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Chris Potter Underground Orchestra: Imaginary Cities


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I didn't want to make something interesting. I wanted to make something that just really feels vital to me.
—Chris Potter
Writing jazz music, says Chris Potter, is "a bit of a zen exercise."

"A lot of what you're thinking about when you're writing is the stuff that's not there. You're thinking about the solos and the way the band is going to play it together—things that can't be notated."

For Imaginary Cities, his eighteenth and most recent album as bandleader, composition presented the saxophonist with a greater challenge than usual on account of just how much was absent during the conceptual phase. Potter was writing for the component parts—instruments and individuals alike—of his big-band ensemble, The Underground Orchestra. Eleven musicians in total. Each of those musicians had to occupy a place among the group dynamic without having his or her distinct voice suppressed.

To be sure, Potter had explored this territory before—with considerable success, no less—when writing for a ten-piece ensemble on Song for Anyone (Sunnyside, 2007). But Imaginary Cities raised the game by removing two woodwinds (Potter's natural forte) and adding an extra string player along with a vibraphonist and bass guitarist. Two footnotes to Song for Anyone are also worth highlighting here: In a wordless declaration of Potter's versatility, it was released on the very same day as his electric, funk-inflected Follow the Red Line: Live at the Village Vanguard. And of the album's ensemble, four members returned for Imaginary Cities, with nearly all the difference being made up by the musicians from Potter's regular touring and recording outfits.

"I was able to build on things I learned during that process while making this," he says. "I never really studied composition or orchestration at school. So I walked in with a bunch of stuff and just had never really worked with strings before. It's a little more familiar for me writing for horns, for one thing, just knowing how it feels to play a wind instrument, but there's certain kinds of voicings that work better when you're writing for horns that just don't work as well for strings. There's just a lot of technical things about how to approach writing for those instruments."

To allow those technical aspects to develop organically, he worked in stages. After charting with the full orchestration in mind, he then toured for a time in 2013 with a small-scale, quartet version of the Underground Orchestra in the form of himself, drummer Nate Smith, bassist Fima Ephron and guitarist Adam Rogers.

"I wanted to get the rhythm section accustomed to what the music was before doing the fully orchestrated version so that we already had a comfort level of what the tunes are," he says. "You know, when you actually play something, you often realize things about the tune that, when you're sitting by yourself in a room writing it, you don't always really know what's going to work in an improvisational setting—how it's going to feel, if it's too closed, it's too open, if it needs another section. So I think there were a couple minor things that we decided to do on the road to the solo sections, which helped when we got to the full version."

When the scaled-down group met the other musicians ahead of a full-orchestra performance at Lincoln Center in autumn of 2013, "it was kind of fleshed out," says Potter. "We knew exactly what the solo sections should be. The process of going out and playing it as a small group really helped make a better record in the long run."

Potter's compositional process is paralleled to some degree in "Lament," the track that opens the album. It begins with a meditative hush. Then a string quartet—namely, Mark Feldman and Joyce Hammann (violin), Lois Martin (viola) and David Eggar (cello)—plays a plaintive intro that would be right at home among the vast repertoire of classical chamber music. A full minute passes before the bass, drums and keys make their appearance, almost in unison, bringing a sense of kinesis to what had heretofore been a static and introspective affair.

As the first notes of Potter's tenor sax emerge at roughly the ninety-second mark, they evoke an atmosphere of exquisite brooding reminiscent of "Starless and Bible Black" from Under Milk Wood (1965), the jazz suite by the Stan Tracey Quartet based on the Dylan Thomas poem of the same name. Unlike Potter's earlier album The Sirens (ECM, 2013), an acoustic suite inspired by Homer's Odyssey, not to mention Song for Anyone, which borrowed its title from an e.e. cummings poem, Imaginary Cities doesn't have such distinct literary roots (though, coincidentally, it shares certain preoccupations and a mood palette with Italo Calvino's novel Invisible Cities). There is, however, an underlying "statement" to the album—particularly the four-part core suite—that serves as a thematic thread.

"I did kind of have some things in my mind, which you can glean a little bit from the names of the movements of the suite," he explains. "I had this vision of imaginary cities—not just a visual vision, but an idea about the cities that we live in. I was thinking about how they're all put together and how societies work. And it's sort of my wish for the way I wish cities were, the way that societies could be organized in better ways that would benefit more of the people that make up those societies."

The first movement of the suite is titled "Compassion," he says, "because that's where it should start. And then [with] the second movement, 'Dualities,' I was thinking of all the different dualities that exist in a society, in a city, that both keep it together and can tear it apart: old and young, rich and poor, centralized authority versus individual freedom—all these things. There are different ways to balance them which might work better in different places at different times. And then the third movement is thinking about all the things we need to take apart. That's why it's called 'Disintegration'—you know, let's dismantle some of these things that are no longer functional for us. And then the fourth one ('"Rebuilding') ends on an optimistic note."

