‘It’s just jazz’

Chris Potter is the stand-out tenor sax technician of our times, with the same hard-edged fluency, harmonic know-how and pinpoint timing that marked out the late Michael Brecker. His 15 albums stretch from hard-edged fusion to the straight-ahead, while McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock head an extensive list of credits. And next month the Cheltenham Jazz Festival gives a rare opportunity to hear him recreate the elegiac settings of his string-supported tentette album Song for Anyone.

Not all that long ago Potter’s name would have figured regularly on pop-album sleeves as a featured soloist or been part of a top-notch brass section. But the 41-year-old American’s generation of frontline virtuosi have been squeezed into occasional add-ons and brass sections have long been sampled into oblivion. Today’s crossover front-runners have market-friendly keyboard skills or vocal talent and, like Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spalding, reference hip-hop, dance and left-field pop.

Potter’s years as a high-profile sideman and his well-received personal projects have paid off, and he is now a main attraction. His recent sold-out shows at Ronnie Scott’s, with his new acoustic quartet – a return to his sonic roots, he later told me – demonstrated a welter of fresh-minted detail, breathtaking energy and technical skill. Potter and his band peeled off layers of modern jazz history and remoulded them into sharp and shadowy shapes to give new insights to a tried and tested form.

I met Potter the night after he opened at Ronnie’s. It was St Patrick’s day, and even the “quiet corner” of his hotel bar was warming up for a night of revelry. Potter’s focus never wavered as he spoke with the matter-of-fact confidence of an artist who has mastered his craft and gained at least some recognition for his labours.

It’s true, he agreed, that the days when musicians of his level ran from session to session are over. But changes in jazz itself have also had an impact on frontline players. When Charlie Parker upscaled rhythm and extended harmony in the mid-1940s, rhythm sections grappled with his inventions and fell in line.

From then until the end of the century, jazz changed from the front and saxophonists led the way. Ornette Coleman introduced free jazz, John Coltrane modes and Michael Brecker and Kenny Garrett modern fusion. Steve Coleman was still writing out rhythms to support his convoluted lines as late as the 1990s. Small wonder that the saxophone is as symbolic of jazz as a set of scales is of justice.

But now it is the rhythm teams who are laying down the law and soloists will have to elbow their way in. Roles are more fluid and equal, and there is greater attention to texture and detail. Not that this bothers Potter too much: he plays regularly with two of the most iconoclastic of the new wave of keyboard masters – Jason Moran with Dave Holland’s Overtone Quartet and Craig Taborn with his own projects. And his bands fit the new mould perfectly.

Potter sees contemporary jazz pushing on from the new ideas of the 1960s. “Trane’s band was always coming from a groove place,” Potter explained. “By contrast, Miles’s band was into a much more reactive kind of thing, getting rid of the traditional roles a bit. It was a time of rethinking, of asking ‘why does it have to be bang bang-a-bang, bang-a-bang all the time?’” And then later funk came along and had a big influence.

Now, said Potter, “there’s a lot more communication, in a way, a lot more possibilities. It’s not like this bed of rhythm that you can ply your lines over. You want to be listening to what other people are doing.”

This greater awareness of others is reflected in the close attention to texture and detail in Potter’s own compositions. A theme “has to have a form that has enough different possibilities that you can do a lot of things with it”, he said. But, he added, “it depends on what kind of picture you want to paint. Maybe it’s going to be all red, maybe it’s got to have all those little things in there.” And most important, it has to have its own mood.

Such an ability to fit in should guarantee a musician of his stature what well-paid session work there is, but Potter doesn’t seem drawn. Of his career, he said: “It’s just jazz. This is it. Making records and going on the road ... It’s just so rewarding to play this sort of music and see what happens every night. You just don’t know.”

Potter was born in Chicago but grew up in South Carolina. He was eight when he started working out chords on piano and guitar, but the serious business began at 12, when he got a saxophone – he’d fallen in love with the sound of Paul Desmond playing with Dave Brubeck from his parents’ record collection. From there, it was a short step to Charlie Parker.

“I studied his music when I was about 12 or so and tried to figure out how it worked,” Potter said. “Even now, when I’m playing such different styles, I still think of him a lot.”

Before long he was immersed in the breadth of jazz history – “a huge list” – and absorbing a wealth of non-jazz influences. He worked throughout his high school years – there were a few good musicians in South Carolina, he said – gaining enough contacts to sustain him in New York when, at 18, he won a scholarship to the New School. Within weeks he was touring with Charlie Parker’s one-time trumpeter Red Rodney – whom Potter gave a “remember me?” call soon after arriving in New York.

Potter recorded with the drummer Paul Motion in 1994 and worked with him regularly until his death last year “He looked like a little kid who’d never seen a set of drums,” remembered Potter. “It seemed like he’d deliberately made [his style] rougher, to get away from being stereotyped as Bill Evans’ drummer.” Potter has also been a Dave Holland regular for more than 10 years. “I’m not sure when the next gig is,” he said. “We’ve just done a couple of things last month with the Overtone quartet.”

Potter first recorded as a leader in 1994 – he currently has two projects on the go – and has just wrapped up a recording for ECM. Add in those to-die-for tours as a sideman – after Cheltenham he returns to the UK later in the year with guitarist Pat Metheny – and it’s as fulfilled as a jazz life can be. “Somehow,” said Potter modestly, “one thing led to another and I’m still doing it.”

The Cheltenham Jazz Festival runs from May 2 to 7, www.cheltenhamfestivals.com

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