Is there Virtue in Virtuosity?

Chris Potter - photo (partial) by Michael Piazza

Two recent releases by leading saxophonists Chris Potter and James Carter raise the question of the utility—or the misuses—of virtuosity in jazz.

There was a time, perhaps, when playing jazz was much more a matter of soul than technique. But that time—if it ever truly existed—is decades gone.

Today there are scores of jazz studies programs in colleges and universities in every region of the country. The most famous jazz schools—Berklee, North Texas State, New England Conservatory—have their own distinctive styles and proclivities. In short, jazz has become a kind of industry (if a low-paying one), and the production of jazz musicians with astonishing technical ability is now dime-a-dozen. Don't look now, but there's a future Wynton Marsalis playing transcribed Clifford Brown solos somewhere in your neighborhood, readying his Julliard audition.

This may be good—because this great art form deserves to enter America's institutions and be recognized.

And this may be bad—because by institutionalizing an unruly and emotional art may just homogenize it.

But it is so.

The dilemma is, of course, not that jazz musicians have technique. It's great to be able to do, on your instrument, whatever your heart moves you to do. Rather, the dilemma is in the seductive lure of that virtuosity. Most musicians may do only whatever they can. But technically brilliant musicians, able to do anything, always have the chance to dazzle.

Dazzling, alas, is often a problem in jazz.

This is best demonstrated by the famous brilliance of the less dazzling jazz musicians. Miles Davis, for example. Unlike his mentor Dizzy Gillespie, Davis had no significant high range, no carefully articulated speed, and no set of spectacular licks. Rather, Miles was forced to focus on a powerful tone, working in his middle register on creative rhythmic dialogue. Or how about Thelonious Monk? It's not clear that he couldn't play clean, but at some point Monk's idiosyncrasies as a pianist were so total and continual that most listeners thought him a "primitivist". Within that language, however, Monk was a compelling and forceful stylist—the most original and brilliant player of his generation.

The finest jazz technicians, at least if they let technique define them, can be underwhelming. Trumpeters who become "high note specialists"—even famous ones—are rarely compelling soloists (Maynard Ferguson and perhaps even Cuban virtuoso Arturo Sandoval). Guitarists known for blazing speed tend to feel like the masters of the empty gesture (Al DiMeola, at least when in high fusion mode), and flashy pianists are high on filigree and low on soul (Michel Camilo). Limitations, as all artists—and certainly Miles and Monk—know, are a spark to the imagination.

There are two new releases by contemporary jazz saxophonists that suggest questions: Wherefore virtuosity? Virtuosity, are you too easy to misuse? Or, in today's polyglot jazz environment, are you more critical than ever?

Artist: Chris Potter Underground

Album: Ultrahang

Label: Artistshare

US Release Date: 2009-07-28

UK Release Date: 2009-07-27

Image: Potter Underground, Ultrahang

Saxophonist Chris Potter could not normally be accused of technique-happy shallowness. He has created a series of brilliant recordings in recent years, using a formidable technique to improvise with imagination and boundless energy in a variety of contexts.

Still, Potter is so fine a player that he can slip into the anonymity of excellence. It is no coincidence that he was chosen to record and tour with Steely Dan, the most technically demanding of rock outfits, and his recent work has been often reminiscent of that most shiny and awesome of saxophonists, Michael Brecker. Brecker was brilliant in tone, imagination, speed, and muscular urgency. But, by the time of his premature death from leukemia, Brecker had become so influential that his blazing style threatened to overrun the jazz saxophone ranks. Potter, in reaching a Brecker-ish ideal, can verge on being too good to have his own quirky voice.

Ultrahang is the third recording by Potter's intriguing "Underground" quartet with Craig Taborn (Fender Rhodes electric piano), Adam Rogers (guitar) and Nate Smith (drums). This is a band that plays acid-tinged power jazz, a group designed to surprise (no bass player, the leader moving between tenor sax and bass clarinet) but also designed to harness a backbeat and the turned-on juice of electric guitar and electric piano. While Ultrahang contains some sensitive and warm playing, it would be hard to listen to it and not respond with: "Wow, those guys can really play!" A wonderful and nettlesome response.

"Boots" is a tricky funk tune that thrives on precision and detail and well... all the stuff that only virtuosity can bring. Potter, Taborn and Rogers play a series of fast intertwined lines that converge of a hot unison and under which the drummer plays lickety-split. It's not facile or cheap like some kind of smooth jazz, but it does make its mark with precision and speed—and in all that grooving fancy footwork, something of subtlety is lost. "Rumples" is a snap-nasty funk tune that is even more hi-octane, with Potter and Rogers playing in the kind of nervous, speedy unison that is both exciting to listen to and, frankly, like an itch you can't scratch.

Only the best players could make this kind of tune happen. But does that make it artful? The title track of Ultrahang stresses chops in a different way. Neither fast nor tricky as a composition alone, it relies on Potter's crying, crystalline tone—its own kind of "chops".

Ultrahang reminds us at every turn that Potter and his bandmates fuel their creativity with supercharged skills. And so many of their creations trade in a kind of astonishment. Potter's solo on "Small Wonder" is, at the very least, a moderately-sized wonder: muscular, rich with trills and runs and cries, presented with bead of sweat running down its forehead. It matters little that "Time's Arrow" is subtle and impressionistic or that Dylan's "It Ain't Me, Babe" turns on bass clarinet colors and gospel piano. Ultrahang is a flashy suit that—just a little too often—reminds you that technique is neither be-all nor end-all.

