Juggling schedules and a last minute window of opportunity, we caught up with saxophonist, composer and road warrior Chris Potter at a hotel in Bethesda, MD just after the start of an extensive touring season with Pat Metheny’s Quintet. When he returns home in the fall, he’ll focus on his next ECM CD, the follow-up to his Odyssey-inspired 2013 release The Sirens. For this B&A, Chris preferred to listen to each song in its entirety before commenting.
1. Joe Henderson
“Mamacita” (from The Kicker, Milestone). Henderson, tenor saxophone; Mike Lawrence, trumpet; Grachan Moncur III, trombone; Kenny Barron, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Louis Hayes, drums. Recorded in 1967.
Maybe it’s Joe? That’s some classic, down the middle, mid-60s Blue Note even-8ths blues. It’s a very good example of a certain kind of jazz. Everybody sounds good, within a style but also creative. For a minute I thought it might be Junior Cook, who had a similar sound to Joe, but then he did some little rhythmic thing that was so hip and intelligent and musical that I knew it wasn’t somebody who sounds like Joe. That’s Joe. It feels good. There’s a lot of music I like to listen to, all sorts of stuff. And they all put me in a different space. But hearing this takes me back to home base, which is really nice. It’s not hard to understand and it’s not shallow. It’s the real thing.
2. Randy Weston & Billy Harper
“Congolese Children Song” (from The Roots of the Blues, Sunnyside) Weston, piano; Harper, tenor saxophone. Recorded in 2013.
Before: The thing I liked about it is it’s so creative and the time feel is so good. It had a focus from start to finish with a simple, folk-y melody, but harmonically the bass is a half step higher than the key that they’re playing the melody in. And it’s got a kind of marching beat to it. I thought both musicians worked well within that. In other hands it could be too ordinary or too avant-garde shtick-y. I liked what they did with it. They might have been younger generation but I could be totally wrong.
After: That’s Billy Harper? No kidding! That kind of makes sense that it hangs together so well. They’ve got enough experience to take this simple thing and take it out, but it’s still going to be this certain thing. I remember when I first came to New York, Billy was teaching at the New School, which is where I went my first year in the city. So a lot of how I feel about him is from meeting him back then. He was always very kind to me, and a cool guy. I really enjoy his playing. He’s also part of a generation of players that been pretty much overlooked. I ended up working a lot with John Stubblefield in the Mingus Band, Ricky Ford, George Adams and Billy; they had that cool, post-Coltrane out thing that a lot of the younger generation hasn’t really heard. But then a lot of younger guys haven’t heard Paul Gonsalves, so that might be a better place to start (laughs). But there’s a whole scene that I think is worth revisiting. I’m a fan of both these guys.
3. Count Basie
“Roseland Shuffle” (from America’s #1 Band, Columbia/Legacy). Basie, piano; Lester Young, tenor saxophone, Count Basie Orchestra. Live broadcast recorded 1938.
Wow. Most of the Lester Young I listen to is from a little later in his career. He’s so technically on here, executing such difficult saxophone things. I’d forgotten how burning he could be. I assume that’s with Basie’s band. From start to finish that’s killing. The rhythmic propulsion from everybody in the band is something I talk about with saxophone players in particular. Yes, the drummer and the bass player have to have a good time feel, but so does everyone. If everybody in the band knows how to move the music forward and swing like that, that’s when it really happens. There’s not a weak link there. It’s like a freight train. It’s also cool that you could feel it was popular music. People would dance to that. It would be hard not to. As far as Lester Young goes, no one has ever played the tenor saxophone better than that. No one has found any better solution. Everything about his whole conception is complete, there’s nothing missing. One of my favorite records of all time is his trio record with Nat Cole and Buddy Rich. Just how he plays the melody to “I Cover The Waterfront” is so moving, so heartbreaking. He’s really painting the picture of his life. And when you hear this, this is like a celebration, a triumph. Like, let’s have some fun.
4. Evan Parker
“Variation 12” (from Sankt Gerold, ECM) Parker, tenor saxophone; Paul Bley, piano; Barre Phillips, bass. Recorded in 1996.
Before: I really liked it. I was kind of wondering how long it would go on and where he would go with it. Actually, I could have heard a little more. He set a certain mood and then he played some really cool, I don’t even know what it was, but it was a recurring pattern with those overtones. Then it ends on those atmospheric harmonics. That short saxophone piece really worked for me. I go to that zone from time to time with my own band, not like an entire set but maybe for an intro. But it seems that whoever this is has systematically got a whole lot of stuff together in a way I haven’t explored yet. I have no way of knowing whether this guy can play “Giant Steps” at this tempo [snaps his fingers] and sound good or not. But that doesn’t matter. He wasn’t trying to do that. He was doing something else. There are so many things that can be expressed. Sometimes that feels like exactly what I want to hear, or Xenakis. It’s another approach to sound. The only way to gauge whether it’s good or not is if it says something to you. It can be pure sound, or it can be with harmony, or only rhythm. It can be organized in different ways, but it’s a little easier if I’m familiar with the language.
