Chris Potter Underground Orchestra – Imaginary Cities (2015)

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Being widely regarded as one of the top current saxophonists in jazz since the turn of the millennium is a distinction that isn’t kept this long by standing still. Chris Potter, a master of all reeds, stays vital by trying new things on nearly every new release while maintaining his flair for composing and a highly nuanced, impressionistic way of performing.

Imaginary Cities, his second album for ECM Records (out January 13, 2015), represents another new approach for him; he’s fully incorporating a string quartet into his ‘regular’ combo. Typical for this saxophonist, however, he doesn’t make his leaps without any basis in what he’s done before. The newly-formed “Underground Orchestra” is an outgrowth of Potter’s Underground quartet, his vehicle for exploring the electric side of jazz, where through two studio albums and one live album, he went down some of the same alleys Miles Davis, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock ran through in the 70s, coming out with his jazz integrity intact.

But the Orchestra is far more interesting in what’s changed than what is retained: Adam Rogers (guitar) and Nate Smith (drums) stay on board, as does keyboardist Craig Taborn, but Taborn moves from an electric piano to an acoustic piano. The old Quartet also lacked a bass player; Potter compensates twice over with the addition of an acoustic bassist (Scott Colley) and an electric one (Fima Ephron). Potter’s old Dave Holland Quintet band mate Steve Nelson furnishes the vibes and marimba, and lastly, there’s the string quartet (Mark Feldman, violin; Joyce Hammann, violin; Lois Martin, viola; David Eggar, cello).

Imaginary Cities is a collection of Potter originals that are connected by this notion of the ideal modern city; a vehicle by which the composer constructed a flow for the album from start to finish, an urbane, metro atmosphere pervades this set of performances. Potter didn’t want to make a “chamber jazz” type of record, where the strings and the jazz combo are playing at arm’s length to each other; his composing style of jagged melodies, neatly fitting harmonies and the fuzzy border between composition and improvisation is conducive for that integrative approach.

The centerpiece is the four-part “Imaginary Cities” suite, a quartet of self-contained songs that cuts across a wide spectrum of temperament. “Imaginary Cities, Pt. 1 Compassion” opens with a psychedelic/Indian mood intro, unfolding into a gorgeous strain that has a hint of melancholy. By the time of Rogers’ solo, though, it’s assumed a fusion shape. “Imaginary Cities, Pt. 2 Dualities” also sports a nifty intro, an intertwining plucking of strings sliding into a groove by the stacked rhythm section that’s surprisingly light. The strings players selectively shadow Potter’s moves before Potter rips off one of signature scorcher solos, followed by Nelson’s puckish one. By that point this is sounding much like a Holland reunion.

The opening of “Imaginary Cities, Pt. 3 Disintegration,” led by Taborn’s wandering lines, is dissonant, and the string quartet take the lead role this time, with Potter’s soprano sax worming its way into the picture. An electronic wash color Smith’s off-center introductory romp on “Imaginary Cities, Pt. 4 Rebuilding,” a funky and sophisticated piece held together by the muscle of Smith, Colley and Ephron. Adams’ extended guitar solo is a highlight, and the song works its way to the ending climax, but not in a straight line.

The other half of the tracks follows through on Potter’s multi-faceted conception. “Firefly” begins a little scattered but quickly coalesces under his leadership. The sonic air clears for Adams’ brief, warm asides and afterwards, Potter wrings every possible melodic idea from the two-chord riff. Nelson’s vibes solo once again conjures fond memories of the Holland Quintet. The delicate melody of “Lament,” which is ordered at the beginning of the disc, is gently unraveled by the string section and is underscored by a poetic bass solo by Colley, a longtime companion in Potter’s various bands. The strings don’t completely subside, though; they instead weave themselves into fabric of the harmony, and Potter carefully builds momentum on his tenor sax solo much like his forbear Michael Brecker used to do.

“Shadow Self” is styled after Béla Bartók, with strings only for first three minutes. Even after the core band enters, the piece proceeds in a through-composed manner. And lastly, “Sky” finishes Potter’s jazz symphony with its longest piece, where harmonic progressions perfectly complement main melody. Taborn finally gets a solo turn, and he takes advantage with a thoughtful, angular and elegant one, but soon the rhythm section is pushing him hard. Gradually, an Eastern styled pattern emerges that Potter and the string section play together, then pivot to a composed single note cluster that fits hand in glove with this theme. The cluster handed off to Nelson as Potter + strings return to theme to create a neat layering trick.

Imaginary Cities is ambitious, maybe the high-water mark of ambition so far in Potter’s career. As wonderful as his ideas are on it, he doesn’t really need to go any further in this direction since his elaborate plan was fully carried out. Knowing Potter’s tendencies, he’s bound to change directions again the next time, anyway. We’re not likely to be disappointed then, either.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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