Jazz saxophonist Chris Potter burst onto the New York scene in 1989 as an 18-year-old prodigy with bebop icon Red Rodney; the Chicago-born saxophonist then became the youngest musician ever to win Denmark’s Jazzpar Prize. His discography now includes 16 albums as a leader and sideman appearances on over 100 more. He has also performed or recorded with such leading jazz figures as Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Jim Hall, Paul Motian, Ray Brown, John Scofield and Dave Douglas, as well as with the Mingus Big Band.
Potter takes the stage at Lexington’s Lyric Theater at 7 pm tonight. Lexington architect and jazz artist Clive Pohl talked music with Potter. Here’s part three of their conversation.
Clive: Your record This Will Be was the result of having won the Jazzpar Prize in Copenhagen and it’s a live recording is it not?
Clive: And so, I’m curious: what did that feel like as a young musician? You were not yet 30 years old and you won a very prestigious international prize. That must have been incredibly exciting.
Chris: Yeah. Well, I thought that helped in terms of visibility for me, you know, especially in Europe, but it also served to give me a little more confidence that, “okay, maybe I can do this, I can actually go on the road as a leader and present my music.” It’s a whole different thing. Prior to that, I’d been doing my own records, but hardly ever performing live with my own group, you know, and there’s a whole thing about leading a band that involves the skills you need as a sideman but also other skills. Choosing what to play and when, choosing how to decide who you’re going to ask to be in the band. Just a million little things.
Clive: It’s not unlike being an architect wherein you have to get the foundation in place in order to get the building out of the ground with the help of many others who, on some level, have to buy into your vision.
Chris: Right. It’s one thing to have the best vision of what could be made in your head, but then when you have to deal with reality; “okay, well, who is available, and what materials are available, and how much money can we actually spend?” And if you’re not able to negotiate those things, then the thing that actually comes into reality isn’t gonna be on the same level. So, that’s been a journey and a turning point for me; learning how to be a bandleader.
Clive: Am I correct in assuming that with respect to your compositions the ante might have been raised a little bit with the Jazzpar suite?
Chris: Yeah. I don’t remember that I had written for a large, or even medium-sized ensemble up to that point. That might have been one of my first real stabs at that. I think I did some things in school for big band or various ensembles but that helped to lead into a fascination with writing for larger groups and seeing how I can flesh out the ideas that I have compositionally for the bigger palette of a larger ensemble.
Clive: A quick question or two about your compositional development. When you’re writing a piece like, for example, Chief Seattle, (Song for Anyone, 2007) it is an absolutely beautiful piece, and one that jumped out at me having lived in Seattle for many years. When you choose a name like that; which comes first, the music or the name?
Chris: It depends on the situation. I think that name did come later. I had just read a book with some quotes and a beautiful speech about taking care of the earth. There’s a certain energy about that piece that reminded me of someone who is in charge, and someone that does have a vision of how to lead. I found that feeling in the piece and I think that led me to the name.
Clive: Do you have a spiritual practice, a meditation practice, or a specific time of day that you compose? It’s hard for me to imagine how you find time, given how full your schedule is.
Chris: I don’t exactly have any one practice that I use. I’ve read about different meditation strategies but really can’t say that I follow one thing with regularity. To a certain extent, the saxophone helps with that in that when I’m working on music, when I’m working on sound, by playing long notes and just focusing on breathing, there’s a kind of saxophone “yoga” I get into, and the music itself can help with some of those things. Music can’t do it by itself – life has to come before the music or there’s not going to be anything worth listening to! But it is helpful to approach music from a bit of a sacred point of view.
Clive: Well, certainly, playing saxophone is a different experience from playing the guitar in that it involves the breath and anyone can hear that… Paul Desmond’s playing is clearly connected to his breath and inner being.
