Chris Potter: Way Above Ground with Underground

R.J. DeLuke By

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Saxophonist Chris Potter, at age 38, has long been fast-tracked to the head of his class to become regarded as one of the strongest players on the scene. It doesn't seem that long ago that he was first making waves on recordings, and then became part of the superb Dave Holland quintet, where his strengths were put on display all over the globe.

Fact is, Potter has earned his stripes every step of the way. He's made his bones with some of the greats in the art form, all along the way developing his thing. It can be heard in his recordings over time. Growth. Maturity. Strength. It's evident, and other musicians are aware of it. That's why his phone is always ringing. That's why, for example, at the jazz festival in Newport, R.I., last summer he jumped from playing with Holland's band to his own band's gig, to adding fire and punch to Herbie Hancock's set of music. No matter what setting, Potter brings something substantive to the table.

That's not bound to stop. Not because of his age and how much he has before him. Some musicians don't advance much further beyond initial success. Potter possesses the attitude of many of his influences, like Holland. The spirit of adventure; the desire to take on challenges.

"I can imagine a lot of different situations I'd like to get myself into in the future," he says with a hint of glee from his New York City home in June.

He made that statement in the midst of his latest undertaking, the further development of his band, Underground, started a few years back. The group plays funky, contemporary, highly creative music on its latest recording, Ultrahang, an ArtistShare project.

Ultrahang is a top-notch mix of funk and modern rhythms, and splendidly crafted themes, over which these creative musicians—Potter, guitarist Adam Rogers, keyboardist Craig Taborn, and drummer Nate Smith—weave compelling tales. It's contemporary and hip without making any concessions. Potter doesn't seem capable of compromising in order to sound "today."

Its one of the damn finer recordings so far this year.

"When I started the group, and even now, when I'm thinking of what to write or perform as a group, I think the first duty that we have is to do something that turns us on. That's how it came about," he says of the current path Underground is on. "I was thinking, 'What would I like to hear? What kind of a setting would I enjoy exploring?' So I set up this situation where I really didn't know what the rules would be ahead of time. I had some ideas that I wanted it to be more funk related and the instrumentation being that particular kind of sound. But I wasn't thinking of accessibility as a main focal point at all."

He adds, "I will say that the idea was in my head that this music needs to be connected to the culture. That was always its big strength: It's relationship to the larger culture. It wasn't off on an island all by itself. In the golden era [of jazz], when Duke Ellington was extremely popular, it was very artistically ambitious music, but it wasn't designed to be in some ivory tower. I was trying to approach it from that angle. What's out there in the musical culture at large that feels vital to me? You want to make something that feels vital."

Most of the music is original, save for Bob Dylan's "It Ain't Me Babe," and Joni Mitchell's "Ladies of the Canyon." "Facing East" has a simple, children's song-like beginning, creating a "where's it going?" feel, but soon gets heavy with Smith's drums. Rogers solos with an economy of notes, but making them count in a bluesy manner. Potter plays some bass clarinet in addition to his usual tenor sax, and on the former he shows agility and emotion, the low register allowing him to explore the bottom, which he does in fast and funky fashion.

The music makes you tap your feet while these remarkable musicians express themselves over that funk/soul tapestry. On "Rumples," Rogers' solo is fleet, straddling bop and blues. Potter's muscular sax attack climbs over every inch of the theme. Dylan's song is used as a ballad; Potter chooses the bass clarinet on which to cry out the theme. Taborn's keyboard solo is pensive and strong. It builds until Potter preaches on tenor, soulful and gutsy. Great sound and feeling.

"The instrumentation is unusual," he says. "The fact that it is the Rhodes piano and electric guitar. It has a certain sound with electricity involved. The music is more based in funk that most of the music I've done in the past, on my own. It's more of a difference in texture, I think. I guess there is a difference in content, too. It's kind of an experiment in trying to break through to something new, using whatever methods we can think of to do it."

Each tune is strong and the recording bears repeated listening. One doesn't miss the bass, but looking back there's realization of the accomplishment of getting that kind of funky feel without one.

"It makes me explore a certain area of my personality, something different for me. I think it's that way with all the members of the group. No one knew what to expect," says Potter. "How is it going to work, playing funk without a bassist? It's only because of the way everybody approaches the music [that it works]. From the Rhodes chair, nobody really does what Craig does. He's able to hook the music up from that point of view. He's able to hold down the bass and solo up on top, or do whatever. Everyone's very conscious of how to make that texture work, with the possible limitations that is has because there is no bass.

"Adam will set up certain kind of ostinato patterns, to anchor it. Nate definitely has a way of making it work, really hooking up with whatever is going on in a deep way. It never feels like [the bass] is missing for me. It's different."

Also a bit different for Underground is the fact that it is an all-studio recording. That, too, was done for a solid reason.

"I felt like there is already a lot of live stuff out there," Potter said. "I'm hoping to release some recordings of some concerts that we've done. So there won't be any shortage of extended versions of these tunes. But I wanted to present a more concise version [of these tunes]. Because sometimes that's what you want to hear at home. The 30-minute version may be amazing live, but it might not be what you want to hear at home. Also, the sound we were able to get in the studio, there's no way to get that kind of quality live. I was extremely happy with the results. I wasn't sure how the tunes would translate into shorter versions. They're not short, but they're considerably shorter than what we'd do live.

