February 27, 2007

Potter Quartet forges harmony out of conflict

Saxophonist Chris Potter might be the hardest working musician in jazz. When he’s not touring with his own group or the Dave Holland Quintet—the jazz supergroup in which he’s played for close to 10 years—he’s prowling the New York scene, playing as a guest with a heady array of musicians. Over the past six months I’ve heard him play four times with four different groups. Each time, he’s stood out. There were the two gigs where he appeared as a guest soloist with Jason Moran and Paul Motian, unfamiliar territory that he navigated with ease and vigor. There was his brilliant appearance in Chicago with the Dave Holland Quintet. Then there was this past Sunday, when Potter surfaced at the Old Town School of Folk Music with his own quartet to play the electric-tinged music from his most recent album, Underground.

This iteration of the Chris Potter Quartet is defined first and foremost by tension—an internal disjunction of style and approach that fosters the music’s inventiveness and power. On one side, there are the long-sustained chords of Craig Taborn’s Fender Rhodes piano and Adam Rogers’s electric guitar, washing the music in languid cool. On the other side, there is the precision and drive of Potter’s saxophone and Nate Smith’s drums, enunciating each note with sparks of clarity and passion.

On Sunday night, this tension served the music well. On “Trane,” the set’s opening number, Potter blasted through a knotty and complex solo, reveling in the harmonic openness and flexibility of Taborn’s and Rogers’s playing. Potter’s technical command of his instrument was astounding. Even when he played long, fast-paced runs, every note rang with clarity. This quality was crucial to the strength of the music. If Potter had a less precise diction, his saxophone would have faded into the moody chords surrounding him. His emphasis on the dynamics of every note provided a crucial contrast to the ethereal electric harmonies, bringing both approaches into sharp relief.

Taborn’s and Rogers’s harmonic approach, the key contrast to Potter’s precise articulation, was strong in its own right. Both musicians brought a subdued demeanor to the stage, maintaining neutral gazes that matched the open, moody feel of their music. Rogers, in the tradition of jazz guitarists like Bill Frisell and Jim Hall, values textural ingenuity over virtuosity. Even when he soloed, Rogers eschewed single-line improvisation for the deliberate construction of new harmonies, using open chords and distortion effects.

Taborn’s playing was driven by a similar aesthetic. On “Togo,” an African folk song, Taborn began his solo with a quiet three-note figure that ever so slowly sprouted into a dense, fully formed improvisation. His restraint was easy to ignore when he wasn’t featured, but Taborn’s playing was consistently awash in whispered surprises that deepened the music.

Without proper rhythmic mooring, the kind of restrained playing favored by Rogers and Taborn might have made for tedious, albeit texturally elegant, jazz. This is why the exuberant drummer Nate Smith was so vital to the music making. Smith, who is also the drummer for the Dave Holland Quintet, is a whirl of expressive, extroverted playing. He can’t stop moving on stage, and he can’t stop smiling, either. In one stunning moment in “Togo,” Rogers and Taborn dropped out, leaving only Smith and Potter playing. In the course of a short solo, Potter shifted the tempo four times, and Smith not only didn’t miss a beat, but he created new rhythmic textures that responded perfectly to Potter’s lead.

The Chris Potter Quartet is one of the few jazz ensembles I’ve ever seen that doesn’t employ a bassist. The bass is the core of a lot of groups, keeping the music grounded with its deep and consistent sound. It’s often the bass that brings the disparate threads of the music together, unifying stylistic differences in the shared reliance on root notes and consistent rhythms. Given the internal tension within the Chris Potter Quartet, eschewing a bassist was a bold move.

The absence of a bass defined the distinctiveness of the Quartet as much as any instrument present. Without a bass, the harmonies were more open, the rhythm was more flexible, and the rapport between each musician was stressed. A lot of the success of the music was dependent on Smith’s sensitive and playful drumming, but even when Smith left the stage for Billy Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom,” the music succeeded. Potter’s saxophone had a rhythmic force that was as effective as Smith’s drumming when it needed to be, shooting off precise volleys of notes that held the music together.

As the audience rose to its feet at the Old Town School of Folk Music and Potter and his Quartet walked back onto the stage for an encore—a rare thing in jazz—it was clear that the two idioms within the Chris Potter Quartet had found one voice. The ethereal electric harmonies had fostered flexibility and spontaneity, and rhythmic precision and dexterity had imbued the music with its energy and drive. This was a group that grooved with joy even as it took the time to explore the beauty of quiet, searching moments.