In conversation with chris potter
By Frederick Bernas
“Music definitely gets to a different place when you’re playing live,” states Chris Potter. The saxophonist sits nonchalantly in the lobby of a London hotel, as conventional Muzak drones ironically in the background. He is due at Ronnie Scott’s club for a gig with Underground, his bass-less quartet that integrates the funkier side of jazz with a strong progressive aesthetic. “This energy thing builds up with the audience and it’s very exciting,” Potter continues, referring to Underground’s Follow The Red Line: Live at the Village Vanguard (Sunnyside, 2007), the third live CD he has released.
“When I established this band I was thinking about trying to use some of the influences I hadn’t expressed so explicitly before—like how much time I’ve spent with James Brown and Stevie Wonder, later Miles and the whole funk thing. It also feels like sometimes we get into this real kind of harmolodic Ornette-funk thing. There are a lot of influences that come and go, but I think we’re figuring out how to put them together in our own way, through our own four personalities.”
The project sees Potter joined by Craig Taborn on Fender Rhodes, guitarist Adam Rogers and drummer Nate Smith—a combination he feels is starting to develop very fruitfully. “They’re all really strong musicians; I don’t have to think about whether they’ll be able to play something I’ve written or not, I know they’ll come up with something unique. They all have such interesting backgrounds. Craig’s frame of reference is huge: he’s way into a lot of stuff I don’t know anything about, punk bands and this and that—a completely different world. And I hear that in things he goes for sometimes, he’s able to somehow bring it in. Nate originally started to play in church—you know, gospel—and he’s got this thing when it’s funk, but it’s really warm and easy to play with. It’s not that mechanical machine thing at all, it’s really soulful and pretty mad to mix with Craig. And Adam has so many different ways he can go and so many beautiful sonic things he does with the guitar. He’s amazing at finding some part within the whole matrix of the thing that really makes it come alive, besides playing great solos. And then I try and just not get in the way!”
This faithfully minimalist, open attitude fosters a creative chemistry that manifests itself in all kinds of ways: sparks fly at live shows. For Potter, the group represents an open book of possibilities that help him to “grow” and “figure out” how he can pull together all his strands of thought into a coherent musical statement. “For a while, I made a rule for myself that I wasn’t going to write anything longer than a page for Underground,” he explains. “I’ve since broken that rule, but it’s still that kind of bare minimum of material: just a mood and some ideas to work with, but not too much. I want to hear what they bring into it. If there’s some specific idea I have for a tune and it’s not going in that direction, maybe I’ll say something, but I prefer to say as little as possible. It’s an organic approach, as much as I can do—I don’t want to stifle it.”
Despite heavy demand for Underground (this interview took place at the start of a significant European tour), Potter always finds time to work with a wide variety of other leaders, from Herbie Hancock to Ari Hoenig. With 14 albums under his own name, the saxophonist would be perfectly entitled to follow many of his peers by focusing on personal projects. It’s a complicated situation, a “funny balance,” according to Potter. “I get a lot out of playing with a lot of different people, but it’s a question I ask myself: am I shooting myself in the foot, in a way, by doing too much other stuff? I don’t know exactly what the right answer is, but I can imagine just wanting to be on the road a little less than I have been, because it’s been a lot. But, on the other hand, if somebody calls you for a really good gig, it seems a very strange thing to say no. You know how musicians are, dying for a good gig, wondering if anyone’s ever going to call you—you’ve always got to have that in the back of your mind,” he states modestly.
Furthermore, he is quick to acknowledge lessons learned from sideman experience—starting right back at age 18, when he played hard bop with Charlie Parker’s long-time trumpet partner Red Rodney. “That was a real introduction to what it was like being on the international jazz scene. And it was great playing with someone who’s a master of the bebop language as a real first generation thing. It was really something special to be playing Bird lines with him, knowing he played them with Bird.”
In terms of band leadership, Potter talks about “how to approach music” as being a key facet of what he’s picked up. Major mentors include Paul Motian and Dave Holland: “Everyone has a different approach, like the way Dave Holland is. He has a very methodical way of working through ideas, which has been very influential to me. But on the other side, working a lot with Paul Motian has been useful as a completely opposite thing: as un-analytical as possible. Freedom. Just going with your aesthetic instinct and not at all thinking about whether you’re painting inside the lines or not. So, between those extremes, and a lot of other people too, I feel it’s been very useful for my overall approach to music and leading bands.”