"I was wondering if we'd be able to get the same energy level. It's always harder in the studio. But I think we did as well as we could and achieved what I was hoping to get."

It is Potter's first ArtistShare experience, in which financial support comes from the public, who get access to the process along the way and a unique insider's look as a recording is developed. Those that donate larger sums get more benefits along the way. The recordings are only sold online, but the process is having success and many musicians are finding it a good business process. It also allows total creative freedom, which hasn't been available for many musicians in what used to be the traditional—now fast-fading—recording process.

Potter is pleased with the process and made some discoveries along the way.

"It was a situation where the record label I had been recording with [Sunnyside Records], the whole division ended up evaporating from under us about a month or two before we were going to go into the studio," he says. "I wanted to record the music anyway. Instead of signing some other deal with a label that wasn't really favorable to me on a lot of levels, it seemed to make a lot more sense to make the jump and see what something new had to offer.

l:r Dave Holland, Robin Eubanks, Chris Potter

"My concern was that it wouldn't reach the same number of people. At the end of the day, what I'm hoping to do is get the word out so that the most people will know about [the music] and be able to check it out. So far, it seems my worries were unfounded. There's a whole world of music seekers on the Internet. More than I realized, since I don't use it that much, personally, other than to buy things on iTunes. I'm not out there exploring what bootlegs are available, blogs and all this kind of stuff. There's a whole world of stuff I'm just realizing is out there that's as useful, or more useful sometimes, than the usual channels for getting the word out. Especially among the young people. This band seems to appeal to a younger audience, which is a nice feeling also."

He says he's been fortunate enough in his career to not fall under a great deal of creativity-versus-commercial pressures. But, "this is a whole different feeling when you actually own your music. The records I made before that, once I make it and it's out there, then it's actually not my property, which is actually a strange idea. This is the first one I actually own."

Potter says Underground is doing well and going on a big tour this year. It's a break from his long tenure with Holland, but he's still connected with the great leader and bassist.

"We just finished a tour in Europe for a few weeks," he says of his association with Holland, where he worked with the group consisting of drummer Eric Harland and pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba.

Notes Potter, "I end up working with Dave whether or not his band is working. We were on the road a lot last year with Herbie Hancock. I've been working with [Holland] for maybe 10 or 11 years now. It's great.

"First of all, he's such a great bassist. To have a chance to work with someone who plays that well, it's always a joy. You communicate a very, very high level ... The way that Dave works, he's a force of nature. He's got a strong will. A big thing that I've learned from him is determination to bring the music to the highest level and to not try and take any shortcuts, to not let certain things go. Make every aspect as high-quality as possible."

"I've had a lot of experiences in my career that have helped to bring my own work up to a higher level," he adds.

His career began early, following an interest in music that took him from tinkering with piano and guitar to taking up the alto sax at age 10. His parents had a diverse collection of record albums and Potter investigated them.

"If I thought the cover looked interesting, I'd put the record on and check it out. They had some Miles Davis records. Some Dave Brubeck records. Eddie Harris. Charles Lloyd. Stuff that drew me in and made me think maybe I could learn to play the saxophone. It went from there. I don't remember at any point deciding to be a professional musician. It's a phase I never outgrew."

Raised in Columbia, S.C., he got involved in music in school and was listening to the usual list of outstanding saxophone players. He moved to New York in 1989 to study at the New School, and then Manhattan School of Music. He's still listening and learning, and not just from sax players. "It's hard to separate myself as a composer, as a bandleader as a saxophonist. It's all part of the same thing," says Potter.

"Charlie Parker is a huge influence on everything I'm doing today, even if it's not so obvious. Wayne Shorter's approach to space and how to choose some notes that imply a whole universe of other notes. He's a genius at that," he says of his influences. "The freedom of Ornette Coleman. John Coltrane. Sonny Rollins, his rhythmic feeling and drive. The first guys I listened to were Paul Gonsalves and Johnny Hodges. I still love listening to the Ellington band and the wonderful guys who came through that. Dewey Redman, I always loved his playing. Dexter Gordon, his beautiful sound and attitude. Lester Young. There are a lot of people over the last 100 years who've made the instrument sing. There's a lot to learn."

What attracted Potter to jazz?

"The feeling of it. The rhythm. Rhythm is always the major thing that attracts me in music. It's something that happens once. It's really in the moment. The more I think about it now, it's such a deep thing. It's a very unique form of music in that way. It's all about the communication between the group of individuals performing, creating something that can't be duplicated. It will always be different the next time.

"There are a lot of valuable life lessons in there, too, that I don't think I appreciated on a conscious level when I first started listening to jazz. Now I do. I've learned a lot from seeing what works musically and what doesn't, and why. Having the opportunity to get to know a lot of musicians. There are a lot of really special people out there who have a very interesting and creative view of life that I've discovered on this road. I might not have had the chance to meet those kinds of individuals if I hadn't decided to do this."

