in Los Angeles. He moved to the New York area. And I think he's playing a lot more upright than he used to. He still plays the electric amazingly well, but I think his focus has been much more on the upright. And the music he's writing, I think he's matured too, just the kind of things that he goes for, the kind of musical values that he appreciates.

AAJ: And Dave Holland?

CP: Yeah, he's been a huge inspiration to me, the way that he plays and also, the way that he approaches music and the way he approaches being a bandleader. He's been a huge inspiration. He tries to cultivate an atmosphere. For one thing, it's all original music, either composed by him or by members of the band. It feels like we're really working on some musical concepts that we're trying to bring to a higher level, the use of different kinds of rhythms. That's a big focus, he's rhythmic concept and all the guys in the band have very strong rhythmic concepts also. We sort of spur each other on. He creates an atmosphere where we each our roles are important in the sound of the band and it makes us want to be a part of it more and more.

AAJ: You released a series of solid sessions on the Concord label, Concentric Circles, Unspoken, and Vertigo, why did you jump ship?

CP: Well, I took a little break for one thing. I think the last record I released from them was Vertigo, which was '99, '98. I felt like I wanted to take a break and I didn't really want to release another record unless I was going to try and be a bandleader on some level. I made all these records, but I really had no thought of trying to go on the road or make it into a band. They were just attempts to document my writing because I had always done a fair amount of writing and just sort of an isolated event. I felt like I didn't really want to do another record unless I was going to try and go on the road with it, have the music have some kind of life beyond just going into the studio. And the opportunity arose with Verve. Verve is just a much larger company obviously. They have the money, the ability, the manpower to make it easier to actually try and go on the road and make it more of a working kind of a situation. That was obviously a big draw. But I really can't say anything negative about my time at Concord. They let me do what I wanted to do all the time, so it was a happy association.

AAJ: Let's touch on Gratitude, your debut for the Verve label, which features Scott Colley, with whom you have collaborated with previously.

CP: Right, right. We've been friends for years and we've done a lot of different work in different people's bands together. Like you're saying, I've been working in his band and he's been working in mine and we've been working together with Jim Hall and Renee Rosnes, just a bunch of different things over the years. So I know his playing very well and I know him. Brian (Brian Blade), I hadn't played with though all that much. I've, obviously, been familiar with his playing and I've known him for a long time, but we had only played, I don't remember, I remember we played together on a Danilo Perez record last year. I had played with him the least, I think. But I just knew he'd be the right guy for the situation and he really came through. He played amazing, just the way he interpreted the music. I was thinking of these specific guys when I was finishing writing the arrangements. I was trying to imagine how they would approach the music and they came through more than I can even hope for. It is exciting. You feel like all the work that you've been putting in over the years, you see it pay off gradually. I can tell when I listen to my old records that I made years ago. I can tell it's me, but I can also tell that I'm just not as developed. I haven't assimilated all the influences and figured out what I wanted to do with it. I just hadn't had the time to get to that level yet. I feel like that seems to come together more and more just with experience. I've seen that with Scott also and with Kevin Hayes too. I've known him for a long time. We haven't always worked together a whole lot, but every now and then, we would come together and I really feel like his approach has taken on a thing where I can usually recognize if it's him on a record. I just seem to know his approach and feel like it resonates with what I'm trying to do too.

AAJ: As my homage to Cameron Crowe, when composing a ballad, does one have to have been in love?

CP: (Laughing) Well, it's interesting how it works, Fred. Wow, that is an interesting subject that I've never actually tried to talk about. I do find that when I'm writing a tune, sometimes it is a reflection of whatever is going on in my life. You can actually fall in love with the tune. It does come from some kind of feeling of some kind of an experience that you can relate to in your life. I guess to an extent, you do have to have lived through something to have some kind of perspective on what experiences you're drawing from in your music. The music doesn't exist in a vacuum. The only purpose of it is to sort of resonate with the emotions and feelings. It's so hard to explain these things because it exists only in music. It is hard to say what a song is about, especially if it doesn't have words. It can be open to any kind of interpretation, but maybe for the composer, at that particular time, at the time that I'm writing it, maybe I am thinking about a specific person, a specific situation. Then when I hear it years later, it might have a whole different context for me. I don't know if that answers the question, Fred, but that is sort of how I think of it.