Chris: Yeah, that’s a nice thing that it has in common with the voice. It is really a complete connection to breath. It’s a serious limitation that you can only play one note at a time, but you can do so much with every note because of the expressiveness you can get from each breath. So, being able to control the breath and really think about what that means on a deep level — it does lead into a meditative state when you’re in it. As far as the time of day that I write, I’m usually grabbing whatever time I can. For that particular record I recall that I came up with the basic framework at home in terms of tunes and the basic structure, but I think I wrote and fleshed it out with the orchestration while on the road. It’s been a great big help to a lot of us as composers that you can write on a computer and save your work and then edit later. It’s very useful to be able to travel and work on things. It’s not ideal, but, in the life of a working musician there’s seldom a chance to say “okay, I’m gonna take 3 months off and do this”. I hope to have that experience in my life but so far, it’s not lining up that way (laughs).
Clive: Right. I have one last question for you, Chris. It may be a difficult question for you to answer, but I’m curious to hear how you might muse upon it. You’ strike me as someone who is clearly talented from early on and clearly disciplined and committed to the music. So, the question of nature versus nurture, where do you stand with that? What percentage of your makeup is natural talent versus just raw hard work?
Chris: That is something I’ve thought about. I mean, being naturally gifted at something is obviously a big head start, and I think a big part of the head start is that, if it’s rewarding to do it, immediately if you say like “oh okay, I get this”, then you’re gonna want to do it more and you’re gonna devote more energy to it. So, it’s a cycle that reinforces itself. It’s definitely easier for some people to grab certain things I’ve seen and harder for others, you know. It definitely helps to just be able to understand things quickly. I mean, not in every case, but that was something that manifested itself fairly early with what I was doing. On the other side, I feel like I’ve known many extremely talented people that never found a way to live up to what they were probably able to do. I’m a firm believer that while raw talent helps, it doesn’t even get you halfway there. There really has to be a lot of time spent, and a lot of commitment to it.
Clive: I suspect too that on some core level, you understood as a teenager that you had to get up to New York and that commitment to that place helped to fuel your forward motion.
Chris: Oh yeah. I mean, it was great to get kicked in the pants! I mean, there wasn’t anyone my age in South Carolina that I knew who was playing at all. So, I was this big fish in a small pound. So, coming to New York and meeting all these other amazing musicians and being exposed to all this stuff that I really just hadn’t heard was a huge catalyst for growth and remains that way and that’s why I’m still here.
Clive: Yeah. There is a decidedly competitive streak between musicians, no doubt about it.
Chris: Yeah. Yeah. In a mostly positive way.
Clive: Sometimes delivered with love and sometimes not.
Chris: Yeah. Maybe sometimes not, but usually with, you know – if there is respect!
Clive: That’s right. That’s right. Well, on that note of love and respect, I want to thank you and I look forward to hearing you on April 22nd. I’ll come up and say hello if that’s OK…
Chris: Thank you! I’m looking forward to it!
As the Origins Jazz Series and the Lyric Theater get ready to host jazz saxophonist Chris Potter, here’s an opportunity to become acquainted with this the Chicago-born artist, the youngest musician ever to win Denmark’s Jazzpar Prize, the world’s largest international and annual jazz award. Potter’s discography now includes 16 albums as a leader and sideman appearances on over 100 more. He has also performed or recorded with such leading jazz figures as Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Jim Hall, Paul Motian, Ray Brown, John Scofield and Dave Douglas, as well as with the Mingus Big Band
Lexington architect and jazz artist Clive Pohl caught up with Potter only hours after his return from a European tour. If you haven’t already, check out part one of this three-part series. Here’s part two, loaded with opportunities to listen. Part three is coming your way in a few days – in time to be fully informed for the April 22 concert.
Clive: I understand that you played guitar and piano as a young musician. Is that right?
Chris: Yeah. Especially the piano. And I’ve used the piano a lot in my writing and in terms of our music.
Chris: Yeah. That was with David and Craig (Taborn). I can’t remember, you know, ‘cause I think that one is purely improvised. I think they were gonna do something as an introduction to another song and that’s when they started playing. And it didn’t end up working as well as an introduction to a song but I just loved that moment so much I thought, oh yeah, we’ve got to put that on there.
Clive: Yeah. It really is a special little moment. You always wonder the degree to which these things are composed versus improvised. In fact, you spoke to that a little bit relative to Imaginary Cities and your desire to blur the lines there. Before we get into those recent records, I’m curious about the anticipation (of recording for ECM) because I don’t believe you had recorded for ECM prior to The Sirens. Is that correct?
