Now unquestionably one of the better long-running groups on the jazz scene, Chris Potter's Underground puts forth its most consistent effort yet with its sophomore studio album, Ultrahang
. Judging by how often the group tours, it's strange that this is only the Underground's third release. But taking into account the quality of Underground
(Sunnyside, 2006), Follow the Red Line: Live at the Village Vanguard
(Sunnyside, 2007), and now Ultrahang
, the group can take all the time it needs between releases.
Potter (saxophone, bass clarinet), Adam Rogers
(guitar), Craig Taborn
(keys) and Nate Smith
(drums) have come a long way as a group. They have both gained a harder edge on their trademark brand of muddy funk and expanded the repertoire to include beautiful ballads and renditions of pop songs. At times it seems as if this band could play anything and make it sound fresh and exciting.
Potter's saxophone is certainly the lead instrument on Ultrahang
, but it is the supporting cast that must be lauded. Both Rogers and Taborn, long responsible for much of the group's layered sound, are given more solo space here, and do not disappoint. Rogers more than anyone else, possesses a unique sound, altering the tone of his guitar to perfectly match the requirements of the setting. On "Facing East," his guitar cuts like a knife, piercing holes in the atmospherics created by Taborn. For his part Taborn navigates his difficult role masterfully. The absence of a bass or bottom end isn't missed, largely due to Taborn's ability to both add color and imply time.
Smith is a rock on his kit. Regardless of where the soloists takes the music, Smith is always in the background reminding them where they came from and where they must ultimately return. Although his playing is by no means understated, he is able to imply much more than he actually plays.
Meanwhile Potter, not unlike Bill Frisell, is a master of expanding on a motif, vamp or melody by altering it ever so slightly. He changes timbre here, inserts a note there, or skips a beat, all the while demanding rapt attention. He plays bass clarinet more frequently on Ultrahang
and to great effect, most notably on a superb cover of Bob Dylan's "It Ain't Me, Babe."
The end result is a superbly constructed group effort. Underground manages to stay true to its brand of gritty, muscular funk while expanding its repertoire and bringing in other outside influences. Ultrahang
is a faithful document of the evolution of a great band that is even better live.