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Chris Potter: Way Above Ground with Underground

R.J. DeLuke By

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"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.

CHRIS POTTER"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.


Selected Discography

Chris Potter, Ultrahang (ArtistShare, 2009)
Chris Potter, Song for Anyone (Sunnyside Records, 2007)
Chris Potter, Follow the Red Line: Live at the Village Vanguard (Sunnyside Records, 2007)
Dave Holland, Critical Mass (Sunnyside Records, 2006)
Chris Potter, Underground (Sunnyside Records, 2006)
Chris Potter, Lift: Live at the Village Vanguard (Sunnyside Records, 2004)
Chris Potter, Traveling Mercies (Verve, 2002)
Dave Holland, Not for Nothin' (ECM, 2002)
Dave Douglas, Not for Nothin (Bluebird, 2002)
Chris Potter, Gratitude (Verve, 2001)
Steely Dan, Two Against Nature (Warner Bros., 2000)
Joanne Brackeen, Pink Elephant Magic (Arkadia, 1999)
Chris Potter, Vertigo (Concord, 1998)
Chris Potter, Unspoken (Concord, 1997)
Chris Potter, Concentric Circles (Concord, 1994)
Chris Potter, Presenting Chris Potter (Criss Cross, 1994)

Marian McPartland, In My Life (Concord, 1993)

Photo Credits

Page 1: Courtesy of Chris Potter

Page 2: Rogan Coles

Page 3: Ziga Koritnik

Page 4: Rogan Coles

Featured Story: Justin Oakman

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