Chris: That was the first album that I had done as a leader for ECM. I had appeared on another ECM record with Dave Holland, Steve Swallow and Paul Motion. But that was my first one as a leader and that was my first one actually working with Manfred Eicher in the studio.
Clive: So, that makes me want to ask about the extent to which knowing you were going to make an ECM record might have upped the ante with respect to your preparation and your composition.
Chris: Not exactly because I had already written all the music and performed with the group before I had been in touch with Manfred about recording it. I mean, the way I remember it, I think Sarah Humphries who works for ECM, came down to the Vanguard when we were doing that music and she mentioned this to Manfred and it kind of grew out of that. So, that was already the kind of concept with the music I wanted to do and even the actual feelings were pretty much done by the time I was in touch with Manfred about it. I mean, it was a fortuitous thing because the direction of that music I felt like really did belong on ECM. That was a good spot for it in terms of the aesthetic that I was looking for and Manfred’s aesthetic sensibilities. So yeah, that was a fortuitous circumstance.
Clive: And you began working right around that time with (Pat) Metheny’s Unity band.
Chris: It was around that time. Yes.
Clive: Did his writing have an influence on yours at that time or was it reciprocal?
Chris: Yeah. I had been listening to Pat’s records since I was a teenager, so I was influenced by him definitely.
Clive: The second ECM record, Imaginary Cities, is of particular interest to me particularly as we talk about Chief Seattle and the idea of sustainability and treating the planet with respect… I’m looking to you to verify that there is a similar kind of vibe giving rise to the Imaginary Cities four-part Suite: our built environment breaking down and “Rebuilding.” Is that accurate?
Chris: Right. Yeah. That was the frame of mind. Of course, that was definitely written with those ideas in mind beforehand. You know, the idea of what I was gonna be writing about even though it’s very abstract and it’s instrumental music. It was those kinds of ideas – the way we’re living these days and the movement of a great majority of people to cities and the way we are living – is it..
Chris: Yeah, is it sustainable and is it really creating a quality of life that is as healthy as it could be for us? I think a lot of us would say no – maybe there is a better way to do it. I mean, music, especially instrumental music, is a very abstract form. So, it isn’t like I’m laying out some specific manifesto of exactly how it would be done, but maybe there was a bit of a vision of another way to live. I would say that the titles of the movements do reflect that idea.
Clive: I’m going to jump to both Imaginary Cities and to The Dreamer is the Dream, which is your most recent record. It strikes me that Imaginary Cities was a very ambitious undertaking with a lot of arrangements and a string quartet and so forth and then perhaps The Dreamer is the Dream is scaling back to a simpler instrumentation, is that accurate? Was it a deliberate simplification?
Chris: Yeah, and also, both The Sirens and Imaginary Cities had a programmatic thing where The Sirens was written after reading The Odyssey and we’ve already gone through the implications of Imaginary Cities. But with The Dreamer is the Dream, you know, “let me just write some tunes and call a band, and we’ll go out on the road, and we’ll play these tunes, and we’ll see which ones work and we’ll record it.” So yeah, it was a bit of a return to a normal state of things. Maybe I’ll just take a break from that – not that I won’t ever choose to work that way again, but I thought it was time for more of a, just a band record.
Clive: The whole band is great. They’re younger players aren’t they? They’re in their early 30’s?
Chris: Yeah, Joe (Martin) is my age. Joe is someone that I first met probably around the same time I met Kurt Rosenwinkel, Mark Turner and Brad Mehdau and all those guys, so I’ve known him a long time. But yes, Marcus and David are definitely from a younger generation and have a different point of view than I do, which I find very, very valuable and it’s also just great to see such extremely talented and dedicated musicians coming up. It provides a new dose of inspiration… now that I’ve been doing this a few years. It’s nice to hear some really advanced things coming at me from a different angle than what I’ve heard.
Clive: David Virelles’ harmonic structures in some of those tunes are just beautiful. And I hear David’s Cuban influence. The other thing I hear with several tunes, obviously, you’ve got the tune Ilimba, and you play the Ilimba.