Artist: James Carter, John Medeski, Christian McBride, Adam Rogers, Joey Baron

Album:Heaven on Earth

Label: Half Note

US Release Date: 2009-08-25

Image: Carter, John Medeski, Christian McBride, Adam Rogers, and Joey Baron, Heaven on Earth

If Potter does a bit of a Michael Brecker impression, then James Carter is a master imitator: the saxophonic Rich Little of his generation. He can play any style at a volcanic level of excellence. Heaven on Earth is not credited to Carter alone—he shares the bill with jammy-organman John Medeski, guitarist Rogers (again), Christian McBride on bass, and drummer Joey Baron—but Carter is the front man of the moment.

Carter's first recording is the kind of thing most serious jazz fans will never forget. On 1993's JC on the Set, a very young master was announced, playing with outrageous knowledge and stylistic range. Carter could play like Gene Ammons or Illinois Jacquet or David Murray or, well, just about anyone. And he played fast and with astonishing imagination. Follow-up discs proved this again and again.

Sure, Carter could caress a ballad, but his preference was to burn hot and fast, honking and rattling and tearing off runs of stone-cold dazzle. At first, this playing was such a wonder that fans like me didn't even question it. But eventually that kind of sizzle has to prove itself as more than an end unto itself.

Heaven on Earth was recorded live at New York's Blue Note, and so there is some significant playing to the crowd. Carter and friends come out of the gates loaded for bear, with all their tricks at the ready. Rogers is spikey and blues-hot, and Medeski plays organ with a sonic abandon that suggests both the avant-garde and rock. McBride and Baron have their moments too, but Carter is never shy about stealing the show or eating the scenery.

Carter's virtuosity is different from Potter's, however. Carter is less about playing fast, precise and clean than about busting free of the mild. He plays gleefully in the horn's "altissimo" register, he thumps like a monster on the lowest notes, and he sweeps melodies brashly through middle, unconcerned with knocking over the furniture. Carter practices an expert form of maximalism.

James Carter

"Slam's Mishap" is not tricky, just a Lucky Thompson riff that cycles from a two-beat feel to swing. Before you know it, Carter is strangling his notes with histrionics. "Diminishing" (a Django Reinhardt tune) also trades on a repeated riff, and Carter digs in with brilliant multi-phonics (playing two notes at once on his horn), wide interval leaps, and cries in the upper resister that are carefully controlled.

And then there's the introduction to "Street of Dreams", where Carter begins with a gorgeous unaccompanied tenor solo that ingeniously references "On Broadway" and "Broadway" in turn. "Blue Leo" also starts with an unaccompanied solo (this time on baritone)—the kind of thing usually attempted only by the likes of Sonny Rollins. But Carter uses his intro to assay bebop and free jazz in one quick pass, then he moves to the business at hand: a greasy blues that requires overblowing, false-fingering, circular breathing and surely other levels of other-worldly saxophonic skill.

Coming away from Heaven on Earth, it would be impossible not to be impressed. Baron and McBride are as amazing as the rest, with electric bass flurries and drum-a-tats perfectly placed. Rogers, Medeski, and Carter—especially Carter—simply spare no expense in blowing you away. The question is: Does this kind of virtuosity work for the music? Or, instead, is this precisely the kind of grandstanding that great art resists?

Virtuosity as a Means

My strong and fervent inclination is the reject Carter-and-Potter-esque show-offery. Give me a single note by Miles Davis any day.


There is a place in jazz for great players, and there is place in jazz for the kind of whip-snap precision of Potter or the brawling extroversion of Carter. Indeed, jazz is an arena where the ability to turn thought into instant music is inherently critical—improvisation requires a certain natural virtuosity. The question is not whether it's a sin to play well but rather how poorly most virtuosity is used.

In the case of Potter, his brilliance—his speed and tone and harmonically complex imagination—can feel empty if it isn't serving good material or if its context places it among a string of similar acts of brilliance. In his recent appearances (live and record) with the "Monterey Quartet" or the "Overtone Quartet", Potter sometimes sounds like too much filigree and not enough beef. The player himself always sounds like money, but it's possible for so much brilliance to become predictable dull. On Ultrahang, most of the dazzling stuff is used well: it creates a thrill that is fused with edge, it uses complex interaction to create polyrhythm, and it incorporates songs that do keep things simple and soulful, reminding us that virtuosity has known, plain limits.

In the case of Carter, his technical mastery is typically salvaged by his tolerance for messiness and glorious disorder. By mixing expertise with a healthy appetite for the avant-garde, Carter and his crew avoid The Problem of Too Much Precision. The saxophone playing is matched, tonally, by Medeski's free-wheeling approach to the organ drawbars. So the whole band has a Jackson Pollack vibe, flinging color this way and that. And because the songs on Heaven on Earth are blues-drenched, the whole proceeding is grounded rather than precious.

When this kind of virtuosity is tethered to the dirt, the music resists the temptation to fly too high. In jazz, as in most art, this is a good outcome.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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