AAJ: Do your composition have a signature that is inherently your own?

CP: I would hope so. There's a lot of music that I write that I throw away because it doesn't feel like it's quite true. The tunes that I really like that I've written are, often times, they are fairly simple and they just feel right. It is a difficult process. Writing can be a difficult process. It is an emotional digging up. You really do have to go for what feels true. It is possible for me to write any kind of tune at any time. I can sit down and technically write something. But to write something that I feel really does resonate with experience and is really what I mean to say, those don't happen everyday. Sometimes they just seem to fall off the tree when they're ready. There's great moments when you think of an idea and the tune is done in five minutes. Those are often really good tunes, but you can't forge that. You just sort of have to wait for it. And most tunes, you have to work on much, much more.

AAJ: With regards to Gratitude, what came first, the title or the album?

CP: I actually came up with the title pretty early on. In the preliminary discussions about the record, we were talking about the idea of giving thanks to saxophonists who have sort of been an influence on me. I just sort of like the idea of calling the record Gratitude, even not having anything to do as a tribute to these saxophonists. The idea of gratitude being one of the highest things that music can express in a more general way. So that was more the unifying theme if anything for me. OK, this is a record about thankfulness.

AAJ: Let's rundown some of the musicians that you thank and tell me their influence on you. First, Eddie Harris.

CP: Eddie Harris, he was someone that I listened to. There's a record called Silver Cycles (Atlantic) that my parents had that I remember listening to when I was really, really young. There was some sort of corny soul kind of stuff on there with big horn arrangements and stuff like that, but it was so great. It just felt like the real thing, like he was able to sing through the horn. I don't really think he ever quite got his due as being as heavy as he really was. He was amazing. He was amazing. He had his own approach.

AAJ: And Bird?

CP: Bird, yeah, Bird, I remember, I probably went through at least a year, maybe when I was thirteen or something like that, I remember where that was almost all I listened to. I just listened to Bird over and over and over again in total ecstasy. I've always had this sort of special feeling for how he played. There is some kind of, besides the obvious technical, he was able to put a lot of pieces of the puzzle together in his own way and just of advanced the jazz language by light years. But there is also, there is a feeling that I always got from his playing, from all the stories, he was an operator. His life was fairly messy and I'm sure he used a lot of people and there's a lot of unpleasant stuff. When you listen to the music, he sounds like an innocent little boy almost. There is this quality of sort of yearning stuff that I always really, really loved and I still do, whenever I hear him.

AAJ: Sonny Rollins.

CP: Amazing sense of rhythm. His sense of timing, just a really naturally gifted musician. Even if he hadn't worked as hard as he did, he still would have been great. And a great spirit in his music too.

AAJ: Lester Young.

CP: Lester Young, he is actually someone that I really didn't discover until a little later. When I was going through the history of the saxophone the first time, somehow I never really got into him. Since then, he has an unbelievable sense of swing. His eighth notes were perfect eighth notes. He was not like a really technically amazing saxophonist, but his melodic sense, just the fact that he was really unpopular when he first came on the scene. No one played the saxophone like that. I think he actually went through a lot because everyone wanted to change how he sounded, so he would sound more like what they were used to. He stuck to his guns. He just heard it a different way. I think that is one reason why it is so powerful when you hear his music now, that spirit of doing something new is still there.

AAJ: Joe Henderson.

CP: Joe Henderson, he's funny. He's almost like the wizard. He's like the Yoda of saxophonists or something like that like. He is like this small guy and really, really thin and all this music's coming out of him. He's seriously brainy. He's extremely funky also, but there is just this sense of high intelligence there that's like his gift.

AAJ: Ornette Coleman.

CP: Ornette is freedom. He sees things in a different way. On the tune that I did that is sort of for him, I use this wooden flute that I bought when I was in China once and I had no idea how to really play this flute. I just sort of got it and I liked the sound of it. But that seems to be a fitting tribute because he's sort of, I don't know how to explain this, but for me, his concept sort of shows the idea that you don't have to necessarily even be able to describe exactly what you're doing from note to note and have it make sense. You just have to hear it, that there are really no rules, that you make up whatever rules you want, but you don't have to follow what's already been done. He's a big inspiration.