Chris: It’s a thumb piano from East Africa.
Clive: I’m hearing some of those East African influences, but I’m also hearing on the tune Sky on Imaginary Cities a really clear Indian line and then, you know, obviously some Cuban influence with David Virelles of course. So, you mentioned wanting to get back to the simplest palate and yet there’s a lot going on there.
Chris: I guess yeah ‘cause there’s a lot to think about. There’s a lot to be inspired by!
Clive: Yes. I’m really appreciative of your making these records for us to hear. One last question about your melodic line and this is a stretch, but I’m gonna ask it anyway; you sometimes grab a melodic idea and repeat it a few times. I think it was the tune Sonic Anomaly; might this be a conscious or unconscious reference to the preaching tradition of the black church?
Chris: I don’t know the exact point in that song you’re talking about but yeah, I’d say that is an influence definitely. Some of the first music that I got into was the blues and then the gospel is another side of a similar thing, you know. This was one of the great things about growing up in South Carolina, I think I got a dose that I might not have gotten otherwise. I remember as a teenager doing gospel gigs and the environment just blew me away to actually be there and feel the energy of it and the way that it builds up, and builds up, and builds up. I think that’s one strand that’s always informed jazz music and gives it a strong character that it wouldn’t have otherwise. Of course, that’s where jazz is coming from – that’s where America is coming from; it’s this crazy mix with this very sad history, but the mixing of these different cultures and the way that they come together is something very special and alive. Yeah. The gospel influence, the blues influence, I mean, as abstract and intellectual as jazz can get – and it can go in any direction and be great because it can absorb so many different things – but for me, the way that I think about music and my particular upbringing and the time that I grew up in, the musicians that I’ve met, if it doesn’t have something of that blues feel somewhere in it, it is not as compelling to me.
Clive: Yeah, you mentioned our tragic history, and the whole purpose of the music was to transcend and rise above that.
Chris: Yeah. Of course. Sometimes beautiful things come out of things that are not beautiful at all.
Down Beat called him “One of the most studied (and copied) saxophonists on the planet.” Chris Potter, also an accomplished composer and formidable bandleader, will bring all of that to the stage of the Lyric Theater on the evening of April 22nd – the latest installment of the Origins Jazz Series.
Lexington architect, musician, and composer Clive Pohl caught up with Potter only hours after Potter’s return from a European tour. They had a wonderful, wide-ranging conversation and we’re sharing it in three parts so that by the time you take your seat on the 22nd, you’ll have a full appreciation of artist and music.
Clive: I’m curious about your family and the musical environment you grew up in.
Chris: Well, no one in my family was a professional musician or even an amateur musician, but they were big fans of music. My father’s father, my grandfather on his side, was a big fan of classical music and listened to it all the time. So, my father had a familiarity with that and he had all kinds of records around the house along the lines of Beethoven and Brahms, and Igor Stravinsky, and Bartok and, you know, a wide range of that music with a bunch of other kinds of music. There was Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan and there was blues music from Chicago. There was, you know, a few other things like, I remember a record of Gamelan music and music from Greece and also a few jazz records. So, that’s how I discovered the music, Miles Davis records, Dave Brubeck records, Charles Lloyd. I was a huge fan of the Beatles – I had their records as well. I discovered them when I was 6 or 7. When I was 9 or 10 is when I really discovered jazz and decided I wanted to see if I could play the saxophone. I carried on about it until my parents realized that I was serious. So, they got me one when I was 10 and I got really involved in it right away. And they were always very supportive, which I’m very thankful for.
Clive: And Paul Desmond was an early influence in that decision, is that true?
Chris: Uh-huh. Well, the sound of Paul Desmond’s alto, you know. That was a sound I had never heard before. A beautiful sound wafting in the air.
Clive: This is something I notice in your playing: the consistency of tone and clarity of each note, regardless of which notes you string together.
Chris: That may be the hallmark of someone that has a vision of what they want to do. I definitely hear that in his playing and it’s a much different quality than, say, John Coltrane’s but, in a way, they share this clarity of purpose.
