Chris Potter turned heads as 13-year-old who could play the alto sax like Charlie Parker. And when he finally exploded out of South Carolina as a teenager, it was onstage with Charlie Parker cohort Red Rodney. This was the springboard to a career that’s allowing Chris Potter to collaborate with the most committed innovators in music: Dave Holland, Herbie Hancock, Dave Douglas, Pat Metheny, and Steely Dan, to name a few. Now with one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary jazz and hugely successful leading his own bands, Chris has 15 critically-acclaimed albums as a leader. Tonight’s show is a rare treat, as Chris shares the stage with intrepid adventurers Eric Harland on drums, Larry Grenadier on bass, Brian Lynch on trumpet, and Larry Koonse on guitar.
Chris Potter’s Stanford Jazz Festival debut is just one in a series of significant firsts for the saxophonist this year. In January, he released his inaugeral album for ECM, The Sirens, a strikingly beautiful session unlike anything else in his prodigious discography. Inspired by his recent immersion in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, the album explores his original compositions, a lyricless song cycle marked by sinuous melodies and spacious textures. At 42, Potter has recorded some 17 albums as a leader and appeared on more than 150 albums as a sideman with a imposing array of veteran masters, established contemporaries and rising stars. Even with all his varied experience, Sirens represents a stark turn from the breakneck harmonic runs and athletic virtuosity that made him one of the definitve players of his generation, or from his turbo-charged electric Underground quartet, which he reassembled last month for a run at the Jazz Standard.
For his performance tonight Potter is joined by the superlative Sirens rhythm section tandem of bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Eric Harland. Though they’re among the most prolific jazz musicians in New York, they hadn’t worked together before Potter brought them together, figuring “it was a natural fit,” Potter says. The saxophonist first joined forces with Harland at the 2007 Monterey Jazz Festival as part of the all-star Monterey Quartet with Dave Holland and Gonzalo Rubalcaba (an encounter documented on a terrific live album). Several years later, the group resurfaced as Dave Holland’s Overtone Quartet with Jason Moran taking over the piano chair. Potter’s relationship with Grenadier goes back to the early 1990s when they played together in the bands of Al Foster and Renee Rosnes, but Sirens reunited them after about a decade of minimal bandstand contact.
“It had been a long time since we had played together, and when I started the Sirens project it was natural to call Larry, who’s one of my favorite musicians,” Potter says. “We first played the music during a week at the Vanguard and I wasn’t actually thinking of it as a working band. But then ECM contacted me.”
While Potter and Brian Lynch are well acquainted, they’ve only performed together in a handful of settings, including the Mingus Big Band. And tonight’s performance marks the saxophonist’s first bandstand encounter with Larry Koonse, though they’ve known each other for years through bassist Scott Colley. Considering Potter’s track record, the blend of long-time and untested musical relationships offers an ideal opportunity for experiencing his gift for seizing the musical moment and putting a personal stamp on it.
Potter's voracious creativity was what attracted his first mentor, revitalized bebop trumpeter Red Rodney, who took the teenage saxophonist under his wing when Potter arrived in New York to study at the Manhattan School of Music. “He sucked up everything like a sponge,” Rodney said shortly before his death in 1994. “But his sound is original. His articulation is different from anybody, and his harmonic knowledge is profound.”
Brought into the Concord Records fold by piano maven Marian McPartland in 1992, Potter became the anomalous progressive on a label better known for its neo-swing sound. While his increasingly confident Concord albums didn’t win him widespread name recognition in the U.S., he was making a formidable reputation in Europe. Through appearances with the Mingus Big Band, trumpeter Dave Douglas, drummer Paul Motian and particularly bassist Dave Holland, Potter became so widely esteemed that in 2000 an international panel of critics selected him for Denmark’s prestigious Jazzpar Prize, making him by far the youngest musician ever to win the now defunct “Nobel of jazz.”
Back at home, Potter gained his most widespread exposure as a featured soloist on Steely Dan’s 2001 Grammy-winning comeback album Two Against Nature. Producer Jason Olaine, who had met Potter when he was booking Yoshi’s, recruited him for Verve the next year in an effort calibrate his popular acclaim with his exaulted status amongst his peers. Though the campaign was cut short when Verve jettisoned its jazz roster, Olaine did produce 2001’s Gratitude, a session dedicated to Potter’s tenor sax heroes, and 2002’s tour de force Traveling Mercies, which introduced his first working band with keyboardist Kevin Hayes, bassist Scott Colley, and drummer Bill Stewart, while displaying his multi-instrumentality on soprano, alto and tenor saxophones, bass clarinet, and alto flute.
As good as his group was, it didn’t have many opportunities to tour because Potter was spending much of his time on the road with Dave Holland’s celebrated quintet, a relationship that has deeply influenced the saxophonist as a player and a bandleader. “You can feel that this is a really well thought out aesthetic sensibility with a lot of depth,” Potter says. “That’s a good model for all of us.”
It’s a model that Potter follows effectively in his own bands, like Underground. With drummer Nate Smith, Craig Taborn on Fender Rhodes, and guitarist Adam Rogers, the bass-less group has honed a wide-open approach built upon refracted funk and hip hop grooves, a sound captured on the thrilling 2007 album Follow the Red Line: Live at the Village Vanguard (Sunnyside). Always looking for new musical challenges, he’s gearing up for the Lincoln Center premiere of an extended piece composed for an expanded version of Underground and a string quartet.
“That’s a big one,” Potter says. “Getting into the string quartet, that’s such a deep world, and I’m just kind of scratching the surface.”