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Chris Potter: The Sirens

Ian Patterson By

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Saxophonist Chris Potter has consistently shown a deep feeling for jazz tradition and a willingness to modernize his vocabulary at the same time. The lyricism of Lester Young, the fearlessness of Charlie Parker, the keening spiritualism of John Coltrane and the tireless creativity of Sonny Rollins all inspire him, as do funk, electric set-ups and classical music, and this openness has increasingly colored his discography with the passing years. The Sirens, Potter's debt for ECM as leader, is a return to an all-acoustic setting and is inspired by Homer's 8th century poem "The Odyssey"—a source of inspiration through the centuries for Medieval Irish saga, novelists, opera, classical composers, Broadway musicals, films and groups such as Steely Dan and Cream. Jazz has taken longer to address the Greek epic, certainly in instrumental form, assuming that Spinal Tap's "Jazz Odyssey" wasn't based on Homer's epic.

Familiarity with Homer isn't necessary to appreciate Potter's compositions. These mood poems, like the episodes that inspired them, contain an endlessly engaging lyrical narrative, and emotional poignancy that speaks to the universal soul. Pianist Craig Taborn renews an acquaintanceship with Potter that goes back on record to Underground (Sunnyside Records, 2006) and the two are in sizzling form, notably on the stunning "Wine Dark Sea." The unfolding rhythms and accents of bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Eric Harland inform the music deeply, as does pianist David Virelles, though more subtly.

A leader in his own right, Virelles has also worked with saxophonists Steve Coleman, Ravi Coltrane and Jane Bunnett and his sparingly used prepared piano, harmonium and the glockenspiel-like celeste bring another dimension to the music. On the drama-laden "Wayfinder," Virelles on prepared piano engages with Taborn in a tense dialog characterized by dissonance and abstract percussive accents, urged on by Harland's bustle. Virelles' celeste brings a music-box delicacy to the atmospheric slower number "Nausikaa"—with Potter on soprano—and still-life impressionism to the miniature sound sculpture "The Shades."

Gentle melodic contours map the dream-like flow of "Dawn (With Her Rosy Fingers)." Lyrical tenor flights bookend a minimalist piano solo and whispering bass and brushes on this least predictable of ballads. More stripped down still is the title track; Potter's bass clarinet and Grenadier's arco carve out mournfully lyrical lines of a slightly Balkan hue, with Taborn providing delicate counterpoint, and Virelles, on harmonium, slipping in quasi-subliminal touches. With Potter's switch to tenor a forceful quintet passage ensues. "Penelope" is a lithe soprano feature, with Potter's sinewy blues contrasting strikingly with the understated accompaniment.

"Kalypso"—the most conventional track—is stylistically a little at odds with the rest of the album, though there's no escaping the spirit of freedom in the bop-inspired improvisations. "Stranger at the Gates" smolders with quiet intensity, and although Taborn and Potter grab the spotlight, Harland's sympathetic and inventive stick work is compelling.

Homer wrote: "Each man delights in the work that suits him best"—a truism that resonates throughout this inspired and inspiring music. The Sirens will go down as one of Potter's best, but this is assuredly a collective triumph.

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 Grenadier: double bass; Eric Harland: drums.

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

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