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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.


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