AAJ: And your writing is reminiscent of Wayne Shorter.

CP: Yeah, he's been a huge influence. As far as his writing, he's one of the great jazz writers, I think. He's an interesting case. He's a real different kind of guy, I think. He's always been sort of a special kind of hero of mine because he's comfortable, obviously, with all the complicated, he was always at the forefront of using different kinds of harmonies in jazz, really incorporating the twentieth century classical harmony into jazz and he can obviously understand things on that analytical kind of level, but when you hear him play and you hear the things that he writes, it is so organic. He's able to use the really intellectual kind of construct in a really organic way. It just sounds like he's playing a blues. Meanwhile, he really stretching.

AAJ: And label mate, Michael Brecker.

CP: He's like, as far as getting around the horn, he does have a special gift. I don't understand it. I don't know if he understands it even. He's just like a technical wizard on the saxophone. And he also, that is one of your most recognizable sounds in jazz too. It's not really his fault everyone was trying to sound just like him. I was trying to sound just like him when I was in high school. I remember I went through a big Mike phase.

AAJ: I think everyone in your generation has gone through a big Mike phase.

CP: Yeah, but he's the real deal. And he's also really encouraged me over the years. He's been extremely helpful to me and I appreciate it. He's a good guy.

AAJ: And lastly, my folk hero, John Coltrane.

CP: Well, you can compare him with Sonny Rollins. I sort of feel like Coltrane really did have to fight for every good note that he played. I'm not sure of how naturally he came to the saxophone from what I understand. He was just obsessed with it though and he found it. He's definitely, it is inspiring to know that if you work hard enough, you will find it. I think that's his story. And for whatever reason, he was just driven. It is that kind of spirit that you hear in the music too. It is so intense, you wonder what his experience of life was to be able to focus that level of intensity. It is no surprise that he didn't live into old age. It is just too much for one person. But the legacy that he left behind is amazing, amazing music.

AAJ: What are you most grateful for?

CP: I don't know. I'm pretty grateful for everything. I'm just grateful for my life and everyone that I've met. I wouldn't even know how to narrow it down.

AAJ: You play soprano, alto and tenor. How much are you focusing on the tenor these days?

CP: I mean, tenor is what I usually practice at home and I play mostly tenor on my gigs and stuff. I started out playing more alto and then, for a period, I was really, really trying to get away from the alto. I just didn't want to play it at all, while I sort of established a voice on the tenor. I felt like I really had to figure out how to play the tenor almost from scratch, really find my own voice on it because that's what I really wanted to play. But I actually was more comfortable as an alto player because I had been playing it longer. So, now I don't feel quite as dogmatic about it. I'll play the alto every now and then, but I still do prefer playing the tenor.

AAJ: And you also have been improving your proficiency on one of my favorite instruments, the bass clarinet.

CP: Yeah, that instrument just really has a great sound and it has a much different sound in the low register than in the high register. It is almost as if you've got a couple of different instruments. It's got that, I don't know how to describe it, but it sounds like an elephant trying to dance in the low register and it can have this sort of poignant kind of a cry in the upper register too.

AAJ: What is your practice regiment?

CP: I'm not a real obsessive practicer and especially if I'm on the road, which I'm not sure how many nights out of the year I'm actually playing a gig, but usually if I am playing that night, I don't really practice that much during the day. If I'm on the road, there is no time anyway. A lot of times, when I am at home, I will be working on writing more. I'll be playing piano and trying to write. But I have spent a lot of time on the horn, yeah.

AAJ: Having been in the industry from such a young age, have you been able to preserve your innocence?

CP: (Laughing) Innocence? I don't know about innocence, but hopefully, I have preserved some integrity. I would like to think. No, I mean, I'm still really excited about getting to play music at the end of the day. What a great job. You go through such hell to get there sometimes, it can be easy to lose the excitement sometimes. You've only had like three hours of sleep and the flight was delayed and the hotel is really, there's construction going on right outside your door. There is just a million little things can sort of ruin your day to where you no longer care about music, but once you are actually playing, the music is what you are there for and it's what gets you through. It is still great. So in that sense, I guess I haven't lost my innocence. I just love playing. It has it's ups and downs, but I am even grateful for the downs.



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