Chris Potter: The Dreamer Is The Dream (ECM 2519)

The Dreamer Is The Dream

Chris Potter
The Dreamer Is The Dream

Chris Potter tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, clarinet, flute, ilimba, samples
David Virelles piano, celeste
Joe Martin double bass
Marcus Gilmore drums, percussion
Recorded June 2016 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Luke Klingensmith
Mixed December 2016 by James A. Farber, Manfred Eicher, and Chris Potter
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 21, 2017

Chris Potter’s third leader date for ECM reshuffles the reedman and composer’s deck into yet another brilliant stack. This ace of spades is joined by brothers of hearts (pianist David Virelles), clubs (bassist Joe Martin), and diamonds (drummer Marcus Gilmore) for a set of six road-tested originals that only seem to grow with repeat listening.

While Potter is known for his forthright tenor playing, “Heart In Hand” facilitates a soft landing into hard-won territory. In a relationship with piano that’s almost blood-related, Potter’s primary instrument fits itself into the valleys between the keys while bass and cymbals populate the land with flora and fauna of lush detail. As in the set’s closer, “Yasodhara,” the bandleader’s tone is the voice of a fertile crescent alive with constant invention. Not a breath feels wasted, nor does a single note from Virelles, whose sonic archaeology is equal parts fire and earth.

“Ilimba,” named for the Tanzanian thumb piano heard therein, locks Potter and Martin in step, while Virelles and Gilmore paint crosswise: the water to their wind. Amid Gilmore’s superlative patterning, Potter plants himself in enlightened soil. “Memory And Desire” is another surprise for its artful samples and folk-like soprano. Mind-melding with Virelles, it treats air as a surface to write across. The title track is the willow tree resulting from this natural assemblage. Featuring Potter on bass clarinet in a fronded system of branches, and an extended bass solo from Martin, who dismantles and rebuilds his ladder to the top until its structural integrity is infallible, it regards us from above as the sun dances on its own reflection. Squinting our eyes into its glare is all we can do to open our hearts and minds to its message. Not only is the dreamer the dream; the dream is also the dreamer.

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.)

Chris Potter: The Sirens (ECM 2258)

The Sirens

Chris Potter
The Sirens

Chris Potter tenor and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet
Craig Taborn piano
David Virelles prepared piano, celeste, harmonium
Larry Grenadier double bass
Eric Harland drums
Recorded September 13-15, 2011 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Charlie Kramsky
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Saxophonist Chris Potter does Homer’s The Odyssey jazzily in his first leader date for ECM. Joined by pianists Craig Taborn and David Virelles, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Eric Harland, he dips into a sea of changes and emerges with a row of gold coins in his mouth. It is one thing to read into his allusions and programmatic suggestions for what follows, quite another to take the music on its own terms in the heat of moment after delectable moment. Not only has he taken a concept and made it his own, but he has further let the concept have a life of its own. He’s unafraid to round the corners, darken the edges, and age the surface, so that each tune is fully weathered before it reaches us, despite its nominally spontaneous creation and oxidization. In such a context, his extroversion speaks a thousand tongues.


From the start, “Wine Dark Sea” proves an apt descriptor of Potter’s tannined blowing and sets a tone for this smooth, eminently drinkable leader date (his first for ECM). The cinematic writing (all but the final track were penned by Potter) and rolling pianism get us into the textuality of things with a single reed as interpreter. Potter also opens the door for a far-reaching solo from Taborn, whose recognizable tickling brings a hip, modern edge to an otherwise classic sound. Matching this fine work is Virelles, whose prepared piano adds patina to “Wayfinder.” This ebullient track dashes more than a hint of its flavor from Pat Metheny and contrasts with the opener as a way of expressing Potter’s depth of execution.

On to “Dawn (With Her Rosy Fingers),” perhaps the only Homeric ballad in modern jazz. If we are tempted to read the urban sprawl into its matrix it’s only because Potter is so adept at rendering the ancient as if it were cotemporal with our awareness of it. Grenadier’s solo captures all of this and more, flipping rocks and mushroom caps like children in search of miniscule dreams. The progressive solo from Potter is a music lover’s dream come true: fresh, welcoming, sincere. He expands his versatility in the title track, for which he cracks open a vintage bottle of bass clarinet and lets its notes air. The attention to detail is sublime, even if the music is more than that. One might expect the call of the eponymous sirens to be ethereal, floating, and divine. Yet while the bass clarinet certainly possesses these qualities in its forested way, it is perhaps not the first instrument we might choose to evoke such iconic allure. What we experience, then, is not the call per se but the wrenching thrill of that call at the cellular level, of the biological fists that clench in response to it. We feel this especially in the arco bass solo, which threads its own curse, as if on the verge of blackout. And even when the calls themselves are realized by way of tenor, the steadiness of Potter’s breath enacts a decidedly secular enchantment. That same tenor flows through the veins of the penultimate “Stranger At The Gate” (a more complexly singing track that fits Taborn’s pointillism into a lovely trio progression) and gives the disjointed “Kalypso” an epic cast. The latter’s boppish ending throws us like a stone into moonlit water.

