As a teenager in the late'80s, tenor saxophonist Chris Potter performed with the great Red Rodney. He later went on to collaborate with luminaries like Herbie Hancock, Jim Hall, Paul Motian, Dave Holland, and, more recently, he was a member of the Pat Metheny Unity Band. While he's played as a sideman on a hundred albums, Potter also has fifteen albums under his own name, including his brand new ECM debut, The Sirens, which was inspired by Homer's The Odyssey.
A deft and exciting improviser, Potter will be joined by the equally vigorous bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Eric Harland for his two-night stand at Dazzle this weekend. We spoke with Potter about how The Odyssey inspired The Sirens, what it was like to perform with Red Rodney and how his playing has changed over the last two decades.
Westword: Was it challenging at all taking Homer's The Odyssey and translating that into music?
Chris Potter: That might have been one of the easier parts of it. I just kind of felt inspired after reading it. I wasn't really planning on reading the book and writing some music. When I read it again, I thought, "This is so evocative and me makes me think of some music."
So I started sketching out some little themes that seemed related to different episodes from the book, and before I knew it, I had pretty much a whole album's worth of stuff to draw on that all kind of seemed to have a mood that hung together -- that there are different moods within it, but that the whole thing had a kind of flavor that felt like one statement.
So that might have been the easiest part of the process. That just kind of flowed out by itself. The execution of it, getting everything planned and just actually delivering on that initial vision -- maybe that was more of a challenging process.
You wrote it in two weeks. Is that pretty fast for you to write a whole album?
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Yeah. Normally the way it works is that I'll write a tune, I'll bring it into the band and maybe we'll have a chance to play it. We're work that into the repertoire. Then, maybe a couple of months later, I'll bring something else in. So it's over a longer period of time, and they're not all connected, and they're not all... I mean, this is the first time that I've done something like this where I did have kind of a story in mind, like something that wasn't musical that joined it all together.
So that was a much different process than normal. And, yeah, a couple weeks to write enough music that I felt good about was pretty short because I'm often writing a lot of tunes. There's a lot of stuff that has never seen the light of day and a lot of it won't because I just don't like it enough. I end up writing a lot and throwing a lot away but then if you just write a lot, then you're going to have some stuff that you end up liking. This was an unusual situation in that everything kind of worked out from the beginning. I didn't really throw anything out.
With the tunes you like, do you change them a lot or do you stick with the original idea?
It really depends. It's an interesting process, especially with jazz music. You write some notes on the paper and then, depending on who's playing the music and how they approach it and what happens that day or whatever, you might decide that it works the way it is or you might decide that it needs some kind of change. You might imagine it as being at a particular tempo or something like that and then when you play it you realize, "Oh wait, that's way too fast. It should be much slower."
Once you introduce it into a group setting then the tunes seem to take on a life of their own. They no longer really feel like you're... you know, like it doesn't even matter who wrote it. It's just that you're trying to figure out the best way for that song to be done. So that's sort of a challenge there.
You've also talked about how you wanted to play the storyteller a little more with The Sirens rather than just blow through some difficult changes. Can you expand on that?
Just the mood of the whole thing... I knew before I had read The Odyssey that I kind of sound in mind that I was looking for. I knew that I wanted to something not electric -- something acoustic -- after making a few records with the Underground band. It was just time to do that.
I kind of imagined the sound as being a little more spacious, a little more... I don't know how to describe it. There was a certain sound that I was looking for. When I read The Odyssey, I realized that was kind of the mood that I wanted to get anyway, but let me see if this can help me get to that musical place. So that was sort of the thinking behind that.
Since The Sirens was your first album on ECM as a leader, was there any kind of conscious decision to tap into that ECM esthetic at all?
You know, that was just a fortuitous situation because I wrote all the music and we had already played it live well before I got in touch with [ECM founder] Manfred [Eicher] or he got in touch with me about recording it. The way it worked out... I have known Manfred, not all that well, but I've known him for years, and I guess we've been on each other's radar.
But some of the ECM employees who live in New York came to the gig at the Vanguard, where we were doing this music for the first time and mentioned to Manfred that maybe he'd be interested in recording it. So the whole environment and the music kind of came first, but it did seem very fortunate that just at the time when I was ready and wanted to make a record that would kind of fit ECM's esthetic, ECM showed up and wanted to record it.
I was reading about how you play certain songs on the soprano where it was like you're speaking in a woman's voice. Can you expand on that?
Some of it was just related to the fact that those tunes sounded good on that instrument, and I was also conscious of wanting to have some textural variation the record with the different woodwinds, so it wasn't all tenor. But that was kind of a reason to... I think that those songs fit so well. I was thinking of them being sung in a woman's voice, so an octave higher than the tenor.
I mean, I have to say also that with the all the programmatic thing about and everything, I kind of hope that if you didn't know that you could still appreciate that on some other level. But maybe, for some listeners, that might offer a way in, that they can understand exactly how I was thinking about it.