Although it's easy to focus on the eponymous suite as the album's defining feature, it accounts for only half (almost to the minute) of the music on Imaginary Cities. It rather drifts like an ice floe amid a sea of interrelated impressions and musings: "Lament," which precedes it, and the groovy free-flow of "Firefly," the eerie skittishness of "Shadow Self," and the vast eclecticism of "Sky" that follow.

"Something that I've discovered in the past couple of years, maybe since The Sirens, is that if I'm thinking of something that's not music, and then I write music about that, I find it can take me out of my purely musical head and make me think more in terms of mood and development," says Potter. "And I end up liking the music that comes out of that. I like what it does to my thinking. Maybe in some ways it helps me to get out of my own way. I'm not just thinking about notes and how to put them together, I'm thinking more about feelings and stories."

Potter wrote the material for Imaginary Cities while touring. He estimates that the songs were "probably written in fifty different cities," which contributed not only to their philosophical thrust but the evolution of the music itself. Even the suite began life as a single tune before musical meiosis split it into four.

After Potter recorded the songs with the Underground Orchestra at New York City's Avatar Studios in December 2013, Invisible Cities sat in raw form for almost a year. He chalks up the delay to simple scheduling issues, in large part because he was on the road with guitarist Pat Metheny throughout much of 2014. It wasn't until October of that year that Potter was able to sit down with engineer James A. Farber and producer (and ECM founder) Manfred Eicher to mix the album.

Like the small-scale experimental runs in the final stages of composition, the time away from the album helped Potter get a better fix on it.

"[W]hen you make a record and you go through the whole process, you listen to it a million times, you pick it apart, you decide what you're going to do with this and that," he says. "Invariably, by the time it comes out, you're just done with it. You're ready to do something else. So it was actually kind of nice that I was playing different music all last year. Now I'm returning to it and it feels fresh instead of feeling like I've been in this musical world the whole time, waiting for the record to come out."

With its running time of 71 minutes, it would seem that Imaginary Cities was able to contain every fixed note and improvised idea that Potter had intended for it. But one of its unseen byproducts is the surfeit of material that didn't find a home on the album.

"It was an interesting process writing it, because I really threw away a lot of stuff that I just didn't quite feel fit. In some ways, some of it might have even been better than what ended up on the record, but I ended up feeling like there was an overall esthetic that the album needed the whole way through. And I just had to work on it and work on it until I whittled down exactly what that was—to myself, even.

"A lot of it's being recycled into very different forms [with] some of the same motives and the same ideas," he says of the musical overflow. "You might not be able to recognize that it comes from the same place, but that was sort of the process. It's like painting layers and layers and layers of different things on top of what's already there. What the viewer actually sees is one thing, and if you could peel off the layers it would be something completely different."

"At any moment," he says more generally, "I probably have 20, 25 tunes that I like and haven't ever gotten around to recording." That's something he attributes in part to the comfort as a bandleader that comes with working with a familiar group of musicians, though his loyalty is apparent even in his work as a sideman: nine albums with drummer Paul Motian, another nine (so far) with bassist Dave Holland, two (plus extensive touring) in fairly quick succession with Metheny. Personal and creative connections like those inform and stimulate his own process of composition, as was the case with Imaginary Cities.

"[T]hey're some of my favorite musicians to work with, obviously, so when I was writing the vibraphone parts, I wasn't writing vibraphone parts, I was writing for Steve [Nelson]. And the same for Craig [Taborn, piano] and for Adam and Nate and Fima and Scott [Colley, double bass]. I was really thinking of all these people specifically as I was writing it. And I've had enough experience working with them all that I kind of knew the things that would hopefully draw out their strengths and allow them to do what they do within this context," he says.

"It was a really positive experience for me and just a real joyful thing to get all these people together that don't usually play together and have them bring this idea that I'd been imagining for a year in my head and finally hear it. It's a real thrill. It's hard to even explain."

And perhaps explanation isn't only hard but unnecessary too. Potter doesn't abstain from verbalizing what has already been set down instrumentally, but it's clear that he counts on his music to advance its own ineffable truth; and if pressed to choose between listening or analysis, there's every indication he will side with the Romantic heart over the rational head.

"I hope what comes through is the feeling behind it," he says of Imaginary Cities, "that there's something in it that maybe someone goes, 'Yeah, I have those feelings too. I didn't know they could be expressed in that way.' This is always what I feel when I feel moved by art. It's this recognition, this feeling that there's something that I see in their experience that I really recognize as part of my own experience and that makes my appreciation of that higher.

"I didn't want to make something interesting. I wanted to make something that just really feels vital to me."

Photo Credit: Tamas Talaber

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