A part of the jazz tradition is the live recording, and Manhattan's fabled Village Vanguard is the brook of fire through which every improviser must pass. That said, Follow the Red Line / Live at the Village Vanguard shows that Potter has come through the burning sands of that venue s bandstand in flying colors. Backed by an intriguing, piano-less quartet composed of Detroit's Craig Taborn on Fender Rhodes electric piano, drummer Nate Smith, and guitarist Adam Rogers, Potter prances and dances on six extended-length excursions. Train leads off the set with some serious Staz-on-steroids swing, followed by the subcontinental syncopations of Arjuna, named for the Indian prince in the Indian literary classic, the Mahabharata. Pop Tune #1 is laced with some up-south downbeats in three, graced by Smith's tangy solo, while Viva Las Vilnius dances with Carib-cadences, contrasted by the hymnal hues of Zea. The disc closes on the powerful, Afrobeat anthemed Togo a propulsive ode to the delightful West African nation that Duke Ellington saluted in one of his last major suites. Here, Potter's in-the-pocket bass clarinet solo and accompaniment is an Africanized summation of that instrument s major voices from Eric Dolphy to Bennie Maupin, equaled only by Taborn's impossible keyboard solo.
Chris Potter s synthesis of the saxophone, flute and bass clarinet masters, and his ability to mold them into his own sound started with his first instrument, the piano, when he grew up in Columbia, South Carolina. He moved there after he was born in Chicago on New Years Day, 1971. He later switched to saxophone after he heard alto sax legends Paul Desmond, and Johnny Hodges. He was a professional by the time he was fourteen, and four years later, he moved to New York, enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music, and joined bop trumpeter Red Rodney's quintet until 1994. He also worked with Jazz Mentality and guitarist John Hart. His other prominent gigs as a sideman include work with Marian McPartland on her 1993 CD, In My Life, and with Renee Rosnes, Paul Motian, Dave Holland, John Patitucci, Dave Douglas, Steve Swallow, and Kenny Werner. He also toured with Steely Dan and recorded on their 2000 recording, Two Against Nature.
Potter's first CD as a leader, Presenting Chris Potter was released on the Criss Cross label in 1992. His other recordings of note include Concentric Circles (Concord Jazz, 1993), Vertigo (Concord Jazz, 1998), Gratitude (Verve 2001), Traveling Mercies (Verve, 2002), and his first two sides for Sunnyside, Lift: Live at the Village Vanguard (2004), and Underground (2006). The reedman s gifts have also been noted by the critics, as evidenced by his winning of Denmark's esteemed Jazzpar Prize in 2000 the youngest to ever win the award.
In a rare move, saxophonist Chris Potter has released two CDs on the same day, and on the same label Song For Anyone, his first album for a large ensemble; and Follow the Red Line: Live at the Village Vanguard, featuring the Underground band that s been touring for the past couple of years. Risky, perhaps, but Potter s significance the clear torch-carrier for the recently departed Michael Brecker continues to grow, and is one of a limited number of artists who can actually pull it off.
Potter s discography has been getting better with each passing year, but Underground (Sunnyside, 2006) was a true watershed, where conception, composition and performance came together for the most distinctive and fully realized album of his career. Follow the Red Line is even better, featuring the same group but with guitarist Adam Rogers in place of Wayne Krantz, whose sharp attack and oblique lines were amongst Underground s defining points. Those only familiar with Rogers largely acoustic Criss Cross discs, including 2005 s Apparitions, may be surprised to hear him kick such serious butt here, but those who ve heard his mid-1990s work with Lost Tribe know that he s undeniably capable of this kind of electrified, rock- and funk-edged music.
The gentle opening fanfare of Train starts the set on a lyrical and subdued note, but it s not long before drummer Nate Smith kicks in with a visceral funk groove, bolstered by Craig Taborn s uncannily dichotomous Fender Rhodes. Potter takes the first solo, building from ground zero to the stratosphere and demonstrating the kind of paradoxical blend of restraint and reckless abandon that makes his extended solos not just consistently captivating, but exhilarating. The same goes for Rogers, whose solo begins in melodic simplicity, but quickly takes off with a raucous energy and linear invention that s the main reason why he, along with Ben Monder, are two of New York s most in-demand guitarists across a wide swatch of styles. His tone is dense and sustaining, with a punchy attack and, like Potter, has an ability to milk the simplest of vamps for all it s worth.
Taborn gets to do the same thing during the unrelenting, single-chord vamp that s at the core of Arjuna, with Rogers soul-drenched single-line anchoring hand-in-glove with Smith s loose and unyieldingly responsive groove. Pop Tune #1 offers a brief respite; a countrified ballad where Roger s rich, sustaining chords support Potter s singable melody before taking a blues-drenched lead. Rogers builds dramatically, only to suddenly dissolve as Potter morphs the tune into another lengthy and funk-laden vamp where everyone raises the temperature during his blistering and idea-filled solo.
It s an exercise in futility to find a name for the music of Follow the Red Line. But as Potter blurs the lines between jazz, rock, funk and even a little afro-beat in ways that are finally being accepted again two decades after The New York Times declared the pestilence known as fusion is dead, the best word to describe this recording is, quite simply, great. - John Kelman --AllAboutJazz.com - Sept. 4, 2007