Going to back to when you first started playing jazz, I read that hearing a Paul Desmond record sort of got you going on the jazz path.
That was that first time I had heard the saxophone playing anything like that, you know, where it was a beautiful sound. That was the thing that kind of inspired me to ask my parents for a saxophone, and then I was off and running. There were a few other records that my family had -- some Miles Davis records with John Coltrane on them. There were some Charles Lloyd records. But I think the first thing I heard was Paul Desmond. That was made me go, "Wow, maybe there's some real possibilities for this instrument." Maybe I should learn how to play it.
You had been playing guitar before then, right?
Yeah, probably even more piano. Both. I can kind of remember from earliest memory whenever there was a piano in a room, I would just kind of go to it and just try to figure out how it worked, how the notes fit together and what it sounded like if you put different groups of notes together and all that kind of stuff. I think I was very interested in music from a very early age. I was interested in listening to it. It was always the focal point of my attention.
I'd imagine playing with Red Rodney when you were fairly young must have been quite the experience as well.
Oh yeah. It was a great experience to have a chance to play a lot of Charlie Parker music with the guy who was on the original record. And to see how he thought about things and how he operated and hear him play every night. It was a direct kind of connection to that whole musical world, which isn't around any more. The situation was very different for music back then. The music has changed a lot. So, I'm really glad I had that opportunity to kind of see firsthand someone from that era and the way that they played and the way that they thought about everything.
How would you say your playing has changed or developed over the last twenty or so years since you've playing professionally?
I feel that it's developed a lot, that it's still developing. I mean, it's that often where I go back and listen to things that I recorded a long time ago. But it is kind of interesting every now and then to hear. I usually feel that I was kind of going for the same things back then that I was going for now. I didn't quite have the skills to be able to execute it. I just wasn't quite fully formed.
But I think that can be kind of interesting thing. You know, someone who knows my playing now might be able to hear those earlier records now in light of what I'm doing now and kind of realize what the path was. It's really hard for me since every record that I make I have the feeling like, "Oh, this is a work in progress. This is maybe cool, but this isn't quite it. Just wait until the next one. I'll finally get it." I think that's sort of a common feel that a lot of musicians have.
I feel like it keeps growing and growing. At this point I think I've absorbed a fair amount of the technical information that I need to make a lot of music. I just have to keep figuring out how to use it in new and creative ways, and ways that feel like they express what I want to express.
I would imagine it's just a constant path.
That is the amazing thing about music. This is something that I've seen now having had the chance to get to work with a lot of great musicians who were even in their late sixties and seventies: They're still discovering. They're still learning. And you realize that it affects their whole outlook on life, that even if you're in your seventies, you don't have to be old. You don't have to think old. I think jazz music... that's one of the positive things about it, too: There's always a feeling of discovery, and that makes every day exciting. You wonder what you're going to find in music that day.
I don't know if it's specific to jazz, but it's one of things where the more you learn something, the more you realize how much more there is to know.
Oh yeah. I still feel that. Even simple things like how to play a melody really well. There are just so many different ways, little shades of meaning that you can give it depending on your sound or articulation or things you do to it. It's never going to end. So I've just tried to accept that. If you try to have it be perfect then maybe you won't reach that other level, which is that joy of discovery thing. If let go of the, "Oh, it should be perfect..." Because it's not ever going to be perfect. There is no perfect.
Then there's that whole concept of technical versus soulful, and sometimes being too technical can get in the way of what you're trying to say...
To me, that seems like a little bit of a false way to look at it. The more you're able to do, what that ideally should do is make you more free to express whatever it is you want to express. But I do think, as musicians when you're focusing on these little details, and jazz is such a complex language, and there's a lot of little details to focus on, you tend to lose sight of the big picture.
I think that creates the effect that it's too technical and not soulful. I know for myself, soul is definitely the key ingredient. But I also know that, during the journey, you're trying to execute things and say what you want to say that there is a danger of missing the forest for the trees.
I recently interview Joe Lovano and he said, "there's free jazz, but what I do is play jazz free."
Yeah. That's a good way to put it. I've always had that feeling that I'd like to play... I mean, if I'm playing a tune that has changes, that has a form, that I'd like to completely free on it. And I'm playing music that's free I want to spontaneously compose a form so that it's not just a formless thing. It's like you're always kind of looking for the best of each part of that. You're looking for the freedom within the form.
You'll be playing Dazzle with your trio and without Craig Taborn on piano. Are you still going to be playing material from The Sirens?
Yeah. It just sort of turned out that there was no one that seemed to make sense to fill the piano chair. As accomplished as Larry Grenadier and Eric Harland are, I think there won't be any shortage of music up there even though there's only three of us. I'm sort of curious what that will be like since it's the only stop on the tour where it's at trio.
And that's a real challenge but I'm looking forward to it and those are definitely those are two extremely strong musicians to do it with. I'm curious how some of this music from The Sirens sounds without some chords. I think we'll be able to make something interesting out of it. We'll probably vary the repertoire a little bit and add some other things, too.
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