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Chris Potter: Underground

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Anyone who's been floored in the last few years by a particular live or recorded performance by Chris Potter—whether he was fronting his own group or playing, say, with Dave Holland or Dave Douglas—may raise an eyebrow at this statement, but here it comes anyway.

He's gotten even better.

If you weren't at the late set of Potter's recent gig at New York's 55 Bar, well, fine—while the veteran saxman seemed to effortlessly connect us mortals to the gods of jazz with his every note, all gigs fade. The concrete evidence of Potter's greatness can be found on Underground. He sticks exclusively to tenor here, supported by guitarist Wayne Krantz, Rhodes player Craig Taborn, and drummer Nate Smith (plus second guitarist Adam Rogers on "The Wheel and a reharmonized, album-tag cover of the Beatles' warhorse "Yesterday ).

Much of this music could fall loosely into a "groove-jazz category—there's certainly plenty of electric guitar chime and Rhodes churn under Potter's horn—but the term "groove can't really cover the band's broad palette of mood and dynamics, nor its effortless negotiation of a daunting mixture of time signatures over these nine tracks.

"Nudnik is a remarkable piece, all palpable tension and sparing release, with a three-piece head (the second part being a stately, adamant unison sax-guitar theme that snaps into the viscerally thrilling crack-the-whip release of the next part) and one of Potter's best recorded solos. Smith excels thoughout, and his chemistry with the leader, born of countless nights together with Dave Holland's quintet, is undeniable—as is his confidence and creativity, as demonstrated in just about any moment of the intense, roiling "Next Best Western. He fuses with Taborn's Rhodes bass line to perfection under Krantz's off-kilter solo here, and his solo break near the tune's end doesn't sound like a vanity insert—it seems thematically intrinsic to the piece.

A cover of Billy Strayhorn's "Lotus Blossom manages to pull new beauty from a somewhat overplayed piece; it's languidly dreamy, yet rigorously unsentimental—or just sentimental enough. There's a sensuous pleasure as Potter plays the melody in the different registers of his tenor over the subtle, dancing sea-bottom life of the other three players (the way Taborn, Krantz and Smith interact thoughout the recording is not standard accompaniment—there's an organic, hypnotic, almost fractal quality to what they're doing that is altogether new).

Radiohead's "Morning Bell (Radiohead and Björk seem to have deservedly become the composers of choice of the new jazz repertory) might be even better, as Potter's written embellishment to the original adds a long phrase that's among his most memorable lines. Taborn's Rhodes solo thrillingly negotiates the dangerous mountain highway of Smith's mammoth kit work, Krantz' jabs and riffs, and his own gravity-defying bass line—which is to say it's almost as good as Potter's yearning, emotionally stretched sax solo.

This is the best and most creative album yet from a dauntingly talented artist with a bright future ahead of him. Recommended.

Track Listing: Next Best Western; Morning Bell; Nudnik; Lotus Blossom; Big Top; The Wheel; Celestial Nomad; Underground; Yesterday.

Personnel: Chris Potter: tenor saxophone; Wayne Krantz: guitar; Craig Taborn: Fender Rhodes; Nate Smith: drums; Adam Rogers: guitar (6,9).

Title: Underground | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Sunnyside Records


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