Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Potter, Chris (Joseph Christopher)
Since childhood, saxophonist Chris Potter’s ability to take on numerous styles and influences has turned the heads of fans and fellow musicians. He hit the New York scene in 1989, and quickly established himself as a saxophone innovator steeped in tradition.
Born on January 1, 1971 in Chicago, Illinois, Joseph Christopher Potter moved to Columbia, South Carolina, as an infant. While neither of his parents are musicians, they had an eclectic record collection in which Potter took a strong interest. He cites his earliest musical influences as Bach, Stravinsky, Joni Mitchell, the Beatles, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, and various types of folkloric music from around the world.
As a young boy, Potter tried to learn the piano by ear, and hoped to learn to play the guitar like Buddy Guy. At around age ten, inspired by recordings of Charlie Parker and Paul Desmond, Potter set his sights on the saxophone. He has said that he annoyed his parents daily, until they finally gave in to his wish.
Potter’s parents bought him a saxophone, on the condition that he take regular private lessons. He became so comfortable with the instrument that by age twelve, he shared a stage at the National Association of Jazz Educators convention with Paquito D’Rivera and Phil Woods. By age thirteen, he began performing professionally, with a regular gig two nights a week. In high school, his ability was enough to impress trumpeter Red Rodney, who heard him play at a local jazz festival, and pianist Marian McPartland.
After graduating from high school, Potter moved to New York in 1989, where he attended the New School for Social Research for one year, and then Manhattan School of Music for two years. Almost immediately upon arriving in the city, Rodney invited him to join his group, and he also performed with the Mingus Big Band, Ray Brown, Jim Hall, James Moody, Mike Manieri, and Dave Douglas. In this period, he also recorded with Paul Motian, Marian McPartland, and Kenny Werner.
Potter’s early experiences as a sideman allowed him to become firmly rooted in the jazz tradition by performing music from all across the various subgenres of jazz. Alongside Rodney, Potter cut his teeth as a bebop musician alongside one of the genre’s creators, who had played with Charlie Parker from 1949 to 1951.
Potter’s versatility and proficiency in many styles put him in high demand. He played often with the jazz-tinged pop group Steely Dan, and later joined the band of Paul Motian, whose approach to composition and improvisation was less rooted in traditional forms and harmonies, and often made use of collective free improvisation.
In 1991, Potter competed as a finalist in the Thelonious Monk Competition, coming in third behind two equally outstanding saxophonists, Joshua Redman and Eric Alexander.
In 1992, Potter made his first recording as a leader on the Dutch label Criss Cross. In 1993, he recorded on Marian McPartland’s album for Concord Records, In My Life. At her recommendation, Concord signed the young artist. He recorded five albums for the label, which he viewed as a way to document the development of his composition as well as his playing.
In the mid 1990s, Potter worked in two innovative groups, led by trumpeter Dave Douglas and bassist Dave Holland. Douglas’s compositions allowed to improvise in more of a free manner: the music from this period is based on gestures and mood as much as on chord changes. Dave Holland’s music, on the other hand, is generally groove-oriented, and is often composed of unusual forms and odd or mixed meters.
As Potter began to lead his own touring groups and record as a front man, he drew heavily from these compositional approaches. The high point of Potter’s work as a sideman was perhaps the period from 1999 to 2000. He was nominated for a Grammy for best instrumental solo on Joanne Brackeen’s 1999 record Pink Elephant Magic.
A year later, Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature, which featured several Potter solos, won four Grammys. That same year, 2000, Potter became the youngest recipient of the Danish Jazzpar Prize. The downside to this period in Potter’s life was that he was diagnosed with Meniere’s disease, an inner ear disorder that has left him virtually deaf in his left ear.
Potter signed with Verve Records, and released his debut for the label, entitled Gratitude, in 2001. Since Verve had the money and the resources to send him on tour, he began to think about going on the road with his own music.
Gratitude was a pivotal album in Potter’s career, for it marked the start of a tremendously productive period as a bandleader, and also cast him in a new light as an innovator steeped in the jazz tradition. Each track on the album gives a contemporary approach to the style of a different jazz saxophone master, ranging from Coleman Hawkins to Michael Brecker.
Since Gratitude, Potter has released one more album for Verve, and four on the Sunnyside label. With each one, his approach evolves. His range of influences stands out in his body of solo work. As Gratitude demonstrates, past jazz masters have influenced him heavily. What distinguishes Potter as an innovator is his ability to incorporate influences not commonly heard in jazz.
Potter is an autodidact in classical music, but this background informs his approaches to improvisation and composition. He cites Stravinsky and Bartok as influences, in terms of extended rhythmic and harmonic ideas. Polytonality and polyrhythms are techniques that have been explored in classical music in the past century, but their compositional use in jazz has been recent.
Potter’s classical approach to composition is very much apparent his 2007 recording of” Song For Anyone,” in which he composed for a chamber ensemble consisting of violin, viola, cello, nylon string guitar, flute, clarinet, and bassoon, tenor saxophone, drums, and bass.
On his recent recordings, Potter’s improvised solos often incorporate motives that don’t belong to any specific key, and acknowledge his interest in the 20th-century classical veins of atonality, serialism, and twelve-tone music.
Always one for surprises, in 2006 Potter released Underground. This funk and rock-tinged album also includes mixed-meter compositions and rhythmic cycles reminiscent of his time in Dave Holland’s quintet, yet also hints at Stravinsky’s ballets and Indian classical music.
Not yet forty, Potter undoubtedly has some surprises in store.
Complete Discography as a leader:
Chris Potter, Follow the Red Line (Sunnyside, 2007)
Chris Potter 10, Song For Anyone (Sunnyside, 2007)
Chris Potter, Underground (Sunnyside, 2006)
Chris Potter, Lift: Live at the Village Vanguard (Sunnyside, 2004)
Chris Potter, Traveling Mercies (Verve, 2002)
Chris Potter, Gratitude (Verve, 2001)
Chris Potter, Vertigo (Concord, 1998)
Chris Potter, Unspoken (Concord, 1997)
Chris Potter, Moving In (Concord, 1996)
Chris Potter, Sundiata (Criss Cross, 1995)
Chris Potter, Pure (Concord, 1995)
Chris Potter, Concentric Circles (Concord, 1994)
Chris Potter, Presenting Chris Potter (Criss Cross, 1994)
Contributor: Jacob Teichroew