Potter dons the sopranist’s hat in “Penelope” and “Nausikaa,” both of which give us aerial views of the album’s topography and narrative arc. Potter’s squint-worthy changes and chromatic playing flower intently, towering but never domineering. Virelles evokes the princess’s footsteps via celeste, running with piano down the slopes—only in this valley of the wind there is only music. He and Taborn settle the tab with “The Shades,” a shimmering sunset of celeste and piano only.

The Sirens showcases Potter’s most mature writing yet. His tone is robust yet crisp, weighted yet dancing. He bears his improvisatory toolkit most admirably, going from legato chains to piercing wails at the flip of a tunic. His panache is never hackneyed. This the seasoned Potter fan will already know. What separates his saxophonism on this album apart is its commitment to story arc. How appropriate he should pick a tale that survived for so long through oral preservation alone. In meshing these two “texts”—the spoken and the written, the improvised and the composed—he continues that tradition, cutting into it a rift of personal experience into which we are welcome to pour our own. And indeed, Potter structures these pieces as any good storyteller would: with introductions that hook us in and with characters that come and go as they would in real life. This is the magic of The Sirens: in mining a classic of world literature, Poptter frees its personages and places from the bondage we might expect of them. Led by motives as gnarled as the oldest roots, they wander, never lost as long as they are heard.

Writing as I am in Ithaca (New York, that is), I cannot help but feel self-indulgent in loving this scintillatingly recorded disc. Its spacious, verdant music-making has as many tales to tell as there are people to hear them. Wherever ECM might take you, be sure to spend the night here at least once in your odyssey. Destined to be a classic.

(To hear samples of The Sirens, click here.)

Fraying the Thread: Dave Holland Quintet Live Report

Dave Holland Quintet

April 18, 2010
Buckley Recital Hall @ Amherst College

Dave Holland bass
Robin Eubanks trombone
Steve Nelson vibraphone, marimba
Chris Potter alto and soprano saxophones
Nate Smith drums

As a graduate student with limited time and financial resources (a redundant statement, if ever there was one), I find that going to live shows has become all too rare a luxury. Lack of a car further constrains my options, and so I am deeply appreciative of the musical opportunities that a college community brings to the hermetic academic. Where else could I have experienced the wonders of Zakir Hussain, stumble upon a free performance of Dvořák’s New World Symphony, and bask in the sounds of the Dave Holland Quintet for less than the price of a good dinner, all within a three-week period?

The venue for the latter was a packed Buckley Recital Hall at Amherst College. And while the space didn’t seem at first particularly suited for a quintet of such explosive caliber, a few knob-turnings from the sound technician worked out the kinks soon enough. After a brief introduction, Holland and his crew took the stage. The man himself offered a quip or two to an eager audience before jumping right in.

“The Balance”
The opening bass line was pure Holland: a mixture of delicate highs and thrumming lows that set the tone with unmistakable immediacy. Through this freshly strung loom, vibes, soprano sax, and trombone strung their own vivid threads. The group began by scaling up the improvisatory ladder with practiced precision, holding fast to a tight core of unity while venturing just close enough to the edge to gauge a drop to certain doom. A trio of drums, vibes, and bass provided solid ground for the horns, with ample room to roam. This led into an artfully performed passage of more staid harmonies before Eubanks broke free, jumping nimbly through invisible hoops as he dyed this mosaic with a guttural ferocity that was as viscous as it was effervescent. Just as the tension rose, Smith brought his drumming to a halt, stopping and starting playfully, paring down the music to a variant trio. With full support from bass and drums, Nelson loosed a barrage of half notes that shimmered like a hailstorm in sunlight. The horns returned on the heels of a violent drum kick, which soon relaxed into a head-nodding interplay of rim shots and hi-hat, bringing the ensemble down for a slow and easy landing.

Next up was a tune from the latest Octet CD, Pathways. An extended and soulful bass solo lulled the crowed into an intimate silence. Holland’s fingers made the lows sing, milking the amp for all it was worth, while his highs fluttered like wings. Just then, our rapt attention was broken by a cell phone, which Holland simply smiled away as Eubanks placed a hand on his chest and mouthed, “It’s not me.” Before long, Smith picked up the beat, ushering the others into more distinctly composed material as alto sax and trombone leaped across rim shots and cymbal rides. Potter’s first major solo of the evening began tentatively, as if he were putting out his feelers before releasing a modest joy. Bass and drums kept pace like a fast-moving train. Suddenly, the mood changed, and I felt like I was in a dingy nightclub rather than an immaculately kept concert hall. Smoke billowed in the darkness with every turn of phrase. Potter let out the occasional impassioned screech, each strategically placed amid clusters of glistening notes, then moved into a series of sustained tones over a spate of superb drumming. This paved the way for a ferocious solo from Smith, who elicited nothing short of gunshots from his snare. Yet Smith also proved his finesse with a delicate splash of cymbals, to which Holland added a few lobbing glissandi, before locking into a full-fledged groove. Holland eased his way in, ushering the theme’s return, which was then picked up by Potter. The group ended with a staccato burst in triplicate.