After: I was wondering. It didn’t get into the frenzied energy zone that I usually associate with him. But that makes a lot of sense because whenever I hear Evan, I think his language is really highly developed. It’s very controlled. He’s found his parameters and he works within his language. He’s a serious guy.
5. Sam “The Man” Taylor
“Deliver Me” (from Honkers & Screamers: The Roots of Rock & Roll Vol. 6, Savoy). Taylor, tenor saxophone; Sammy Lowe, trumpet, arranger; Haywood Henry, baritone saxophone; Lee Anderson. piano; Robert Banks, organ; Carl Lynch, guitar; John Hunter, Charley Manz, bass; Herbie Lovelle, drums; The Gospelaires, vocals. Recorded in 1961.
Before: It’s got that gospel, 50s pop sound with that 12/8 piano. And the saxophone almost sounds like Albert Ayler. It made me think of the links there with the full-throated, completely unheld-back saxophone sound with a little growl in it playing church hymns. There’s a line there. I’m not sure who it is. When I was a kid I didn’t like the saxophone that much. I’d hear this sort of thing and didn’t respond to it much. Maybe part of that was it was ‘70s radio and there were a lot of saxophonists then who didn’t have a good sound. But with this, now I get it. Boy, that’s some American music right there. And I hear the roots of the avant-garde in it. You’ve got to tell me, who was that?
After: I don’t know him but I like the phrasing and the sound and the rhythmic feel behind it. I’ve got to check him out.
6. Sam Rivers
“Downtown Blues Upstairs” (from Fuscia Swing Song, Blue Note). Rivers, tenor saxophone; Jaki Byard, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Tony Williams, drums. Recorded in 1964.
The frame of reference I’m using is Sam Rivers and Jaki Byard. The drums and bass, I’m not sure. I would have assumed Tony, but he did some stuff at the end that I wouldn’t have expected Tony to do, some kind of Elvin-y stuff. But it’s at that very, very high level. As for Sam, I knew it had to be somebody from that generation who absorbed bebop in that way and then did something else with it. Those particular choices of how he plays out-because it’s out with surprising twists and turns-you’re not able to play out in that way unless you really know what in is. Like you don’t have that range of possibilities of how to mess with the harmony and how to mess with the rhythm and how to construct a line that surprising without knowing about how to play in. He did that stuff at the end with the chordal voicings, the clusters; that’s his thing. Great. It’s amazing how modern this sounds; yet it has grounding in earlier language because that’s the generation they were from. And it’s a straight up blues. The rhythm section was just laying it down with all this out stuff on top of it. It would be hard to find a modern rhythm section that would do that today, especially because we’ve all heard Tony and Ron in their other mode with Miles where they were changing the texture a lot. But here the saxophone player and pianist are both taking it pretty out and the drums and bass are not. That added to the tension of the piece. If they were all going there it might have been great in a different way, but it wouldn’t have had that tension or grounding.
7. Jacques Schwarz-Bart
“Legba Nan Baye” (from Jazz Racine Haiti, Motema). Schwarz-Bart, tenor saxophone; Rozna Zila, vocal. Recorded in 2012.
Before: Interesting. It almost sounded like Josh. I don’t know who that singer was. That was amazing. It’s an unusual texture with just voice and sax like that-stark, sparse, really nice. I was imagining putting myself in that situation. You really do have to follow what the voice is doing. And everything the saxophonist did worked. Usually the saxophone is the voice, but in this context, the saxophonist was in a supporting role. It was just a beautiful piece of music.
After: Haitian? Interesting. Oh, I know Jacques. Yeah, that makes sense. I’ve mostly seen him with Roy [Hargrove]. We’ve hung out a bit. It’s a small scene, everyone knows everyone. I’ve never heard him do anything like this. The singing knocked me out.
8. Eric Dolphy
“It’s Magic” (from Far Cry, New Jazz/Prestige). Dolphy, bass clarinet; Jaki Byard, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Louis Hayes, drums. Recorded in 1960.
“It’s Magic.” I remember it from the Bugs Bunny cartoon. Great. I’m sure I have this record. From the first note, the way he sings the song, it’s obviously Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet. All the great saxophone players, besides whatever stuff they can do on the horn, just the way they sing a song, like what I said about Lester Young playing “I Cover The Waterfront,” or Bird with Strings just playing the melody, or Coltrane Ballads; from the first note there’s no doubt who it could possibly be.
Is that a matter of sound?
Sound and articulation. It’s a complicated thing. It’s sound in a deeper way, like he has a song to sing and he’s got to sing it. You can’t break it down into parts. It’s like a personality. Everything about how someone is—how they talk, how they walk, things they say. And then there’s all the musical stuff. What struck me about this is from start to finish he’s just going for it. Nothing is held back. After he finishes playing the melody and the rhythm section goes into a quasi double-time thing, he’s just playing a pile of notes. Just a lot of stuff with his trademark unusual lines and jumps. As someone who attempts to play the bass clarinet sometime, I always think I’d better be careful or it’s going to squeak at any moment. But clearly he had no such hang up. He was just going for it.
