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Chris Potter: Chris Potter: The Sirens

John Kelman By

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The appearance of saxophonist Chris Potter as a leader on ECM may come as a surprise to some, but a look back at the label's 44-year history makes The Sirens—his label debut and 19th as a leader since first emerging with trumpeter Red Rodney before he'd turned twenty, and releasing his own debut, Presenting Chris Potter (Criss Cross), in 1992—not just sensible, but inevitable. Potter's history with the label, starting with bassist Dave Holland's longstanding quintet and big band, from 1999's Prime Directive through 2002's What Goes Around, further grew through his collaboration with bassist Steve Swallow and, in 2010, drummer Paul Motian's final release as a leader, Lost in a Dream, a superb live recording from a new trio with pianist Jason Moran that, sadly, was cut short by the drummer's passing in 2011. Potter's overall body of work, from Steely Dan to his own successful Underground group, has all led to his reputation as one of the most important saxophonists of the post-Michael Brecker generation.

ECM has always had its eye on the US—again, a look at its history reveals that, while it has certainly focused deserved attention to other parts of the world, the label has never ignored the country where jazz began. With ECM's Manfred Eicher turning an even more open eye to the United States in general and New York in particular during the past couple of years, it's clear that there's change in the air. Sure, New York has always been a jazz Mecca, with plenty of serious action, but a number of artists have been catching his attention of late, artists like pianists Jason Moran and Craig Taborn; bassists Larry Grenadier and Michael Formanek; drummers Gerald Cleaver and Eric Harland; and saxophonists Tim Berne...and now Chris Potter. That Potter has enlisted three of these players for The Sirens—plus one very important wildcard—means he's got a group capable of just about anything.

The Sirens retains the distinctive muscle and firepower that's made Potter so vastly influential but, unsurprisingly, posits some new perspectives as well. It represents a return, after the saxophonist's last few years with Underground—which also (likely not at all coincidentally) included Taborn—to an all-acoustic environs, but if the idea of Potter in a more traditional setting with piano, bass and drums suggests something predictable, the wildcard here—beyond a stellar assemblage which is anything but predictable—is the presence of two pianists. Taborn—heard here solely on grand piano—is another rapid riser of Potter's vintage; a keyboardist as comfortable in the more outré context of saxophonist Tim Berne (another recent label recruit with last year's stellar Snakeoil) as he is Dave Holland's more centrist, forthcoming and very electric Prism group, his own ECM leader debut, Avenging Angel (2011), was an encyclopedic tour de force that ranks among the label's best solo piano recordings.

Bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Eric Harland, beyond their extracurricular activities with popular groups like pianist Brad Mehldau's Trio and James Farm, will be no strangers to fans of the label, the bassist heard most recently with the collective Fly Trio's Year of the Snake (2012), while the drummer continues his tenure with saxophonist Charles Lloyd, last documented on the ambitious Athens Concert (2011).

But it's David Virelles, a relative newcomer—not just to ECM but to the scene in general—who adds the difference that turns what would, no doubt, have been a great session into a positively stellar one. A Cuban expat who first appeared in more conventional Afro-Cuban surroundings with Canadian soprano saxophonist Jane Bunnett, Virelles (turning thirty later this year), began moving away from his musical roots—though they remain, of course, an unavoidable undercurrent—with his fine Pi Recordings debut, 2012's Continuum. Here, contributing prepared piano, harmonium, and the chime-like celeste, Virelles also appears to be on a rapid upward trajectory, his interactions with Taborn particularly notable, the two engaging at a deep level during "Nausikaa" and in the ethereal album closer, "The Shades"—the only track not attributed compositionally to Potter and, in fact, a free improv duet for Taborn and Virelles that's clearly as much about listening as it is playing, with each pianist responding to the other with patient, Morton Feldman-minimalism.

But if these two examples imply that Potter has in any way toned down his approach, the fiery opener, "Wine Dark Sea," lays any such suggestions to waste. A rubato intro, with Potter's unmistakable tenor leading the way, turns to a strong 4/4 pulse driven by Grenadier and Harland, Taborn's arpeggiated support also meeting in unison with Potter's singable theme before opening up to a powerful and extended solo section. Potter's combination of sinewy strength and firm focus is matched by Taborn, whose solo quickly moves from chordal devices to rapid-fire, motivic lines uncannily linked with Harland's cadential snare.

The following "Wayfinder" is more suggestive, however, of The Sirens' directional shift. While Harland's bass drum-heavy rhythm provides a foundation and Potter delivers a clear theme, Grenadier does anything but lay down an anchor, interacting with Taborn and Virelles, whose prepared piano acts as a buzzing contrast to Taborn in an open-ended section that also relies on Harland's ability to, at once, maintain groove and push and pull his band mates. For two increasingly energetic minutes, Taborn's effortless virtuosity is countered by Virelles, who moves seamlessly between prepared piano and celeste to help create shifting moods within a seemingly unfettered section whose allegiance to form is revealed when, magically, the group again coalesces around Potter's now-knotty theme before the saxophonist turns in an incendiary solo over Grenadier and Harland's driving pulse. Things remain unsettled, however, with Taborn and Virelles maintaining some of the cacophony of the middle section before reuniting for a final thematic reiteration and conclusive ending.

What's perhaps most definitive and different about The Sirens is its broad reach. "Dawn (With Her Rosy Fingers)" is a warm ballad, while the nine-minute title track is a rubato tone poem that features Potter on bass clarinet and Grenadier con arco, its darker disposition still leading to a more powerful conclusion when Potter switches to tenor. "Penelope" is a swinging waltz with Potter on soprano, while "Kalypso" is a "changes, no time" piece of collaborative free play that still, at times, manages to resolve into time. Throughout, Potter and his group deliver a combination of effortless control and thoroughly unshackled liberation.

Through it all, there's no mistaking this for anything but a Chris Potter record, but with The Sirens he's delivered one unlike any he's done before. An eclectic album that couldn't have happened without what's come before, it's nevertheless a signpost of significant change, as the saxophonist opens himself up compositionally—and, from a performance perspective, one that, if he can keep this remarkable group together, promises even better things to come.

Track Listing: Wine Dark Sea; Wayfinder; Dawn (With Her Rosy Fingers); The Sirens; Penelope; Kalypso; Nausikaa; Stranger at the Gate; The Shades.

Personnel: Chris Potter: soprano and tenor saxophones, bass clarinet; Craig Taborn: piano; David Virelles: prepared piano, celeste, harmonium; Larry Granadier: double bass; Eric Harland: drums.

Title: Chris Potter: The Sirens | Year Released: 2013 | Record Label: ECM Records


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