In college he started playing with trumpeter Red Rodney and the relationship was kept up into the early '90s. Pianist Marian McPartland noticed his playing as a teenager and stayed connected. In 1993, she included Potter on her In My Life album (Concord).

"When I came to New York to go to school, it was kind of a blur," he admits. "At the same time I was going to school, I was also hanging out as much as I could. Seeing if I could get involved in the scene. After that I was working with the Mingus Big Band a lot, which was another side of things. There were a lot of guys at that time who had worked with Mingus and brought a certain aesthetic to it that you can't learn in school."

There were other relationships of importance, he says, noting "All the leaders I've had a chance to work with I've learned something from."

Drummer Paul Motian was among those leaders. "That was a very special time. He has such a free approach to music. He's so in touch with his own aesthetic sensibility. That's always what he's answering to, is his own sense of whether it's beautiful or not. He's so strong about it that even things kind of out of the ordinary are beautiful because of the way he plays it.

"Jim Hall is a very special musician. He's quietly subversive, in his way. He has this beautiful soft kind of sound, but the content of what he's doing is always very free and adventurous. That was a lesson too, that it can be both adventurous and pretty. It doesn't have to be jarring and loud to be creative. It's not the same thing.

"More recently, getting a chance to work with Herbie. He's such a master of the piano and harmony and everything. Having the chance to solo with him comping back there. The way that he reacts, the way that he chooses to set certain things up or start to take it in a different direction. The level that he's listening on is very inspiring. Having a chance to work with someone who listens that well and get into their thought process. I've been lucky to have a chance to work with all these people."

He even got a taste of the grandiose world of pop/rock when he caught on with Steely Dan in 1994. He played on two of the albums and even toured with the group that made its name in the studio and very seldom finds itself on the road.

"The experience of working with Steely Dan and seeing that side of the music business was quite a trip. They are very serious musicians and huge jazz fans, of course. That was a lot of fun," says Potter. "The work that I did with them on the road [1994] was the first they had done on the road since the early '70s. It was kind of a funny situation where the band leaders had far less experience in playing live than the rest of the band. At the beginning, I think they were kind of like deer in the headlights. It was, 'Wow. We don't have the luxury of doing as many takes as we want in the studio. We've got to deliver.' But the music was so strong, the songs so strong, and their musical sensibilities so strong that it worked."

Potter's continued development, the strength of his playing, the great feel he has for the idiom and music in general, are such that he is becoming a saxophonist that young players look up to. Aside from the "golden era" players, he stands alongside the late Michael Brecker, Joe Lovano and Joshua Redman as perhaps the most influential of the wave of sax players from the 1970s and on.

The relaxed, yet confident, Potter takes it in stride. "It's nice to feel like you might be able to be a part of that lineage and that whatever I'm able to do may be adding to that. That's what I'm hoping. I guess you do feel a certain kind of pressure because you think, 'Wow. I have so much respect for those guys. How can I ever be in that position?' But then I just do what I do. My job is to get as good at what I do as I possibly can and just put it out there. If there are some people who get something from it, that's a great feeling."

That status also leads to plenty of work. But with the growth of his own group on his mind, Potter is cutting back on projects with other people. Not entirely, however.

In addition to continued work with Holland, he is writing music for a big band project with the Danish radio band which sought him out. "I figured that might be a good occasion to get into some larger group writing. There was an album I made a few years ago called Song for Anyone (Sunnyside Records, 2007), with an ensemble with a few strings and woodwinds. Very different sounding than Underground. This is more conventional big band, which I haven't wanted to tackle so much, there's so much baggage. (So much great stuff done and inevitable, unfair comparisons). But the situation presented itself and I wanted to see what I could do.

"I'm working on that music now and trying to figure out what balance I want to strike between the traditional big band sound and how to make it my own," he said. "There are a whole bunch of projects I can imagine doing that I'd like to set up in the future, but nothing is set in stone now because there's enough going on with Underground.

"It's hard to turn down a situation that's musically creative with people I enjoy being with and that also makes money. Why would you say no? I've tried to cut back [on sideman work] a little bit because there are so many hours in a day, so many days in a year. I've found that to do justice to my own vision of what I want to do, I have to take a long time to think about that and to work on it at home."

"I think my approach early in my career was to play as much as humanly possible. Do everything you possibly can. Which is good. That's when one of the difficulties young jazz musicians have sometimes. They don't have the chance to perform as much as the guys did back in the 50s or 60s. [Back then] you might be somewhere for two months and then go somewhere else for two months and have the chance to play every night. It's not like that anymore, unless you're willing to go on the road a ton and fortunate to be getting calls from a bunch of people, because no one has that much work by themselves. That's just the way the business is now. In the past few years, I've been trying to cut back to a few things I really want to do, in order to get deeper into my own music and what I want to say."

That's a good thing for music, as his latest recording shows. There's a lot more to come from this young musician who doesn't seem ready to stand pat or get comfortable and predictable. It's really not in his makeup. It will be a pleasure to watch this continuing journey. It could be among the more special trips that the jazz world will experience.

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