Review: Chris Potter at Ronnie Scott's

As saxophonist Chris Potter debuts his Underground orchestra on the ECM label, Mark Gilbert sees the original and smaller article in Soho

We heard a lot of notes (some, at this late stage, predictable but nonetheless intriguing) from Chris Potter at Ronnie’s on 17th February last. Little seems to have changed in the saxophone playing over the years, but that's hardly surprising given that Potter seemed to emerge fully formed in the 1990s, his already gargantuan technique surely leaving little to add to the range and vocabulary of the instrument. If there’s news surrounding him at the moment, it's the release of his second ECM album, Imaginary Cities, in which his Underground project has grown into an orchestra with string writing from the man himself and a somewhat veiled sound, in keeping with the ECM house style.

Here, he was with the Underground project lite, namely the quartet of the same name featuring Adam Rogers (guitar), the London-born, NY-raised Fima Ephron (electric bass) and Nate Smith (drums). Things were more explicitly funky than on the ECM recordings, as has often been the case in Potter’s smaller units over the years. Talking to me about his fabled altissimo command in 2001 he mentioned Eddie Harris and John Coltrane, two famous upper register specialists, in the same breath. That might be heresy to some purists but his album of that year, Gratitude, paid tribute to Harris and Trane among others, so he’s no stranger to the funk and no sax-as-art snob.

We heard a selection of pieces, including two from his 2007 album Follow The Red Line, namely Train and Viva Las Vilnius. The latter brought on Adam Rogers’s first major guitar solo, on the Gibson semi-solid rather than the funkier Strat-style guitar on which he has often approached the gritty sound of one-time Potter sideman Wayne Krantz. On the bigger-bodied guitar Rogers was smoother, more tentative but built up a good head of stream in the end. The absence of the Strat reminded of the absence of keyboardman Craig Taborn, who brought an urgent, funky edge to earlier, bassless versions of the Underground quartet. There was consequently more space – even hiatus – in bits of this set, but the leader himself filled with some comping on the club’s grand piano from time to time. As he segued on ruminative piano into Sky, one of the pieces from Imaginary Cities (another played was Lament), it became clear that something was amiss in the tuning between piano and guitar. In any event, before the next number the guitar tuned to piano – could the Ronnie’s instrument possibly have been out a few cents?

Some of these pieces had long vamps with not quite the wildfire dynamism of the best Underground quartet work but just as you thought the band might be coasting, a lightning turn of phrase in theme or solo would remind you of the ambition, intelligence and range of Potter’s writing and improvising. There has been Coltrane and there has been Michael Brecker and all the giants in between – Shorter, Henderson and more - but Potter came along and found new angles to add to that lexicon. The now bluesy, now funky, now bebop, now poetic phrasing combines with a detailed articulation that seems at once lachrymose and plain cheeky to form a unique signature on the contemporary saxophone scene. Even in 2001, Potter was saying of jazz that “People have spent whole lives trying to advance it and get it to the highest level they can, and to find what’s new is a tall order.” Yet he stands out.

Mark Gilbert

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