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Chris Potter: Raising the Bar

Mike Brannon By

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Like the ripples in a still lake, emanating in every direction across its surface, sometimes certain realizations strike you repeatedly within a short period—like becoming aware of something or someone for the first time, and then referencing it again and again from different sources as your awareness catches up to your first perception. At that point you're involved and, of course, want to know more.

Such was my experience of first encountering tenor saxophonist Chris Potter's music. Having heard about his work relative to Steely Dan and Dave Holland's groups for a while before really establishing the pertinent connections made it all the more poignant. Groups of that disparate stature using the same tenor I'd never heard of made it all the more interesting. The ripple metaphor also extends beyond the connections Potter has made and is making throughout the creative music world—themselves interrelated—but also to the organic nature of music itself and how it affects others in that world.

Having worked extensively with creative units from the revamped Steely Dan to the disparate quintets of Dave Holland and Dave Douglas, to Paul Motian's trio and guitar icons Jim Hall and Larry Carlton, Potter is stands on the brink between seasoned and poised as a major new voice in both contemporary improvised music and composition. Frequenting the term "spontaneous composition" as a replacement for improvisation, Potter not only makes good on the claim in all the sub-genres he mines, but also attracts like minds to the synergistic constructs that they come to create.

Having just released Underground, his eleventh album in roughly as many years, and now touring Europe in support of it, Chris Potter finds himself involved in an incredibly concentrated creative period and resulting expanding circles of focus.

While his 2001 release, Gratitude, was a devotion to his influences—Coltrane, Eddie Harris, Wayne Shorter, Miles, Sonny Rollins and others—Underground is more an agile, funky blowing session with attitude which reflects where the live band is right now. The lineup includes fellow Steely Dan alumnus Wayne Krantz on guitar (plus Adam Rogers on two cuts), Craig Tayborn on Fender Rhodes and Nate Smith on drums. Since Krantz is again touring with the Donald Fagen band, only Rogers is making Potter's tour.

Days after this interview Potter had already started rehearsals with the newly reformed Stone Alliance, with world-renowned drummer Don Alias and bassist Gene Perla, for a tour of Japan. (Unfortunately, that was not meant to be; Alias passed away on March 28.)


All About Jazz: You're just about to leave on tour?

Chris Potter: Yeah, at the end of next week. There's some Dave Holland gigs and then we go to Europe. But we've been out for most of that past month. So this is sort of a little break.

AAJ: I know [guitarist] Adam Rogers is in the group. Who else is in the group this time?

CP: Nate Smith on drums, and Craig Taborn is playing Rhodes.

AAJ: What are the players' backgrounds?

CP: Craig played with James Carter. He plays with Tim Berne. Nate's been a member, with me, of the Dave Holland Quintet for a couple of years now, too.

AAJ: So how do you go about choosing your groups? I know that you and Wayne Krantz both played in Steely Dan.

CP: New York has sort of got a musical community of people who know each other and know what each other is up to, I guess. I mean, depending on the kind of project you want to do, some musicians are more into the same kind of music that you are. The thing about all these musicians is that they're open. Familiar with the whole jazz tradition but that's only a part of their musical knowledge; just a very wide frame of reference, which includes funk and rock and ethnic musics. And willingness to take risks as an improvisor is important to the kind of music I want to make, to make some kind of effort at spontaneously composing... collectively. And to do that you definitely need the kind of people who are willing to jump off a cliff every now and then.

AAJ: Do you find that there are some places where that actually goes over better than others?

CP: I think that in general audiences appreciate courage. Of course they appreciate musical skill and being able to present a set that makes some sort of sense, that's not all one texture or another. In general I try to give audiences a lot of credit in that they're going to respond to the creativity going on. It's obviously going to be different in different areas and from night to night. It's been interesting to watch the reaction to this band, too, because it's much louder, for one thing [laughs]. And the rhythmic language we use is more funk-oriented, and it's interesting to see how that resonates in a mainstream jazz club atmosphere. It sort of feels a little jarring for a minute but this is what we do, so...

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