“Souls Harbor”
Holland broke out his bow for the opening lines of this Potter number before Nelson and Eubanks began hanging a series of triads from the composer’s smooth lead. Vibes asserted themselves with a bass-like steadiness. Holland swapped bow for fingertips and plucked his way out of a fluid intro. Potter and Eubanks laid out the main theme in perfect unison. After splitting into two-part harmonies, they rejoined as a single voice against Nelson’s ostinato. Eubanks’s emergent solo was one of the evening’s most idiosyncratic, sounding like a foghorn yearning to sing its woes across the waters. As the music gathered speed and energy, laced with incredibly dexterous runs, vibes crept along the cove with their slow return. Potter’s reappearance made for some subtle harmonization before Smith cracked open a livelier beat. At this point, Potter and Holland wandered off into an abstract, but strangely lyrical duet. To this question, Smith and Nelson had an expansive answer, fraying the thread of their overall sound into its determinate strands. Potter’s sax screamed, making its voice known above the din even as it parsed itself. And before we knew it, everyone was back into thematic material, closing in solid agreement.

“Walking the Walk”
This newer composition began in a solid triangle of bass, drums, and vibes. With the entrance of the horns, we were treated to a mélange of moods before settling into an arid sound, opened even wider by Nelson’s gorgeous four-mallet stylings. This was the vibraphonist’s time to shine. With the barest shades of the opening proclamation, he tread confidently in familiar territory and receded as Holland took the cue. The shuddering high notes, resplendent vibrato, and rumbling lows of Holland’s solo filled the space with the instrument’s deepest possibilities. All the while, Smith relegated his playing to the rims. Sax and trombone once again took center stage and ended in a paroxysm of beauty.

Holland’s quiet count kicked off “Secret Garden.” Hot off Critical Mass, this tune continued the dune-laden dynamics. It was at this point that Nelson finally turned to the massive marimba at stage left, lending a certain organic flair to the overall sound. With the theme dispensed, Holland and Smith rode easy to let the light of Eubanks break from behind the clouds. Eubanks stretched his breath to its limits, occasionally singing into the trombone for a chorused effect. Smith, meanwhile, tore a page from the Joey Baron handbook and drummed with his hands. Soon, it was just Smith and Holland for the latter’s brief solo turn, singing upward as the horns and vibes reinstated the path upon which they first led us in this taxing yet scenic journey. A flickering strand of bass and marimba brought us to our destination.

Last on the menu was “Step Tunes,” another new piece that showcased the quintet at its most blistering. After a brief blast from the horns, Nelson took over with some incendiary support from Holland and Smith. The brass returned, and presaged the most stellar solo of the evening from Potter, which brought thunderous applause from the crowd. Nelson was left to pick through the aftermath and find still more to salvage. His notes ran up and down with the abandon of a child at play, letting the occasional sustained note ring through the body. The return of Eubanks and Potter was almost anticlimactic after such inspired displays of joy. After a concise drum solo, the musicians converged and, with a glance from Holland, fell back into the center.

The audience wasn’t about to leave it at that, and cheered for more. Thankfully, dessert came in the form of “Easy Did It,” a short but sweet encore dedicated to the city of New Orleans. And indeed, it was like mashing five jazz clubs from The Big Easy into one delectably harmonious confection. The quintet blossomed with a soulful theme, punctuated by a couple of low blasts from Eubanks and painted with broad strokes from Potter, whose penultimate cries on soprano signaled the winding down of the evening’s song.

In its current incarnation, the Dave Holland Quintet is an unstoppable force. Seeing them live deepened my understanding of their relationship and their process. Holland’s bass lines are like supremely fashioned entities whose entire physical makeup is as taut as the strings that tell their life stories. He smiles, eyes slightly squinted, and leans into his bass with the lilt of a conductor’s baton. Eubanks plays with closed eyes, his entire body rocking into the balance of every piece. Smith is constantly looking up, as if to let his drum kit whisper and shout of its own accord. Nelson dances left and right, navigating the broad terrain of his instrument with the deftness of a boxer. Potter’s approach is rather different, as nonchalant as it is utterly embodied. It’s as if he refuses to lock himself into any motif for too long, more interested as he is in finding out what awaits just around the corner. He is always turning and weaving through the crowd of his musical ideas, pickpocketing whatever interesting tidbits he can along the way and exhibiting them with minimal mitigation. I also enjoyed seeing how the musicians performed as a group, sometimes leaving the stage or standing off to the side when they weren’t needed, coming back at just the right moment to an unspoken signal. Their synergy was complex without being complicated.

The quintet’s compositional astuteness was also clearly evident. These were far from the concise ditties that characterize so much of what constitutes jazz in the mainstream. Rather, they were (with the sole exception of the encore) 10- to 15-minute epics of form, freedom, and style. Theirs is beautiful, heart-wrenching music that stands firmly in tradition even as it thinks over the horizon. Their sound is rich, evolved, and never content to type itself. Although Holland has, with the founding of Dare2 Records, deviated from his 34-year stint with ECM, he nevertheless carries with him that same communal spirit instilled in him through his seminal work with the label. He is always about dialogue, even when playing alone, for jazz is nothing without response.