Both these musical ideologies prevail in Potter’s recent work. As well as ongoing development of the freewheeling Underground, his 2007 release Song For Anyone (Sunnyside) features a series of compositions for “tentet”—a group including instruments not normally seen in a jazz context, such as strings. “That was something I’d been wanting to do for years and years,” he explains. “I never really studied that much composition in college, definitely not orchestration. It was a little bit like I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I just went for it anyway. It was so exciting for me to hear real people playing it and hear it actually come true, it makes me want to do more someday. I haven’t yet, but when I listen to that record I think ‘how did I manage to get all that work done?’ It was a way for me to explore a new compositional side.”
Making the album also planted the idea of ‘spontaneous composition’ in Potter’s mind. It entails a slightly refined, contextualised approach to traditional improvisation, as he was required to view solos as only one part of a broader written structure—rather than a separate entity existing of its own accord. “I think I improved as an improviser by thinking about the composition from start to finish, not just improvisation that goes somewhere on its own. I had to think about it beforehand, and have a chance to plan what’s going to go where, lead to what, and when. It helped me think more compositionally as an improviser.”
Another knock-on effect has been fresh interest in “spontaneous group composition,” an idea he has been exploring with Underground. “I’ve been thinking about my role in that kind of situation—how to add what’s necessary and get out of the way when it’s not necessary. It’s a tricky thing.” How free? “It doesn’t matter if it has a form or not, we’re still trying to be as free with it as we can—whatever that means. Even when it’s within a certain set of guidelines, the feeling that it’s creative and growing comes from the freedom. Maybe choosing to play the written material sometimes, and judiciously choosing when to go away from that, doesn’t make it seem any less free than completely free playing.”
Potter’s album Gratitude (Verve, 2001) saw the saxophonist pay eloquent tributes to his key inspirators on the instrument—Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Eddie Harris and Ornette Coleman included. When asked which of his own contemporaries Potter draws on, he spoke of a mutual cross-pollination they all use to raise the bar. “I really enjoy David Binney, the writing especially. Also Mark Turner, Chris Cheek, Seamus Blake, Josh Redman, whoever’s at a high level. But it’s funny, I think it’s just a different feeling we all tend to have about people who are from our same generation versus people who are older. We’re all looking up to Wayne [Shorter] and whoever and thinking ‘wow’—you know, he just doesn’t seem human! But I think it’s just a natural thing, a generational thing. In some way, I feel like with all the other saxophone players of my age it’s more like trading ideas back and forth a little bit. I think we all influence each other, or at least they influence me!”
This reflects the rich unity of New York’s contemporary scene, which is becoming increasingly vital amidst the music industry’s apparent impending doom. As major record labels are forced to downscale or completely abandon jazz-related activities, little collectives of like-minded artists are coming to the fore—think Dave Douglas’s Greenleaf Music or John Zorn’s flourishing Tsadik imprint. The trend has made its way overseas: budding independent operations are rising in London, with musicians eager to work together and spread a shared message. Potter asserts that, of course, “we just want to make music, not spend time on all that admin stuff,” but also understands that “most people are accepting they have to do a bit of both, especially when they’re starting off.”
His vision for the future (he’s still a thirty-something) sits on the principle of a perpetually open mind: “What any artist is ultimately trying to do is express their view of life and what it feels like to be alive. I definitely want to approach music in a way that, until the end of my life, it will be growing, and I’ll still be growing—I hope I’ll be open enough to react to what’s happening and smart enough to recognise something good when I see it or avoid something bad when I see it. That day-to-day search for inspiration isn’t even really a search, it’s just recognising it when it happens.”
With an Underground studio album freshly recorded, a customarily busy gig schedule and a collaboration featuring Dave Holland, Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Eric Harland in the pipeline, 2009 looks like it will be another good one for Chris Potter. Speaking again of the Underground band, he is clearly enthused: “I feel that now it’s starting to find its own language, which is exciting for me to be part of. It keeps getting better and better.” Long may this continue.