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Chris Potter Underground Orchestra: Imaginary Cities

Eric J. Iannelli By

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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.
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