Chris Potter: The Personal Stamp
Coming through the ranks, including while he was a still a student at the Manhattan School of Music, he could be found playing in any situation. He had an association with pianist Marian McPartland and trumpeter Red Rodney. Potter hung out on the New York scene during his schooling and it helped him afterward. He was on the bandstand with free-thinking drummer Paul Motian, and accompanying the extremely subtle guitarist Jim Hall. He's played with the Mingus Big Band, and worked for a time with Steely Dan. He can be found in situations like accompanying singer Luciana Souza at the Newport Jazz Festival. He'll be part of a Joe Henderson tribute this year at Lincoln Center and an all-star group at the Monterey Jazz Festival.
He still leads his own band, Underground, and has a new recording coming out next year with a different aggregation of fine musicians, but Potter is constantly being called upon for other projects. That's what happens when you are one of the best of your generation on his instrument and are already influencing young, aspiring players.
These days, Potter's gig is with guitarist Pat Metheny's Unity Band. The impressive group includes drummer Antonio Sanchez and bassist Ben Williams. Potter has played with an A-list of jazz greatsbassist Dave Holland, pianist Herbie Hancock and many others. This is his first real musical encounter with Metheny, other than playing with him on one tune on a Sanchez album.
Metheny contacted Potter "out of the blue," the saxophonist says. The result is a tour that just ripped through Europe and has several U.S. dates and an album, Unity Band (Nonesuch, 2012). It's the first time Metheny has put the sax to heavy use since collaborating with Ornette Coleman on 1985's Song X (Geffen, reissued in remixed, remastered and expanded form in 2005 by Nonesuch).
Metheny "is quite a remarkable force. I've been listening to him since I was a teenager," says Potter. "He's put out a lot of great music over the years in a variety of styles, but always with the stamp of his personality. Besides being a virtuoso on his instrument, I think one of his major strengths is being able to see the big picture, and finding ways to employ his own talent and that of the other musicians he works with in very effective ways."
Potter is used to working with guitarists. His Underground band features Adam Rogers on guitar. "In general, the saxophone blends with guitar in a different way than piano, so I probably make some unconscious sonic choices based on that. It's also unique in that it can function as a chordal supporting instrument behind the saxophone, but we can also play melodies together, which requires phrasing together like I would with another horn player ... I think the personality of the leader ultimately affects me more than his instrument."
For the new album with Metheny, which is high quality both for its composition and execution, the group recorded much more music than made it to the disk, says Potter, adding the quartet was "both focused and relaxed."
On tour, "We've been having a great time together. Of course, I've played with Antonio a lot before, but never on such an extended tour. And I'd never really played with Ben much, so it's really been a treat. Of course when you spend so much time with people in such close musical and personal proximity, it's important that the chemistry works, which I'm happy to say it does. We've been having a blast ... It's a very consistent band; we seem to always find something. I'm looking forward to seeing how the music continues to develop as the tour goes on."
For jazz improvisers, working the material concert after concert means changing and reshaping things. Metheny is specific in what he wants for the direction of his tunes, but there's always room to explore. "It's a mysterious process," Potter says. "We're just a lot more comfortable with the music and with each other I think. Also, as an improviser, you have a tendency to approach certain tunes in certain ways, but then you get tired of hearing yourself do the same thing over and over again, so you try something new. That's generally how it works for me, anyway."
He adds, "Pat's very clear about what we're going to do, and Ben and Antonio are also good at giving clear signals. So it's pretty rare when things get nebulous and rambling. It's very focused up there on that bandstand."
All the music for the Unity Band is written by the guitarist. Potter finds no quarrel with it. In fact, he has fun playing the music, which has different moods and textures. Some are more electric, instrument-wise. Some reflective. Potter evens plays some bass clarinet. He says Metheny's tunes "always have melodies that are enjoyable to 'sing.' That's the first thing I noticed. He's also good at writing enough rhythmic and harmonic information to make a song interesting, but not so much that you get bogged down in the details when you're trying to improvise over it."
As for the saxophonist himself, as he continues to play important sideman gigs as well as develop his own music and his own playing, Potter has his shoulder to the wheel. He always has. He started on alto sax at the age of 10 and steadily made a march up to the high echelons of jazz, influenced along the way by the likes of Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Dewey Redman and Wayne Shorter, among others.
"I'm always working on trying to improve, so I hope those changes are improvements. A lot of my growth has to do with how to keep up a high level of intensity without forcing things. At least that's my goal." And jazz improvisation is still as big a challenge as ever for Potter. "I've been very lucky to have had all the experiences. I've had with so many inspiring musicians; they've all helped me to grow as a musician and as a person. I just hope to continue this journey for as long as I can, and hopefully use my abilities to their fullest so I can contribute something of my own."
He has more on his plate besides the heavy Metheny tour. He's part of Joshua Redman's Axis Quartet, an all-sax group that will be getting some gigs when Redman's busy schedule allows. Redman, Potter, Mark Turner and Chris Cheek played to an appreciative audience in July at the North Sea Jazz festival in the Netherlands. The saxophones melded in interesting ways, with Potter playing mainly tenor. Speed held down the bass parts with baritone sax. Each was able to show some of their unique solo styles.
Potter's own band will go to China later this year. Early next year, he has an album coming out on the ECM label with a different band. "It's an acoustic group with Eric Harland on drums, Larry Grenadier on bass, Craig Taborn on acoustic piano, and David Virelles on some other keyboard instruments. I'm hoping to be able to do a fair amount of touring next year with that music, and I'm also hoping to keep the Underground band working as well."
Pat Metheny, Unity Band (Nonesuch, 2012)
Chris Potter, Transatlantic (Red Dot Music, 2011)
Chris Potter, Ultrahang (ArtistShare, 2009)
Chris Potter, Underground (Sunnyside, 2006)
Dave Holland, Not For Nothin (ECM, 2004)
Chris Potter, Gratitude (Verve, 2001)
Page 1: Tamas Talaber
Page 2: Jimmy Katz