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A Fireside Chat With Chris Potter

AAJ Staff By

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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.
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