This young Mr. Chris Potter has proven his tenor saxophonic mettle on many recordings, both on his own and in the service of Dave Holland and Dave Douglas. Though he has several fine discs under his own leadership, the only one (thus far) that’s knocked me for a loop is his latest, Underground (Sunnyside), which has my vote for the year’s most dazzling disc du jazz. While even edgiest musicians these days prove themselves to be predictable, Potter is, while not rewriting the book, adding some notable footnotes and chapters.
The setting: Chicago’s renowned Jazz Showcase, on a damp-chilly Friday evening, a nearly packed house of hipsters of all ages (well, over 18, anyway.) Potter brought to town almost the exact same quartet as on his latest: Craig Taborn, Fender Rhodes electric piano (horrors!); Nate Smith, drums, and Adam Rogers (in place of Wayne Krantz), electric guitar. As on Underground, there is no bass, and though Taborn’s medium is electric, the music isn’t "Fusion" at least not in the accepted sense. Like much of the best music, Potter’s latest groove thang is fusion, in that he’s taken what he’s learned in and from many contexts, in/out, groove/free, acoustic electric, and put them together in a bracingly original manner.
With no bass, there’s more room for the band to move about, though Taborn and Rogers do add some low-end "bottom" to the proceedings. Taborn’s sound is one of the most distinctiv jazz key-sounds I’ve ever heard he plays lyrically, but even more percussively; and he’s not shy about judicious use of distortion. (Taborn can rock, & don't let anybody tell you different.) The only other keys-sounds Taborn put me in mind of was Soft Machine’s Mike Ratlidge and Joe Zawinul circa Miles’ Bitches Brew. Without going "out" in the usual sense, Taborn’s playing could be supremely, sublimely aggressive as a soloist and colorfully buoyant in ensemble playing. Nate Smith was fabulous, though I think displays as much influence from Charlie Watts and/or Keith Moon (the late, from the Who) as from Jack DeJohnette he didn’t "swing" in a bebop style per se, put provided powerful, propulsive big-beat bedrock (a la electric-era Billy Cobham and, especially, Tony Williams), whereon everyone could party to their hearts’ content.
And party they did! Potter displayed TOTAL mastery of his horn, yet never devolved into meandering or showboating. He got surging streams & waves of urgent sound from the high, middle, and low registers, coaxed discreet cycles of rhythm from the keys of his tenor, and in the medium-high registers, he achieves tonal qualities not unlike that of an oboe or clarinet. If this sounds like an "act," it was far from it Potter worked everything into a melodic and/or rhythmic strategy. He was using lots of bebop vocabulary, but the syntax was his no glib bop licks, no cute "quotes" from standards. Potter’s tenor had/has some of the steely-shiny qualities of Sonny Rollins, the reflective/dynamic qualities of Wayne Shorter, and I’m sure I heard some Gene Ammons and King Curtis in there too. He reached That Plateau: Where the soul and the mind and corporeality come together, grabbing you, but want to take you higher, but also treats you with respect. Potter, like many of the best horn players, SANG.
Adam Rogers? What a pleasure to hear a jazz six-stringer that sounded NOTHING like Metheny, Montgomery, or Frisell. (Not that I’m knocking these gents, mind you it’s just that too many stringsters swallow these cats’ influence whole rather than get into their own zone.) Rogers’ tones were quite "horn-like" solo, and he’d play some nice noises in the ensemble no, not Derek Bailey "noise,," but judicious sustained lines and delicate distortion. Like Frisell, Rogers does not think the devices of rock and funk players wah-wah pedal, effects, distortion, etc. are the Devil’s Handiwork. Rogers just employs them in a jazz context, is all hey, the tools are there, why not use ‘em? Rogers and Potter frequently engaged in some enticing unison voicings, too.
OK, so the musicians were great, but how was the music? The tunes mostly Potter originals stylistically integrated brisk bop, snaking, strutting funk, thorny fusion, prog-rock (not a lot, but it was there), bob ‘n’ weave angularity (sometimes recalling Frank Zappa’s jazz-ier works), and subtle, emotive balladry. Many of the tunes were suite-like, going through myriad changes but always going somewhere, hugging those mountain curves like a brand new set of tires on a realigned set of well-oiled wheels. There was always a ceaseless rhythmic impetus (though ‘twas not exactly foot-tapping stuff, to be sure), not unlike the whomp the early fusioners: Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, Soft Machine, T. Williams’ Lifetime, delivered with so much finesse & humor that it was never overwhelming. Best of all, it truly seemed as if the band (not the group, the band) were having a fine old time of it onstage, playing for the crowd as much as for themselves. I could say even more, but why kill the wonderment for you, Dear Reader, when you can catch Potter’s posse, now touring the USA and/or listen to the CPQ’s exemplary opus Underground. (Hyperbole alert: Underground is only jazz disc in years that reawakens feelings experienced when I first discovered jazz as a rockin' record-nerd teenager.)