A palpable sense of excitement inevitably precedes the concerts of Jazz At The Athenaeum. Cognoscenti gather in a tribal atmosphere, anticipating an invigorating and challenging rendezvous. Wednesday, June 7th was no exception when the Chris Potter Quartet delivered a stunning musical experience, spearheaded by its stellar leader.
I have a theory that most jazz musicians acquire their techniques in pursuit of their specific musical requirements. Coltrane practiced constantly because his esthetic of putting three chords on top of every original one meant that he had to acquire great velocity. Potter reportedly has enormous ears: his ability to hear sophisticated chordal interpolations required that he develop a monstrous technique to articulate his unique conception, and the mid-career results of his hard work are absolutely stunning, as was amply demonstrated on Wednesday.
Potter brings a rich and full-bodied tenor sound to bear, along with ridiculous facility throughout the extremes of the horn. His altissimo playing recalls the fluency of the late Michael Brecker’s; his low register control is reminiscent of the legendary Sonny Rollins, and his overall technique and tone honor the tradition of great tenor technicians like Johnny Griffin. Yet, Potter is very much his own man, and, although his lineage is proudly attributable to his gigantic predecessors, he doesn’t sound like any of them.
And, can there be any greater compliment paid to a jazz musician? He clearly resonates with his tradition but sounds like nobody else. Not just a woodwind virtuoso, he is also an excellent composer: Wednesday’s program consisted entirely of Potter’s distinctive originals. As testament to both his ears and his work ethic, he played the entire program from memory faultlessly. Perhaps as a consequence, he always seemed to be speaking the music with intimacy rather than merely dispatching it perfunctorily. For example, his ballad “The Dreamer Is the Dream” was composed and played so lyrically that it went over like a song without words. If there were a text upon which he based the melody, it would not be surprising. The cleverly written tune also featured the fine bassist Ben Street, and it could have served as the emotional denouement of the evening. It wasn’t however, because the closing “Ilimba” which followed was a barn burner that somehow shone like a still brighter diamond in the band’s crown.
It is not clear why Potter chose to start several tunes with a synthesized, real-time electronic device. He apparently felt that the sounds coming from the box would add to the songs’ overall effect, but instead, they seemed to detract. On “Ilimba,” for instance, the synthesized kalimba ensemble was interpreted and replicated with the entrance of Cuban-born pianist David Virelles, whose playing was far more interesting than the rather pedestrian synth part. The technique of combining electronics and acoustic instruments is tremendously difficult to pull off, and probably should be left to the studio environment or else should incorporate an additional electronic musician to give the parts their necessary due.
Virelles’ Steve Reichian entrance sounded like the Minimalist master’s “Four Pianos,” only performed with the virtuosity of one terrific player instead of four. Accompanied by able drummer Dan Weiss, the intro to the tune transformed into a full-blown Cecil Taylor-informed solo, concluded with authority by Potter’s stentorian and concluding entrance and mind-blowing, roasting, hide-the-womanfolk-and-children solo. This was perhaps the most impressive solo of the night, which stretched out chorus after chorus, new idea after new idea spilling out of his horn as Potter searched, prodded and probed for new and as yet untried note/rhythm combinations and chordal interpolations.
In the fullness of mid-career, Potter (born in 1971) has been a known quantity around the jazz world since he was 18 years old. He is an acknowledged leader in the nearly monastic New York City jazz priesthood, where making a living from one’s art is about as difficult and as unlikely as a college basketball player succeeding in the NBA. It is conceivable and anticipated that his career will stretch forward for many years, but regardless of what the future holds for him, this is one musician you really don’t want to miss if you have an opportunity to hear him live.
I, for one, will be quite upset if he comes to town again and I miss him. The guy really is all that. Now I wouldn’t say that his presence shines an inextinguishable beam on the future of this invaluable yet troubled, rather endangered and cloistered national-treasure of an art, but it certainly does add a significant luminosity to it. I am thankful for artistry on the extraordinary level of Potter’s and grateful to have witnessed it on Wednesday.