Album review. Chris Potter places himself in the tradition of the great saxophone players.
Original release date: April 3rd 2001
Recorded at Avatar Studios, New York, New York on September 27th and 28th, 2000.
Chris Potter (tenor saxophone, alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, alto flute, bass clarinet, Chinese wood flute); Kevin Hays (piano, Fender Rhodes); Scott Colley (bass); Brian Blade (drums)
The Source (for John Coltrane), Shadow (for Joe Henderson), Sun King (for Sonny Rollins), High Noon (for Eddie Harris), Eurydice (for Wayne Shorter), The Mind's Eye Intro, The Mind's Eye (for Michael Brecker-Joe Lovano), Gratitude (for all the Past Masters), The Visitor (for Lester Young), Body & Soul (for Coleman Hawkins), Star Eyes (for Charlie Parker), Vox Humana (for Ornette Coleman), What's New (for the Current Generation)
When saxophonist Chris Potter moved to Verve in 2000, 'Gratitude' was his first album for the major, yet he already had a solid recording career as a leader and composer behind him, first with Criss Cross (two albums) and then with Concord (five albums).
He was then 29 and had amassed a wealth of experience, playing with Kenny Werner and Red Rodney while still studying in New York at the New School, and at the Manhattan School of Music, and then as a sideman for Paul Motion, Ray Brown, Jim Hall, Billy Drummond, James Moody, Dave Douglas, Mike Mainieri and Dave Holland. The feeling is that, on moving to Verve, he wanted not only to create something special for his major label debut but also to sum up his experience in jazz as a performer and composer so far.
And that is the idea behind 'Gratitude': to place himself in the tradition of the great saxophone players; and in case that might seem overambitious, to talk in terms of the gratitude he has for these great musicians of the past who have made the jazz tradition what it is, now looked back upon as a new century begins. It is a difficult plan to live up to but he is more than equal to the challenge.
The band assembled for the album is exceptional. Chris Potter as leader must be one of the few musicians to be truly fluent on tenor, alto and soprano saxes (as well as on alto flute and bass clarinet). He employs all these instruments with equal aplomb and even debuts on a wood flute that he had picked up on a trip to China.
Brian Blade is the most mercurial jazz drummer, sharp, original and with an ability to make complex rhythmic patterns completely accessible, even expected.
Kevin Hayes (who had featured on both of Chris Potter's albums with Criss Cross) is superb on piano and Fender Rhodes.
Scott Colley (who had featured on Chris Potter's Concord albums 'Concentric Circles' and 'Vertigo') is one of the most inventive bass players. The understanding with Chris Potter is excellent, the saxophonist having appeared on Scott Colley's first three albums as leader, including the exceptional album 'Subliminal' in 1997.
Chris Potter, Kevin Hayes and Scott Colley had toured together the year before 'Gratitude' was recorded. The empathy between them is clear.
Chris Potter's liner notes give a very clear idea of the concept behind each of the thirteen tracks.
The opener, 'The Source' is a blues that points to John Coltrane's central place in this music. As Chris Potter told 'All About Jazz'* when asked about the John Coltrane influence here: "The tune, 'The Source,' is probably closest compositionally to a couple of tunes (of his) on 'Coltrane Plays The Blues'. There's a tune called 'Mr. Day' and there's a tune called 'Mr. Night.' I was thinking of that kind of feel when I wrote the tune but I was also thinking of a rhythmic sort of a feel that Coltrane wouldn't have necessarily used."
'The Shadow' takes the opening phrase of Joe Henderson's 'Inner Urge' and inverts it. As Chris Potter notes: ' I love the relaxed, unhurried vibe we got on this, which seems perfectly in tune with Joe's spirit'. This is aided by Kevin Hayes' switch from piano to Fender Rhodes for this track.
Sonny Rollins is the inspiration behind 'Sun King'. Chris Potter was searching for a means of pointing up Sonny Rollins' 'unbelievable rhythmic concept' and found it in this uptempo piece played in 15/8 time. This is one of the highlights of the album with Brian Blade's exceptional drumming a real asset.
'High Noon' is dedicated to Eddie Harris, an often overlooked player in the pantheon of great saxophone players. 'In my opinion he is underrated,' Chris Potter observes. 'His voice and language on the horn were truly unique.' The result is a funky, asymmetric, low-down blues with Fender Rhodes again contributing to the dynamic and Chris Potter doubling on tenor sax and bass clarinet to good effect.
'Eurydice' has very much the same instrumentation as Wayne Shorter's composition of the same name but aims for a quite different mood. Chris Potter's tribute, a meditative ballad of real beauty, though also played on soprano sax, is much more relevant to Wayne Shorter's 'Weather Report' period than to the Wayne Shorter composition of the same name.
'The Mind's Eye' is aimed at the sax players that Chris Potter has worked with and learned from in New York – Joe Lovano and Michael Brecker in particular. It has a latin groove with funky backbeats with the leader playing tenor sax, bass clarinet and alto flute on top of attractive Fender Rhodes accompaniment.
The tributes continue with 'The Visitor', aimed at recognizing Lester Young with a tune culled from a six note melody that the great saxophonist often played. It is a sinewy piece, typical of many of the interesting compositions throughout Chris Potter's career.
Thinking through Ornette Coleman's comment that the saxophone has the sound of the human voice, led to 'Vox Humana' as a tribute to him. Playing this on Chinese wood flute introduces an interesting twist.
The title track is aimed at the whole idea of what the musician of today owes to these past masters. It is thoughtful and meditative.
All of the above are original compositions by Chris Potter.
The influence of three of the past greats is approached by reference to non-original material.
Taking on Green, Heyman, Sour and Eyton's 'Body And Soul' to emphasise the importance of Coleman Hawkins was on paper unlikely to succeed. The song was so much the great saxophonist's signature performance that another version would have been difficult to justify. Indeed, Coleman Hawkins' soloing on his versions of the song is held by many to be the beginning of modern tenor sax playing. However, by taking up bass clarinet and playing the song as a duet with Scott Coley on bass, an original take on the song is indeed produced.
'Star Eyes', the Raye / DePaul standard, was one of Charlie Parker's great recordings. Noting that at first he didn't get Charlie Parker, Chris Potter continues, '…… so I waited awhile and gave it another shot. This time I thought my head was going to explode. I spent months listening to nothing but Bird, copying his every move.' Chris Potter brings new perspective to the song by setting it in 7/4 time and letting his alto sax playing swing to this different beat.
The Haggart / Burke standard 'What's New' is offered solo as a dedication to current saxophone players with the comment: what is there left to do that is really new?
This is as vital a question for jazz today as it was back in 2000. The rebirth of the tradition after the dead period of the seventies and early eighties when jazz rock dominated is now almost thirty years old. Great music has been produced in this second wave; new, talented musicians of the caliber of Chris Potter have emerged and have had successful careers in the music. But once again, the banking crisis of 2008/9 threatens the silencing of record labels already weakened by downloading from the internet. This has severely depleted artist and company royalties and at the same time strongly reduced fees for session work. The music faces a new challenge to its survival.
If the heart of the music as performance can be harnessed successfully to provide income for musicians and labels alike, a further wave of this most wonderful and sophisticated music may be established. But that outcome is not certain. Worse awaits if the music finds itself drawn for survival into wholesale compromise with a commercial entertainment mainstream that is no longer even informed by the mild rebellion of rock.
'Gratitude' more than succeeds in showing the tradition at its best and placing it in a context where ongoing innovation is not only possible but necessary.
Star Rating *****
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*All About Jazz interview with Chris Potter
Read our reviews of other albums featuring Chris Potter
Chris Potter homepage
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