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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.


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