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Chris Potter's "Formidable" Underground

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Friday June 17, 2011

From The Wall Street Journal

Chris Potter Underground: Village Vanguard
By: Will Friedwald

Elitists talk about “playing down to a crowd,” but what if the crowd in question is the smartest group around? On Tuesday night, a sizable mob was storming jazz’s most famous red awning, on lower Seventh Avenue, trying to make its way down the stairs to hear saxophonist Chris Potter. At 40, Mr. Potter is probably still better known as a sideman (most famously with bassist Dave Holland), but there’s no doubt that he’s assembled a group and a musical concept that’s worthy of his formidable technique. Like the late Michael Brecker, Mr. Potter’s remarkable, virtuoso chops represent the beginning of his musical journey, rather than the final destination. His fictitious cousin, Harry Potter, may be better known in the public imagination, but as far as the crowd amassing nightly at the Vanguard is concerned, Chris Potter is by far the greater magician.

There are any number of saxophone-guitar quartets in the new Downtown/Brooklyn “omni-jazz” scene, where the guitar assumes the familiar harmonic role of the piano. This is not, however, what Messrs. Potter and Rogers are doing: the guitarist often plays contrapuntal, supportive lines behind the tenor, but he isn’t comping for the most part; he’s functioning more like a second horn than as part of the rhythm section. Yet, the rhythm is almost everything. On the group’s introductory “Underground” album of 2006, Mr. Potter placed more emphasis on danceable grooves than most contemporary jazzers, and with the two-bass band here, he develops the idea further. The opening piece, “Ultrahang,” seemed to be held together primarily by the beat. He began (as he would for most of the five tunes of the set) with his tenor unaccompanied, not as a cadenza or as a way of introducing the melody, but as a way of laying down the rhythmic foundation—to establish the rules of the game.

The catchiest number of the evening was the second song, the as-yet-unrecorded “Good Hope,” which Mr. Potter played on soprano saxophone. As the title suggests, it had elements of African highlife, as well as a Sonny Rollins-style calypso. It was an entirely different groove, but groove-driven just the same.

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