Friday, May 1, 2009

Potter @ Jazz Standard

I caught Chris Potter's Underground last night at the Jazz Standard in NYC. They played a short, sweet, five-song set that left me grinning wide but wanting more. Highlights included some pitch perfect, rapid fire soprano work on Ultrahang (the title track of the band's new CD due out in June) and a nice version of Ellington's The Single Petal of a Rose. I'm occasionally underwhelmed by Chris's ballad style (while usually overwhelmed by everything else he does).  His playing just doesn't connect for me at slower tempos or with sweeter tones.   I get the sense that he's straining to break through emotionally, whereas his faster and fiercer stuff is more like emotion by brute force. Single Petal, however, worked. I think it was the bass clarinet. Hearing its woody, reedy tone on an Ellington standard summoned a time--Duke's day--when the clarinet was still a major voice in jazz. That classic, supple sound embedded in the persistent, low electric grind of Craig Taborn's Rhodes and Adam Rogers's guitar made for a nice effect.

Also, Nate Smith could not have been better. His style, in many ways, captures much of what I look for in a modern jazz drummer. I'll save that for another time.

Chris Potter, looking demure as always, at Newport '08 I'll leave last night's set at that, but I'll just add something about Chris Potter. There is a reason why he is among my favorite musicians that I think is worth sharing. He is just so down to earth. Even with his immense talent and the complex compositions--their odd time signatures, long, angular melodies, etc.--on full display, his modesty and self-effacing nature underlie every performance. The result is just plain fun. No matter who he's playing with, it shows that he's enjoying himself.  That vibe is contagious, because it serves as a subtle but constant reminder that jazz and blues were devised as something to get down to, not to stare at like a painting on a wall. With his Underground group that attitude is especially evident. I don't think its a coincidence that he picked a group of guys conspicuously younger then he is, guys who play electric or just plain loud, and whose musical interests at times skirt the edges of jazz and move beyond. These guys were hand picked to give and to have a good time with no pretensions.

Don't get me wrong..I don't claim that 'down to earth' is the only or even the best way to present jazz (just ask Sun Ra--a great jazz performer doesn't even need to be from Earth), but it is one way.  For Chris Potter, it works. 

I was with a friend last night whose first meaningful encounter with jazz was last August when I took her up to Newport.  She liked the festival--loved Chris Potter.  In fact, we caught 4 of his 5 sets that weekend (sorry chris, went with Mr. Rollins over Mr. Benevento).  Potter's energy is such that I could escort this jazz virgin right past the Bottis of the festival and straight to the good stuff, without worrying that it might go over her head or just plain bore her. Last night they had us looking for a dance floor.
To stay that accessible and so simply fun without compromising one ounce of musical integrity or artistic drive is a special quality.  Keep these guys together Chris, and keep it up.  

Underground is at the Jazz Standard through the weekend.

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