Chris Potter - I want to communicate feeling
He may be lauded now as one of the leading saxophone players of his generation but Chris Potter’s relationship with the instrument was completely the opposite of an instant attraction.
“I remember really not liking the sound,” he says, “and as a young kid, any pop record with a saxophone solo was a real turn-off. It wasn’t until I started listening to my parents’ jazz albums, things like the Dave Brubeck records with Paul Desmond and some Miles Davis stuff, that I thought, well, maybe this instrument has something to offer after all.”
Thus, at the grand old age of ten, Potter entered an agreement with his parents: they would buy him a saxophone on condition that he take lessons and learn to play it properly. He’s been as good as his word.
From impressing jazz pianist Marian McPartland sufficiently for her to suggest that, at fifteen, he was ready to go on the road as a top-line professional musician, he has gone on to work with Charlie Parker’s former frontline partner Red Rodney and a host of other jazz names including bassist Dave Holland, drummer Paul Motian and guitarist Pat Metheny, with whose brand new Unity Band he’ll spend this summer touring.
Potter has also passed possibly the ultimate proficiency test in being hired – and hired again - by those notorious perfectionists, Steely Dan, having appeared in their mid-90s touring band and featured on their multiple Grammy-winning album from 2000, Two Against Nature.
“Both those experiences were a real trip,” says the Chicago-born, Southern Carolina-raised Potter who returns to Scotland this weekend to headline Aberdeen Jazz Festival. “Because aside from jazz, Steely Dan’s was the music I grew up listening to and I never, ever expected to be playing it with them. Two Against Nature especially was really fun because it was one thing to play their hits live but to create something new with these guys was amazing. I mean, I must have played a million takes so that they could Frankenstein the whole thing together. But their approach is very much continuing in the jazz tradition: I’d listen to the tracks and then read the lyrics so that I’d have an idea what each song was about, and then they’d make the saxophone a character in the story. They’re real professionals and were always looking for something that had a purpose and it all made perfect sense when it came together.”
Columbia, South Carolina wasn’t exactly Jazz Central when Potter was developing as a young saxophone player. There was a music department at the local university, however, where he found people willing to show him “how the whole thing worked” and by the age of thirteen he was finding paid work on the restaurants and functions gig circuit.
“I just really enjoyed playing and would play anywhere just to get a chance to a play,” he says. “By the time I was in high school there were regular jazz gigs on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and I’d always be there, although I’m not sure that I was thinking about becoming a professional musician right at that time.”
Passing through town, Marian McPartland heard him and thought that’s exactly what he should be doing. Potter’s not so sure he was as good at the time as she reckoned he was but he kept practising and playing while getting the grades he needed for music school and then headed for New York, where he quickly established himself on the jazz scene, getting hired by Red Rodney at the age of eighteen in 1989.
“I wish I’d been old enough to really appreciate what playing with Red meant,” he says. “But it was certainly quite an experience to get my first taste of being on the road with him and a great thrill to be playing those Charlie Parker tunes I’d listened to on record with the guy who had played trumpet on those same records.”
While continuing to work as a saxophonist for hire through the 1990s, adding dates and records with Herbie Hancock, the Mingus Big Band, pianist Joanne Brackeen and guitarist Jim Hall to stints with Dave Holland and Paul Motian’s bands on his CV, Potter also established himself as a formidable bandleader and recording artist in his own right. He’s currently trying to maintain two groups of his own, as well as committing himself to Pat Metheny for the summer festival circuit. There’s the electric, groove inspired Underground, which has been known to play interesting covers of Radiohead and Bob Dylan songs, and the acoustic quartet that he’s bringing to Aberdeen.
“I like to play in different situations and really enjoy the funky approach we have in Underground,” he says. “But there’s also something special about the way a saxophone sounds in an acoustic group. Ultimately, though, irrespective of what style I’m playing in, I want people to feel the music and not think of it as complicated or forbidding. If I can play something that has meaning for me, I’d like to think that I can somehow communicate that meaning to other people.”
From The Herald, March 16, 2012.