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Chris Potter: The Personal Stamp

R.J. DeLuke By

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Chris Potter is one of the most visible saxophonists on the scene in recent years. There are reasons for that. Not only does he have incredible chops, inner drive, intensity and the impulse to always be creative—as if that's not enough—he can fit into any musical situation and find a way to contribute.

Coming through the ranks, including while he was a still a student at the Manhattan School of Music, he could be found playing in any situation. He had an association with pianist Marian McPartland and trumpeter Red Rodney. Potter hung out on the New York scene during his schooling and it helped him afterward. He was on the bandstand with free-thinking drummer Paul Motian, and accompanying the extremely subtle guitarist Jim Hall. He's played with the Mingus Big Band, and worked for a time with Steely Dan. He can be found in situations like accompanying singer Luciana Souza at the Newport Jazz Festival. He'll be part of a Joe Henderson tribute this year at Lincoln Center and an all-star group at the Monterey Jazz Festival.

He still leads his own band, Underground, and has a new recording coming out next year with a different aggregation of fine musicians, but Potter is constantly being called upon for other projects. That's what happens when you are one of the best of your generation on his instrument and are already influencing young, aspiring players.

These days, Potter's gig is with guitarist Pat Metheny's Unity Band. The impressive group includes drummer Antonio Sanchez and bassist Ben Williams. Potter has played with an A-list of jazz greats—bassist Dave Holland, pianist Herbie Hancock and many others. This is his first real musical encounter with Metheny, other than playing with him on one tune on a Sanchez album.

Metheny contacted Potter "out of the blue," the saxophonist says. The result is a tour that just ripped through Europe and has several U.S. dates and an album, Unity Band (Nonesuch, 2012). It's the first time Metheny has put the sax to heavy use since collaborating with Ornette Coleman on 1985's Song X (Geffen, reissued in remixed, remastered and expanded form in 2005 by Nonesuch).

Metheny "is quite a remarkable force. I've been listening to him since I was a teenager," says Potter. "He's put out a lot of great music over the years in a variety of styles, but always with the stamp of his personality. Besides being a virtuoso on his instrument, I think one of his major strengths is being able to see the big picture, and finding ways to employ his own talent and that of the other musicians he works with in very effective ways."

Potter is used to working with guitarists. His Underground band features Adam Rogers on guitar. "In general, the saxophone blends with guitar in a different way than piano, so I probably make some unconscious sonic choices based on that. It's also unique in that it can function as a chordal supporting instrument behind the saxophone, but we can also play melodies together, which requires phrasing together like I would with another horn player ... I think the personality of the leader ultimately affects me more than his instrument."

For the new album with Metheny, which is high quality both for its composition and execution, the group recorded much more music than made it to the disk, says Potter, adding the quartet was "both focused and relaxed."

On tour, "We've been having a great time together. Of course, I've played with Antonio a lot before, but never on such an extended tour. And I'd never really played with Ben much, so it's really been a treat. Of course when you spend so much time with people in such close musical and personal proximity, it's important that the chemistry works, which I'm happy to say it does. We've been having a blast ... It's a very consistent band; we seem to always find something. I'm looking forward to seeing how the music continues to develop as the tour goes on."

For jazz improvisers, working the material concert after concert means changing and reshaping things. Metheny is specific in what he wants for the direction of his tunes, but there's always room to explore. "It's a mysterious process," Potter says. "We're just a lot more comfortable with the music and with each other I think. Also, as an improviser, you have a tendency to approach certain tunes in certain ways, but then you get tired of hearing yourself do the same thing over and over again, so you try something new. That's generally how it works for me, anyway."

He adds, "Pat's very clear about what we're going to do, and Ben and Antonio are also good at giving clear signals. So it's pretty rare when things get nebulous and rambling. It's very focused up there on that bandstand."


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