Chris Potter & Underground Orchestra: Imaginary Cities (ECM 2387)

Imaginary Cities

Chris Potter
Underground Orchestra
Imaginary Cities

Chris Potter tenor and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet
Adam Rogers guitars
Craig Taborn piano
Steve Nelson vibraphone, marimba
Fima Ephron bass guitar
Scott Colley double bass
Nate Smith drums
Mark Feldman violin
Joyce Hammann violin
Lois Martin viola
Dave Eggar cello
Recorded December 2013 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Tim Marchiafava
Mixed October 2014 by Manfred Eicher, Chris Potter and James A. Farber
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Chris Potter has been deservedly recognized as a superlative musician and soloist, but he will just as likely go down in history as one of the great jazz composers of his time. Having already proven himself in that capacity with The Sirens, Potter continues his relationship with the only label with vision deep enough to realize his own. The title of Imaginary Cities evokes Italo Calvino’s invisible ones, and like the Italian magical realist’s vignettes depicts the same space from different angles of time and perspective. Bringing life to this masterpiece are the musicians of his Underground Orchestra. Essentially an expansion of his Underground quartet with guitarist Adam Rogers, pianist Craig Taborn, and drummer Nate Smith, the current project adds to that nexus bassists Fima Ephron (on electric) and Scott Colley (on upright), vibraphonist and Dave Holland Quintet colleague Steve Nelson, and a string quartet headed by violinist Mark Feldman.

The album’s torso is the title suite in four parts. Beginning with the sparkle of “Compassion,” moving through the propulsive “Dualities” and “Disintegration,” and ending with “Rebuilding,” Potter applies pigment to a formidable cityscape indeed, beyond which the bandleader’s sidemen and -women unroll ocean until an entire globe’s worth of water is given a chance to reflect it. Strokes of brilliance to listen for are Rogers’s constellatory riffs (especially in the far-reaching Part 4) and the string quartet writing of Part 2 (in which Nelson’s marimba also makes a multifaceted splash within a pizzicato frame). Through it all, Potter’s saxophones carve lines in the water like the fins of benevolent sharks. He unpacks his solos with the intuition of an experienced traveler and, especially by the sopranism of Part 3, emotes in an honest, straightforward tone.

The peripheral yet no-less-integral outliers of the program beget some of Potter’s most advanced playing on record. Of these, “Lament” is a most worthy introduction. Colley’s contributions on bass to the same are duly expressive and feed off arco strings without draining their atmosphere, from which emerges Potter’s tenor only after a lush prologue. His patient reveal is genius and thwarts our over-allegiance to the man at stage center. Between the angular “Firefly” (remarkable for Ephron’s bass guitar solo) and the Bartók-inspired “Shadow Self” (marked by Feldman’s unmistakable violin and Potter’s bass clarinet), exist lips locked in a smile, and which in the concluding “Sky” leave their kiss marks on the clouds.

Potter practices a trifecta approach, meaning that he eases into his themes and that, no matter how far his fingers travel in improvising around them, he always keeps home base in plain sight. His is a music of the here and now. It needs only you to guide it into the future.

(To hear samples of Imaginary Cities, you may watch the EPK above or click here.)

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