Combined with his own vast facility and adventurous spirit, stints with Steely Dan, Dave Holland, Paul Motian and most recently, Pat Metheny’s Unity Band have made Chris Potter one of the best known and accoladed saxophonists of his generation. Tracing his solo career on record, we can see an increasingly curiosity and risk taking that’s pushed his artistry forward with every new release. Eventually, that brought him into the realm of electric jazz, and he’s carved out his own niche by staying adventurous, and, as the younger folks say these days, “keeping it real.” We’ve chronicled his foray into more modern sounds on this space and Ultrahang was damned near my favorite fusion record of 2009.
Now, Potter returns to acoustic, his first all-unplugged album credited solely to him since 2001′s This Will Be but does so as a changed man. The Sirens is an album worthy of the ECM Records debut that it is. Save for Potter’s recognizable tone and technical prowess, this record bears less resemblance to the post bop records of the 1990s and in some ways it more acts as an extension of the Chris Potter Underground records of the mid to late 2000′s. It’s an album of a former child prodigy who has entered his 40′s with the maturity to match his talent. Retaining pianist Craig Taborn from the Underground, Potter adds Larry Grenadier on double bass, former Holland band mate Eric Harland on drums and a textural role for David Virelles on prepared piano, celeste and harmonium.
Upon encountering the shifty, syncopated funk of “Wine Dark Sea” and the mysterious groove of “Wayfinder” and the freewheeling way the band tackles these songs, you find elements present that are borrowed from Underground. Potter uses his big, wide tone on the former to soar above everyone else, making a complex melody seem simple, and Taborn races ahead and falls behind the beat on his solo, creating creases in the flow of his solo. The latter song features Virelles playing celeste and prepared piano alongside Taborn, creating an exotic sonority in the midst of the increasingly insistent pulse.
After that one-two punch, the sweep and ambition of the album really begins to unfold. “Dawn (With Her Rosy Fingers)” is another affecting minor key ballad, with Potter’s expansive expression in full flower here. “Kalypso” is the way Ornette might do calypso, applying staggered harmonic progression over an island-inspired bass line. Harland never completely settles down, belying the sometimes-breezy attitude of Potter and Taborn. An extended coda takes the song into a different direction.
Potter, as he’s apt to do, turns to other instruments when the occasion calls for it. His underrated bass clarinet appears on “The Sirens,” a dark ballad that also features Grenadier on a superb bowed bass solo that is followed by Potter on tenor sax that’s so effectively afflicted but avoiding going so far as to lose its sincerity. On the very next song, “Penelope,” Potter picks up a soprano sax, brandishing a distinctly clear and voluminous tone. It’s a light swing, but Harland is accenting it heavily, matching the strident mood of Potter.
Virelles made additonal key contributions, such as the pretty celeste sounds he adds to the pensive “Nausikaa,” assuming a Fender Rhodes role with this instrument. His celeste would pair with Taborn’s piano alone on the ultra-barren improvised coda “The Shades.”
Potter conceived The Sirens as a series of connected pieces that flows in a narrative way, and this album does give the impression that these Potter originals (and Taborn and Virelles’ short improvisation) are part of the same body of work. Exactly what the intended theme might be, I’m not sure, but knowing this matters none in sensing the message in the music. What does matter is that Chris Potter invested much into his compositions, his choice of supporting musicians and even his choice of production team to make a record of substance, emotion and refinement. If this is a new phase in Potter’s already significant career as a leader, let’s make this an extended phase.
The Sirens was issued January 29, by ECM Records.