Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Chris Potter: The Obsessive Musician


Chris Potter has long been touted as one of his generation's most talented performers. Even as a teenager, well before he moved to New York, he was named an heir to the traditions of Charlie Parker. In spite of the praise, Potter has been a self-driven individual striving to satisfy his own preoccupation with music.

Music was a constant part of Potter’s life growing up. He was born in Chicago, but by age three he moved to South Carolina. He grew up in the south, but the influence of the big city remained in his household. His family had a "quality record collection” including, among others, Bob Dylan, Buddy Guy, and the Beatles. These became Potter's earliest influences.

For Potter listening was never enough. He was interested in creating music. "I always had to play it." Whenever his family went somewhere where there was a piano, he had to noodle around on the instrument. He would figure out the melodies he'd heard on records being played at home, but Potter was also keen to figure out his own ideas, improvising long before he had any formal training.

As he got older, he discovered the more obscure parts of his parents' collection: Miles Davis, Charles Lloyd, and Dave Brubeck. Potter says it was the tone of Paul Desmond's saxophone on the Brubeck Quartet's legendary album Time Out, which inspired him to take up the instrument.

By age ten he began playing alto saxophone because, at the time, he “was a little small to play the tenor. As soon as I got it I tried to figure out how to play all those tunes on Time Out, and I had some really helpful people early on: my elementary school music teacher and my first saxophone teacher. They were very happy to show me they were improvising over a form and what notes were in a scale and the basic stuff, and I was off and running. I was just obsessed.”
At this point, Potter's saxophone influences were primarily the early figures of the Ellington band: Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Ben Webster, Harry Carney. “I wasn’t really hearing Charlie Parker. I didn’t understand what he was doing. I didn’t really like it.”

Those early Ellington influences can still be heard in Potter's fat tenor sound, but by the time he was twelve, he started getting into Parker and diligently worked to emulate his sound. “It was like a light went off, and I spent a long time trying to figure out what is he doing, how is he getting that sound? A lot of what I would do would just be to play along with the records, not even necessarily write anything down, sometimes not even knowing the tune, but just trying to play along, just trying to play like they did, sound like they did, phrase like they did, figure out what notes they were using.”

By the age of thirteen he was already becoming an acclaimed musician, praised by renowned jazz educator Jamey Aebersold as a "reincarnation of Charlie Parker." At one particular Aebersold camp, he was singled out to play with the instructors instead of his peers, as they saw him as a player on their level. Looking back on it, Potter recalls it being "a little weird. The Charlie Parker reincarnation thing kind of freaked me out. There was another one of the teachers that asked me about it in private once, and I told him ‘I have no idea whether it exists or not. I certainly have absolutely no feeling that I was Charlie Parker in a previous life,’ and he said ‘yeah it’s probably just a bunch of junk, but if you are Charlie Parker, don’t take drugs this time.’"

Back in South Carolina he was a regular at a local jam session. “On Tuesday nights these guys didn’t want to hear anything except bebop, just total bebop heads, and then Wednesday nights would be just anything goes. We’d do an old standard, but then we’d play free, and then we’d play a Rolling Stones tune. So it was good to have both of those things, and then a lot of weddings. I drove all over South Carolina as soon as I could drive.”

After high school, Potter moved to New York where he began studying at the New School, and within a few months, he was invited to join Red Rodney's band. The former Parker bandmate made Bird's music a central part of the repertoire, and Potter found this to be among the best parts of his training. “It was great having the chance to play all of these Charlie Parker tunes with the guy on the record.”

Rodney was quite a character as well. By that time, Rodney had stopped smoking cigarettes or doing any drugs, but he still had a penchant for “getting away with stuff. There was something about the whole having to ‘score’ something that he still just had to do. It took the more innocuous form of, if we were getting on a plane, he would fake a limp so that he could get on first and everybody would be really really nice to him. It was that kind of stuff, but just constantly. There was always stuff like that going on.”

Rodney was also famous for posing as an Army inspection officer. This rumor grew to myth in the jazz community over the years, and Potter recalled hearing the story from Rodney “a couple times with slightly different details each time. There must be a nugget of truth in there somewhere, but it sounded pretty deep. He saw an article in the paper about this general who dropped in on Air Force bases unannounced and he thought, ‘wow, that guy looks just like me only with gray hair.’ So he died his hair gray, and he got a uniform, and he showed up at Army bases and inspected everything. That was his thing. I don’t know what exactly he got from it.”

