The new recording from saxophonist Chris Potter reunites him with keyboardist James Francies and drummer Eric Harland, a trio last heard on Potter’s Circuits from 2019. The new session, recorded in one day amidst the pandemic, primarily highlights the orchestral possibilities in a small group featuring a woodwind player who moves from horn to horn and a keyboardist with artistry across a wide range of instruments.
There was a time when the use of electric keyboards and synthesizers in improvised music signified compromise with popular music—an attempt to steal a little pop action from rock or soul. As musicians formerly relegated to stools slung “key-tars” around their necks to posture at the front of the stage—looking more like Eddie Van Halen than like Bill Evans—it all seemed vaguely pathetic. And not just the look but the sound: screeching keyboard lines that dizzyingly filled the air without much soul.
But of course, there has always been another tradition. The Hammond organs and Fender Rhodes electric pianos of the 1960s had their glorious acoustic qualities. Jimmy Smith sounded juiced but warm on his B3, and Joe Zawinul played Rhodes (on Cannonball Adderley’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”, for example) and cooing synthesizers (with Weather Report) as if he were orchestrating a future where the acoustics would be different but still wonderfully familiar. These electric keyboards had distinctive colors and worked less as pseudo-Stratocasters and more like watercolors, like lighting rigs, like paintbrushes tipped with melody.
Today, the notion that “serious” jazz musicians have to stick to an acoustic piano is archaic. Zawinul and Chick Corea (and, for that matter, Sun Ra and Cedar Walton) are Hall of Famers who each had a highly personalized touch on electric keyboards. And modern piano masters as different as Brad Mehldau, Jamie Saft, and Matt Mitchell move from acoustic to electric as fluidly as guitarists like Bill Frisell or Jon Scofield. It’s not a compromise but modern versatility.
Similarly, jazz’s best saxophonists once seemed reluctant to play flutes and clarinets with as much passion as their main horn. (Eric Dolphy is the most notable exception, but wasn’t he so often the exception to rules?) The trio on Sunrise Reprise gives us both Francies and Potter as texture-shifting masters who make the most of a small band formation by their versatility. With their varied colors at hand, they are musical world-builders.
The opening and closing performances are most clearly orchestral in their colors and variations. “Sunrise and Joshua Trees” begins with Francies’s keyboards coming up over the horizon in a series of layers, synthesizers buzzing and rippling, sounds with waveforms that are shifting and shifting back, then a Fender Rhodes running through some effects to dapple its sound. Tonalities don’t just move diatonically as manipulated by keys but also in glissing swooshes. As Potter’s tenor saxophone enters ballad mode and Harland’s drum kit colors things more, Francies also adds slithering bass lines from his synth battery. Potter establishes the composed melody in harmony on tenor saxophone and clarinet, with the “bass” synth playing the tune, octaves lower. Improvisation, from here out, is limited to the edges as the performance creeps back toward the horizon.
“Nowhere, No Here/Sunrise Reprise” ends the recital with just as much texture but wilder variation. Potter’s flute begins by working against a pattern of descending arpeggios from Francies. Harland juices the opening with syncopated tom patterns, inspiring Potter to a motivic melody on tenor sax and bringing synth bass. A complete ensemble composition emerges, coated in Zawinul-ian influence and more layered horns in parallel harmonies. The band flies out into hot solos for tenor, acoustic piano, and drums.
Yet the performance is only half-done. The group works an atmospheric groove, trading licks rich in texture—tenor sax run through an echo effect and overdubbed with other chattering Potters, the bass synth moving in and out, up and down, other waves of synths patterning atop Rhodes chords, all. At the same time, Harland plays a long set of improvised variations. One might call it Reich-ian in its phasing, and varied repetitions were it not so thrilling and alive. Ultimately, it works its way back to the album’s opening theme, a journey complete.
In between these highly orchestrated tracks, the trio uses similar tactics to serve a few performances that are more overtly about blowing. “Serpentine” is aptly named, a snaking and bopping line with several sections, each punchy and flowing. Potter uses two horns to set out the theme, with Harland busy driving the groove from below. He improvises with wit and athletic thrill, giving way to a Francies solo on highly-phased electric piano. “Southbound” takes a more relaxed approach, but it is the most memorable theme on Sunrise Reprise. The catchy melodic lines stop and start with a sense of surprise, and they are also the most thickly orchestrated by layers of horns. Francies solos, this time on a strangely beautiful analog synth that evokes the late 1970s.
For sheer beauty, the standout track is clearly “The Peanut”, a purely acoustic duet for piano and tenor saxophone. The leader’s tone moves from raspy to mellow, from woody to strident, all in the service of rhapsodizing with great feeling. It is the recording’s moment to remind you, somehow, of how the pandemic isolation really felt—intimate and sometimes wonderfully enclosed but always also yearning for something more.
The most intriguing thing about this most intimate track on Sunrise Reprise is that, even though the instrumentation suggests something from the past (there are, for example, reasons to compare this track to the brilliant series of duets performed by pianist Kenny Barron and the legendary Stan Getz late in the saxophonist’s life), the composition sounds consonant with more contemporary jazz. Francies plays with elegant “jazz” touch, but he is less inclined to lean into Tin Pan Alley harmonic patterns, and both players avoid bebop phrasing. The elegance of tone and touch is there, but my ears want to compare this to, say, Brad Mehldau playing with Joshua Redman.
That said, Chris Potter’s voice is plainly his own—and one of the most fulsome and distinctive on the current scene. His partnership with James Francies and Eric Harland in orchestrating a fresh kind of modern fusion is a lush success. Sunrise Reprise is a welcome return.