Any favorite Eric Dolphy records?
Out to Lunch is pretty hard to beat. He was consistent, though. His voice was a full-on thing. I haven’t heard any situation where he didn’t shine with Mingus, with Trane. And it was so personal. Can you imagine standing next to Trane, who was a dominant personality for many, many saxophone players? But Dolphy was up there doing a completely different thing, which I’m sure is why Coltrane wanted him to be there. There’s a solo version of “God Bless The Child” that is a tour de force.
If Eric were here right now, what would you like to ask him?
[laughs] I don’t know what I’d ask him, but I’d like to see him do that live. I think I’d learn a lot about how the bass clarinet works. Getting that much of an open sound out of it. Even just to know his equipment. I know that’s a geeky thing to say, but he was able to get such a projection out of it. I’d just like to see him do it. I never got to hear him speak. This is what I value about being on the road with Herbie, and you see him first thing in the morning on the bus. It’s not one thing, it’s everything. To play like that you have to be that. It doesn’t mean that they’re perfect people. Some of our heroes could be pretty nasty from time to time. But the beauty in the music is still beauty.
9. Rudy Royston
“Brownze” (from 303, Greenleaf). Royston, drums; Sam Harris: piano; Yasushi Nakamura: bass; Mimi Jones: bass; Jon Irabagon: saxophones; Nadja Noordhuis: trumpet; Nir Felder: guitar. Recorded in 2013.
Before: It’s an unusual drum sound. The toms are unusual. I imagine I know these people but I’m not sure who it is. Everybody can really play. The saxophone player had a real command of the instrument. I liked it. It seemed a little chaotic. In the middle of a set with something before it and something after it, it would really work. So it would be nice to hear this in a performance context. I get that everyone can really play. There was a focus to it. But to get a fuller picture of where everyone is coming from, I wanted to know more about what the ballad before it would sound like.
After: That’s Rudy? Cool. I met Jon a long time ago when he was living in Chicago. We went out for pizza. Good deep dish Chicago pizza.
10. Rahsaan Roland Kirk
“No Tonic Prez” (from Rip, Rig and Panic, Limelight). Kirk, tenor saxophone, stritch, manzello, slide whistle; Jaki Byard, piano; Richard Davis, bass; Elvin Jones, drums. Recorded in 1965.
Drums are down the hallway. Echo chamber. I really like the theme and the way the piano was orchestrating it. Was that Elvin? That must have been Roland Kirk. It’s funny; at first I thought it might have been Archie Shepp. It took me a while. You realize you don’t hear a lot of jazz now with that kind of energy and spirit to it. It’s serious and it’s fun. Was that Jaki again? That was a great stride moment. Roland Kirk is another, just to see how he did that. To orchestrate it live in three part harmony is not possible, but he did it. His whole thing with playing the slide whistle, the whole spirit of it made me think of The Art Ensemble [of Chicago], who could also straddle that line between serious music and entertainment. Humor in music is very tricky. It’s usually ill advised. That’s a very difficult line to walk with humor and serious music.
11. Ambrose Akinmusire
“The Beauty of Dissolving Portraits” (from The Imagined Savior is Far Easier To Paint, Blue Note). Akinmusire, trumpet; Elena Pinderhughes, flute; Maria Im, Brooke Quiggins Saulnier, violins; Kallie Ciechomski, viola; Maria Jeffers, cello; Harrish Raghavan, bass. Recorded in 2013.
Beautiful. Did that just come out? Is that Ambrose’s new record? Last night I saw that the record had just come out and I was going to buy it today. I remember we were on the road last year with the Monterey Festival On Tour thing and he was telling me he was going to do this record with string quartet. And I had just recorded with string quartet so we were talking about it. I heard some snippets last night and thought they sounded really good. I’d like to hear the whole record. Is that flute in there along with the strings? It’s beautiful. I’m kind of curious what he actually wrote out for that. Maybe just a series of chords? That’s nice. I like Ambrose a lot. He’s very serious about being true to himself. And he doesn’t take this music lightly. He’s careful about what he puts out there and he makes sure it’s something he believes in. Being on the road with him, every now and then he’d go into his Clifford Brown thing. And it’s full on. Something else I like about him is he gets a full sound out of the trumpet, no matter what he’s doing. I mean, he’s got all these extended techniques, and all these unusual lines, but the sound is always beautiful and warm. If he didn’t have that, he wouldn’t be able to pull off all the other stuff. It wouldn’t have the same resonance, at least not for me. So it’s funny you play this for me. That’s what I was going to do when I got to the hotel today.
Three records that changed your life?
Rite of Spring, The Queens Suite by Duke Ellington and A Love Supreme.
This B&A originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of JazzTimes.