Chris Potter, a flat-out terrific jazz saxophonist and composer, is just getting his wind. He’s played with a dozen legendary jazz figures as a sideman (dig his recent recording live at the Village Vanguard with the Paul Motian Trio 2000 Plus Two), but his work as a leader has now grown imposing. This year, Potter released two discs on the same day: the instant-classic groove disc Follow the Red Line and this — refreshingly unique and unusual — studio album of compositions for tentet. Potter, let there be no mistake, has become one of the most ambitious and ingenious jazz musicians of the new century.
Music for Anyone features a band and a set of compositions that are close to singular. Potter has conceived a fully integrated sound for string trio (Mark Feldman on violin, Lois Martin on viola, David Eggar on cello), woodwind trio (bassoonist Michael Rabinowitz, Greg Tardy on clarinet, flutist Erica Von Kleist), rhythm section (Steve Cardenas on guitar, bassist Scott Colley, and Adam Cruz’s drums), and saxophone soloist. As you would expect, Potter uses these varied colors every which way, but it is notable that they are most often used in versions of an integrated whole. And this is crucial. Too often in jazz, ambitious writers have yearned to get long-haired and serious with some classical-sounding strings, only to find that these players didn’t blend well with the jazz group. Potter avoids that problem in several ways.
First, Potter is not merely trying to jam jazz down the throats of non-jazz string players. On a track like “Closer to the Sun”, Potter conceives of a chamber music sound that plays directly to the strengths of his non-jazz collaborators. Much of this music is orchestral in its primary sound. It is at ease as composed music that does not need suddenly to break into “JAZZ“. Good.
Second, both the string trio and woodwind trio contain legit jazz players: Feldman on violin and Tardy on clarinet. On “Chief Seattle”, Feldman gets a chance to play a dancing zigzag solo that trades in blues and klezmer licks with equal wit and swing, playing call-and-response with the ensemble. The title song gives plenty of solo space to Tardy’s clarinet — a harmonically inventive outing that takes full advantage of the woody high end of the horn. In short, Potter is not the only “jazz” player here, and the ensemble is given unusual balance and grace through the intelligent combination of different musical strengths.
The general tone of Music for Anyone is gentle, despite Potter’s ability to heat things up on tenor. Steve Cardenas’s soft guitar sound and Adam Cruz’s sensitive approach to percussion assure that the rhythm section never wrestles the airy arrangements to the mat. Though there are ten musicians woven through these carefully arranged and episodic compositions, there is plenty of room in the middle for rays of light and breathing room. At the start of Potter’s improvisation on “Cupid and Psyche”, it is just the leader and rhythm, but when the strings enter (and, then, a minute later, the winds), there is no sense of clutter. The pieces of the puzzle lock together with room to spare.
It’s pleasant to report that, for all this airiness, there is also propulsion. “Estrellas Del Sur” sets up a Latin feel that pulses insistently, and “Family Tree” has a slow backbeat that would be perfectly at home on an indie-rock recording. Does “Family Tree” also contain a bassoon solo? Yes, it does — and why not? “Chief Seattle” positively grooves, with the tenor in unison with Colley’s bass line, an approach that would work with Potter’s fusion Underground band. For all this, the group’s identity is clear, with the flute and tenor playing a gorgeously notated line and a sense of sunshine never leaving the jerky licks that Potter has written for the ensemble.
Given that Music for Anyone was released on the same day and on the same label as the hard-hitting Follow the Red Line, it seems wrong to prefer the obviously more grooving disc featuring electric instruments, explicit pop feel, and dollops of funk. Better, perhaps, to properly see them (as Potter surely intended) as different parts of his tremendous whole. Nothing on Red Line tops the variety and stylistic play of “Chief Seattle”, and nothing on Anyone has the snap and surge of “Train”.
One beauty of art, of course, is that it is not a competition. Chris Potter was not trying to top himself by releasing two equally brilliant but wildly divergent albums on the same day, was he? But maybe he is competing with the other saxophonists and musicians out there, letting them know that his musical imagination is more than ready to throw them down like snack food. The year 2007 will be remembered as a very good one for this imposing and inventive jazz musician — even as a year when jazz seemed too limiting a category entirely to contain him.
May he bust even more categories in the years to come. We’ll be listening.