Clive: Yes, you can hear an absolute commitment. And I’m not surprised to hear you mention such a broad array of influences because I hear some of that in your playing. Some popular references, but also the Bartok reference is very evident. Among all those classical musicians that you mentioned, do you rank him high among them as an influence?
Chris: Oh, sure. Yeah. You know, a few of the composers from the 20th century spoke to me most at first… Stravinsky looms really large. You know, The Rite of Spring! And also the French impressionists, for lack of a better word: Ravel and Debussy. I think they have been an influence on a lot of jazz musicians. But yes, the music of Bartok shares with Stravinsky a very rhythmic focus. They have very different ways of dealing with it, but that was a big focus of their music, which I think is something that you can apply to what we do.
Clive: I’m curious about the Mingus Big Band, your place in it and what that meant as a building block in your development.
Chris: Yeah. I think that was very, very helpful. It was an environment that you wouldn’t get in school, let’s put it that way. There was a certain rawness to the energy of the group that I think was true to Mingus’ spirit. I never met him obviously, but a few of the members in the band had actually worked with him and knew him and so the spirit was such that if you didn’t stand your ground and stand up to take a solo when there was a chance, you just might not get to play! I mean, it wasn’t a nice polite, everyone gets a medal kind of situation. It was much rawer than that and there were arguments and this and that, but it was alive, you know, the music was alive and you could feel the whole thing and there were some great musicians that I had the chance to work with: John Hicks, John Stubblefield, and Frank Lacy… all these guys that were very, very kind to me and supportive. Yeah, that was a big learning thing too…
Clive: In part, because you could hold your own, is that right?
Chris: Yeah. Well, you just have to show that you can jump in and deal, then all right! You’re in the family.
Clive: You started making your own records pretty soon after getting into the scene in New York and you’re Concentric Circles record in`95 with Kenny Werner raises a question because I was very much affected by Kenny Werner’s book, Effortless Mastery and I wondered if you had anything to do with it or if it influenced your thinking and playing at all.
Chris: He hadn’t written that yet when I was first getting to know him. So, just seeing how he operated was definitely an inspiration. He would show up, there was a weekly class he had at the New School. We would choose notes at random out of a hat and then he’d write a tune based on those notes in different ways and we would suggest different ways of going about it and explore that – using that to promote the idea that you can make something out of anything if you know the craft and have the imagination. And then, in between that, he’d tell all these stories of his crazy exploits and his friends’ crazy exploits and we were just in stitches.
Clive: So, very often brushing up against people like that is less about theory and more about the energetic experience of being human, wouldn’t you say?
Chris: Yeah. The nuts and bolts musical information you can get out of a book or you can get out of looking at scores and reading theory, but the real important thing is how people put it together and how it reflects who they are and what you hear in the music. And yes, there is no direct way to transmit that knowledge except to be around the person and to be receptive to everything about what they’re communicating both about music and everything else. You see how it’s all connected. That’s really the way education works in this kind of music.
Clive: Charlie Haden seemed to possess a quality that allowed him to transcend genres and you can hear it in his music, it’s wonderful stuff.
Clive: I know you’ve played a lot with Brad Mehldau, who is a much-admired contemporary of yours, yes?
Chris: I first met Brad Mehldau when I came to the New School and we were in an ensemble together, so we were both like 18 or 19. I feel like we’ve kind of grown up together in a certain way, even if we don’t see each other all the time or play together all the time. Just kind of watching the art of their music, and their life, and their career. People like Mark Turner and Kurt Rosenwinkel, you know. A lot of musicians that I’ve come up playing with, you know, like Adam Rogers and Craig Taborn…
Listen: Potter and Mehldau perform Book of Kells on the album “Moving In”
Clive: The Underground Orchestra guys. Is that who you’re touring with in Europe right now or is it The Dreamer is the Dream group?
Chris: No. It’s kind of a hybrid, it’s basically the Underground Band. It’s the same band that I’ll be with there (in Lexington): It’s Adam Rogers on guitar and Fima Ephron on bass and then Dan Weiss who will be playing drums. So, it’s gonna be primarily music that’s already been recorded with Underground, but also some other music. We were just on the road for a few weeks and it was really taking off in a nice way, so we will be happy to present it there.
