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Business News/ Opinion / Blogs/  JAZZMATAZZ: Pottermania rules

JAZZMATAZZ: Pottermania rules

A wizard of the horn, Chris Potter has emerged as the best improviser of his generation on the tenor sax

Chris Potter is spinning extraordinary tales on his saxophonePremium
Chris Potter is spinning extraordinary tales on his saxophone

Musical prodigies aren’t too difficult to find in jazz. Even so, tenor saxophonist Chris Potter stands apart in his ability to hold a narrative by telling captivating stories through his horn that has gathered a devoted following among the cognoscenti of cutting-edge improvisational playing. Since his debut as a bandleader in Presenting Chris Potter (1992), Potter has been living up to his early promise through a steady stream of albums and also playing as sideman in many others that have charted the journey of a genius who hasn’t yet stopped scaling new heights.

If any more proof was indeed needed of his extraordinary talents as a musician and composer, Potter seems to have exceeded expectations in the just-released Imaginary Cities (2015), his first attempt at leading a big band, an orchestral extension of his acclaimed Underground quartet with 11 players that features a string section as well. About half of the album consists of an eponymous suite in four parts that brings out the best of Potter’s skills as a composer. He has come a long way from his days of incendiary soloing and had brilliantly matured as a leader who isn’t chary of taking chances. Although packed entirely with original compositions, Imaginary Cities could very well be favorably compared with the classic Charlie Parker with Strings (1950) that had the maestro blow new life into standards.

Potter’s latest offering on the ECM is a fitting follow-up of his first as leader for the label, Sirens (2013), his most ambitious project before Imaginary Cities. A daring musical reimagining of Homer’s Odyssey, the adventurous release showcases the sheer brilliance of Potter’s mastery of not just playing and leading a band of braves but also of inventive compositions for an acoustic ensemble. The lyrical romanticism of his playing both the bass clarinet and tenor sax that’s both compositionally complex yet eminently approachable, reminds us forcefully that we have a master in our midst. Besides the title track, the other standout numbers in Sirens include Wine Dark Sea, Penelope and Stranger at the Gate.

It’s difficult to believe that at 44, Potter has built up an extensive discography of as many as 18 albums as bandleader besides playing sideman to the likes of trumpeters Red Rodney and Dave Douglas, bassists Dave Holland and Steve Swallow and drummer Paul Motian. It will take more than a couple of pieces to relate Potter’s musical odyssey that started when he moved to New York and started performing when he was just 18 years old. This time around, mention must be made of two more of his albums, Gratitude (2001), the first of his albums that I heard, and Dave Holland’s Critical Mass (2006).

Potter was already a veteran at 29 when he debuted on the storied Verve label with Gratitude. It was an extraordinary effort by any count, one in which he paid tribute to musicians of earlier eras who inspired and set him to the path to greatness. When jazz stagnated somewhat in the seventies and eighties, aficionados started asking whether it really had anything new to offer. The resurgence in the following decade that continues to the present day has surely answered that. The confident comeback is perhaps perfectly exemplified in Potter’s Gratitude, which comprises 10 original compositions out of 13, and provides a beautiful sonic history of past horn players that include Lester Young, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, Ornette Coleman and Eddie Harris. There’s little that pleases the ear more than when a present master recreates the past.

If the past few albums of Potter have stressed on the groovier, more lyrical aspects of jazz, it would be a mistake to consider him solely as a soul-soaked romantic. Critical Mass, an album by the Dave Holland Quintet, stands evidence to the contrary. Potter is on fire throughout the outstanding album, soloing with passionate intensity and interplaying with almost telepathic sympathy with band mates that also included Robin Eubanks on the trombone, Steve Nelson on the vibraphone, marimba and tambourine and Nate Smith on the drums. Potter blows splendidly on the crossroad where Coltrane meets Michael Brecker, and that’s no mean achievement.

Jazz, as this column has been stressing repeatedly, is in the midst of a creative frenzy that started about a decade before the turn of the millennium and there are quite a few players of the saxophone, the genre’s iconic instrument, who are extending musical horizons in all directions through brilliant performances and compositions. And then, there’s Chris Potter, perhaps the most followed jazzman of his generation whose tremendous breadth as a composer and bandleader never ceases to spring delightful surprises. He once said, “I want people to dance if they can, to feel the music and not think of it as something complicated and forbidding." Be assured, Potter has been true to his word.

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Jazzmatazz is a fortnightly column on stories from the world of jazz. For the music that it features, visit here.

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Published: 21 Jan 2015, 04:09 PM IST
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