After three or four years in Rodney’s band, Potter began to work around New York in other capacities as well. He was still just twenty-two when he began playing in the Mingus Big Band. One night, Steely Dan's Walter Becker happened to attend a performance and loved Potter's playing enough to seek him out for the upcoming Steely Dan tour.

Suddenly, Potter was thrust into huge performance venues playing for thousands of people a night. He remembers one of the interesting things about his experiences in that group was, while the band was extremely experienced, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the group's leaders, hadn't toured since 1972. They had since scored a number of hit albums and singles and amassed a large fan base, but they had always stayed in the studio up to that point, and they looked like "deer in the headlights" performing for such large numbers of people every night. It was the leaders who were stunned.

Fagen and Becker wanted to tour, "and they knew at this point they could ask for first class everything. The leaders were used to working in the studio, and that was about it, so to go out there every night, it’s hard for me to imagine. They were kind of like deer in the headlights looking at sold out twenty-thirty thousand people. It was very exciting and very good music. That was music that I listened to growing up to. I was familiar with most of the tunes, I just wasn’t ever expecting to actually play it.”

As Potter found himself suddenly in the top-tier of the music community, he was humbled by the people he began to work with, including Randy Brecker, Jim Hall, and Ray Brown. “Any time you have a chance to actually work with somebody you’ve listened to a lot, and to hear how they react to you. It takes a little getting used to, and it’s such a learning thing too, not just the music part but getting to know them. You start to get to know people as people as well as how they play, and it all starts to make sense. My experience also is the really great musicians are all very humble about what they’re doing because making music on the highest possible level takes a lot of dedication.”

When he was given the chance to make his first album, it was an all-star effort, featuring Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland, and John Scofield as his sidemen. He hadn't even played with Holland before and was pleasantly surprised to see that they all showed up for the session. "I remember I was flying in from somewhere else and I was late, so those guys were sitting around for hours waiting for me. I was completely terrified for about five minutes and then we started to work on the music, and I realized it’s just like playing with my friends. We’re looking at the tunes. We’re trying to figure out what’s the best form, what should we do with the solos, what kind of feel, just completely working on the music, no weird stuff at all. It just felt completely at home. It wasn’t foreign at all. It was just a guy trying to figure out what’s the best part to play on this tune, and it just happens to be John Scofield and he has a tremendous amount of experience and a real unique voice, but that doesn’t help him when he just walks in and he’s trying to figure out what to play. He has to sit there and figure out what to play just like anyone else."

At the interview, Potter performed two solo pieces, Thelonious Monk’s “Ruby, My Dear” and the old standard “It Could Happen To You.” He has never performed a full solo concert, but it is something he’d be interested in doing and practices all the time. Playing alone informs the way he approaches improvising in a group. “You don’t want to feel like you’re relying on these other people and you’re floating over the top of it. The way that really great jazz is made is when everyone knows what’s going on and can add something informed and interesting to the conversation. The more everyone in the band has control of every aspect of it, the drummer knowing the form and the saxophone being able to take care of the rhythm without needing help, it just frees everything up.”

Potter compared group improvisation to citizenship within a community. Jazz “is the only kind of music that I know of, in history, that’s ever really had that group improvisation aesthetic. It’s really special. Philosophically too, it requires everyone to be very well informed about what the situation is, and to be considerate, but not to be wishy-washy, to jump in when needed. It’s all the kind of things that, if you look at it in another situation, can make a good citizen or a good family-member. This is the big thing behind what this music means to me. It’s a whole way of life, and the more that I’ve had a chance to work with people on the highest level you realize that’s really where it’s at. That’s the way they’re looking at it.”

While Potter’s take on improvisation was illuminating, his advice for upcoming musicians was to just keep at it. “Everybody has a different path, a different story, and that’s how it should be. Being a jazz musician, there's nothing cookie-cutter about it. It’s obviously not an easy thing to do. It’s not an easy way to make a living. I’ve been very fortunate, but I know a lot of people that are very talented. It’s not that easy, but it’s the kind of thing that if you need to do it, you need to do it. That’s how I felt from the very beginning. There wasn’t even any question really. It was just what I needed to do.”

Potter's journey follows one of those unique routes. He has been a consistent figure in jazz for nearly twenty years, garnering great admiration even as a teenager. He continues to churn out memorable performances, and as his obsession with music continues, there are sure to be many more in the decades to come.


Here are Chris Potter's two performances from the interview:


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