Watch for part two of Clive’s conversation with Chris Potter on April 16.
To purchase tickets, please visit lexingtonlyric.tix.com
Designers and builders have long looked to rating systems for “how-to” guidance on green building. From the early days of the current environmental movement they were intended to serve as recipes for improved performance and environmental stewardship. Looking back at the earliest iterations we see a snapshot in time that describes a tension between our desire to improve and the relentless influence of market forces.
Variations in the early standards were a reflection of their author’s priorities. Some were heavily influenced by corporate interests who professed a commitment to sound environmental practices – until it impacted their bottom line. Some positioned themselves just ahead of the marketplace in a mission to gently lead economic transformation while others, in recognition of a rising carbon count, ignored economic constraints and advocated for a leap beyond sustainability toward a regenerative approach. After all, describing a marriage as merely “sustainable” would not be high praise. Perceived as too expensive these standards were mostly ignored.
Though they all sought popular embrace it was, of course, impossible for one standard to provide universal satisfaction. After all, much of the construction industry held fast to the notion that a market economy is America’s only true core value.
As the aughts became the teens the plight of the polar ice caps entered mainstream consciousness, catastrophic weather patterns became increasingly commonplace, and our complicity in climate change more widely accepted. Jurisdictions around the country began to embrace legislation requiring credible compliance, building codes were rewritten to reflect increased urgency, and an army of skeptics (from architects and engineers to general contractors and their subs) had no choice but to hook up to the bandwagon. Even reluctant manufacturers began to recognize the value in environmental branding and compliant materials became increasingly affordable. The marketplace was transforming.
Rating systems, too, evolved to reflect this new economic paradigm and while consensus remains a distant target it is safe to say that they are becoming increasingly alike. They are, in fact, learning from and moving toward the most ambitious and visionary standard, the one that never allowed economic forces to dictate: the Living Building Challenge (LBC). Launched in 2006 the uncompromising principles described by the LBC attract the curiosity of the others with a gravitational pull commensurate to the ever-widening recognition that we have run out of time to simply reduce our environmental impact. In fact, the extent of our past misdeeds demand that we must, as quickly as possible, learn how to build environments that surpass sustainability by replenishing and recharging our resources. Anything less would be like approving spousal abuse as long as it is “occasional”.
Utilizing the metaphor of a flower the LBC posits that buildings should, like flowers, be rooted in place, harvest all of their energy and water on site, be entirely pollution free, and support the larger community through equity and inspiration. These are principles that were inconceivable to the earliest rating system authors and, yet, they represent a target that has been certifiably attained by 25 industry leaders with many more closing in.
Organized by seven “Petals” and 20 subset “Imperatives” the LBC standard further expands the definition of minimum requirement by going beyond the usual standards. It insists that our built environment should
- Give Back. Net positive water, energy and waste means that these buildings are providing energy and water for others and putting waste back into productive use.
- Reconnect. Biophilic design principles seek to right a long standing imbalance by encouraging daily connection with nature. We spend 90 percent of our lives indoors. Even our neighbor’s access to nature cannot be impeded.
- Inspire. Recognizing the value of both sides of the brain the standard encourages an embrace of design elements solely for human delight – alongside the analytics that ensure efficient performance.
- Respect. By creating built environments that uphold the dignity of all members of society regardless of their physical or economic capacity the LBC aims to harness the power of transparency as a force for social change. Some LBC programs worthy of further exploration: the JUST Program for social justice, the DECLARE Label for chemical toxin transparency and the new Equitable Offset Program which accumulates funds to provide renewable energy infrastructure for charitable enterprises.
Beyond continued advocacy one can only give thanks to visionaries like co-creator Jason McLennan who chose to see beyond the allure of the almighty dollar and to believe that humanity can, if so informed, live in a “socially just, culturally rich and ecologically restorative” manner. While this is clearly easier said than done, the way is being paved and the rest of us must simply face the right direction and place one foot in front of the other.
You can reach Clive Pohl at clive