Ever since he burst on the scene in the 90s, the award winning, Chicago-born, tenor-alto-soprano saxophonist/bass clarinetist/flutist Chris Potter has blazed an impressive musical trail with his stellar sideman gigs with everybody from Red Rodney, Dave Holland, and Paul Motian, to Steely Dan, and by his critically-acclaimed fourteen recordings as a leader. Now, Sunnyside simultaneously releases two new CDs by Potter that showcase the ever-evolving genius of this saxophone colossus in the making.
Songs For Anyone features Potter fronting a ten-piece ensemble with woodwinds and strings, with his longtime partner, bassist Scott Colley, drummer Adam Cruz, guitarist Steve Cardenas, Greg Tardy on clarinet, cellist David Eggar, violinist Mark Feldman, Michael Rabinowitz on bassoon, flutist Erica Von Kleist, and Lois Martin on viola. The CD which takes its name from a poem by E.E. Cummings is an elegant and intricate extension of the saxophone-orchestral tradition rooted in classic recordings like Charlie Parker's Bird With Strings, Stan Getz's Focus, and Joe Lovano's Rush Hour with Gunther Schuller.
On Songs For Anyone Potter's rich, rugged and romantic sax tones effortlessly illuminates and amplifies the equally sensitive orchestral arrangements that, unlike many other efforts, are the perfect foil to leader s improvisations. The Absence is a probing piece pulsed with a zesty six feel, followed by the dancing selection Against the Wind. Closer to the Sun is a mallet-drummed Coltrane Crescent -coded number, contrasted by the Norah Jones-style backbeat of Family Tree. The equally bouncy Chief Seattle makes it a worthy successor to Wayne Shorter s Blue Note-era classic Chief Crazy Horse. Cupid and Psyche rigs with the type of martial drumming that Miles Davis referred to as the Rat Patrol sound, making it the perfect segue into the rhythmically adventurous percussion explorations of the title track and The Arc of a Day. The Latinesque and blues-tinged Estrellas de Sur and All By All, conclude this dynamic disc that proves that in Potter s skilled hands, jazz is an extension of the European classical tradition.
While Chris Potter s other release on the same day, Follow the Red Line: Live at the Village Vanguard (Sunnyside, 2007), is a feature for his high energy, rock- and funk-inflected Underground group, Song for Anyone presents a side to the saxophonist that s not been heard before. Written for an unorthodox combination of instruments, it focuses more heavily on Potter the composer. Still, while context is everything, from the opening notes of the appealing yet knotty The Absence it becomes clear that Potter s rapidly evolving voice is recognizable, regardless of the setting.
Chris Potter 10 features ten original compositions for string trio (violin, viola, cello), an unusual mix of woodwinds (flute, clarinet, bassoon) and a conventional rhythm section (guitar, bass, drums) alongside Potter s tenor and soprano saxophones. Potter s writing is expansive, at times referencing a kind of contemporary classicism the way Maria Schneider sometimes does, elements of Coltrane-informed Eastern spirituality and freedom, gentle folkloric backbeats that anchor contrapuntal melodies, Latinesque rhythms and even a touch of country. Throughout the nearly 75-minute set there s no shortage of diverse grooves to support the sometimes visceral, sometimes lyrical solos from everyone involved.
On these largely lengthy pieces, Potter demonstrates a surprising ear for orchestration. There will be the inevitable Third Stream comparisons to recent works like Joe Lovano s Streams of Expression (Blue Note, 2006), but Potter s choice of instrumentation makes Song for Anyone an album that, even when the energy level notches up, is all about soft surfaces and rounded edges. Guitarist Steve Cardenas and bassist Scott Colley are key contributors to Potter s distinctive ambience, especially Cardenas, whose predilection for nylon string guitar makes him sometimes felt more than heard, but always an essential part of Potter s detailed scores.
While strong arrangements define the majority of the album, there are moments of pure freedom, most notably at the start of Potter s powerful solo over a turbulent maelstrom from Colley and drummer Adam Cruz on Closer to the Sun. A pedal tone from the strings ultimately evolves into an ascending series of dissonant chords as Potter s solo winds down to a string trio section that s dark but strikingly beautiful. Elsewhere, on the equally episodic Chief Seattle, Potter and Colley go it alone for an in tandem solo section that s the result of many years spent working together on a variety of projects.
Other notable soloists included flautist Erica von Kleist s on The Absence, Michael Rabinowitz s surprisingly lyrical bassoon on the folkloric Family Tree, violinist Mark Feldman s fiery take on Chief Seattle and clarinetist Greg Tardy, on the propulsive title track.
Potter s reputation as one of the most important saxophonists to emerge in the past fifteen years continues to be validated with each passing year. Song for Anyone ups the ante, making it clear that, more than just an important saxophonist, he s a broad-minded artist whose composition and arrangement skills deserve to be considered of equal value.
- John Kelman --allaboutjazz.com