Photo by John Rogers/ECM

Chris Potter In A ‘Room Of Mirrors’

By Dave Cantor for DOWNBEAT

An uncanny lightness runs through There Is A Tide, saxophonist Chris Potter’s latest full-length album, one where he plays every note on every instrument, from guitar and bass to drums and reeds.

The composer’s career, which stretches back decades and includes enduring partnerships with innovators like bassist Dave Holland, has touched on every corner of the jazz world. Potter’s as well-regarded for his work in big bands—his own, the Mingus Big Band, as well as Holland’s—as he is for performing in trios, where he summons colors, textures, honks and gleeful melodies that instantly make his mastery of the saxophone apparent.

Like much of the new record, the track “Rising Over You”—a funk-imbued excursion—serves as a bulwark against the chaos that unfolded during the summer, when Potter, 49, recorded the album at his home in Brooklyn and at his parents’ place in South Carolina, where he set up shop in his childhood bedroom.

“Some of it’s very slow and patient in a way that I really like,” he said, describing the album during a Zoom interview in October. Potter, who topped the Tenor Saxophone category in the 2020 DownBeat Readers Poll, wrote 10 songs for the program, which opens with “I Had A Dream” and concludes with “New Life (In The Wake Of Devastation).”

There Is A Tide wasn’t the only project he was working on for London-based Edition Records, though. As fall hues began to replace summer sun, Potter headed into the studio with keyboardist James Francies and drummer Eric Harland to record a follow-up to his 2019 album, Circuits. Due out in April, Sunrise Reprise reflects a tone dissimilar to Tide, offering what Potter called “a very, very different energy—long tunes, because we just couldn’t stop playing; way more stuff than I can put on an album.”

If Tide is the aural equivalent of a film actor playing multiple characters in a single scene, Sunrise is a document of interactive energy.

“Working with Chris and Eric both, they’re just such masters of what they do,” Francies recently told DownBeat. “[Playing with them] just felt like a puzzle piece fitting in. It just works. Between me and Eric, we already had a chemistry, and Eric and Chris have their chemistry. But Chris is always so into trying new stuff out—he just trusts who he plays with.”

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

There Is A Tide clearly is a pandemic-era album. You had a lot of gear at your disposal, but was there something that you couldn’t lay hands on? Were those restrictions and the availability of space part of what shaped the album?

The main restriction was me and my abilities, because no one else is on the album. When I was a teenager, I had this little cassette recorder that you could record four tracks onto, and then you bounce the other tracks on. So, I used to do that, where I played every instrument in the band and just make tracks, and mess around in different styles. So, for me, it was kind of a return to that, and it was a chance to do something like that that I always wanted to do on a more professional level. But when would I ever have the time? Well, now I have time.

I actually started it at my parents’ house—there’s more room down there in South Carolina—I could set up the drums. It was a little hard around here; probably most of the stuff that’s on the record was recorded here in Brooklyn, but the basic tracks and the writing were all done down there. It was in the same room that I had as a teenager, so it kinda felt like I was going backwards.

I mean, everyone was freaking out—I think we’re all still freaking out. And my reaction—I guess this is just what I do, anyway: I wanted to keep working and I felt like I had something to say. I didn’t even know that I would put it out, to be honest. I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do with it. I just started working on it, and then sent some of it to Dave [Stapleton, head of Edition Records].

So, it was an enormous learning experience for me. I’ve always played different instruments and felt that I learned a lot, even about how to approach the saxophone from my use of other instruments—like knowing what it feels like to play the drum part. I definitely work on piano a lot. But getting to where I felt like I could communicate something at the level I wanted to, it took a lot of work—and a very careful use of what my skill set is, and not going beyond it.

I found a quote by trumpeter Red Rodney, who you played with when you first got to New York, where he was complimentary of your piano skills. But was there something that you were reticent to record for the album?

Piano is definitely [what] I have the most experience with, besides saxophone.

You initially wrote everything on bass, though?

I started it on the bass, yeah. I kind of just came up with some bass lines and wrote it. So, that was a restriction I put on myself. It was just what I heard that I wanted the record to be. I was like, “OK, it’s going to be based in the groove.” Some of that is because of the nature of the technology: It’s really, really helpful to have a track that you can play to. Instruments are coming in and out, so how do you know how much time goes by? It’s just much easier if everything is in a tempo, which is a restriction. Sometimes, things might be fairly amorphous, but that’s a lot harder to do, if you’re trying to catch every little move you made on the last pass and match it.

There was a self-chosen restriction that I wanted everything to be either in 4/4 or 3/4.

Was that just for ease of use?

There are different kinds of complexity; to make an artwork with any depth requires some complexity. But I had the feeling that in that moment in time, I didn’t really want to hear the most difficult, challenging music. I wanted to hear something that would make me feel good.

It’s sometimes hard to derive meaning from instrumental music, but in addition to the album’s name, a few of the song titles reference water. How intentional was that?

The names of the tunes and the feelings that I got from the tunes kind of came after I’d started to make them—they kind of appear on their own. The names, I just [used] the first phrase that came to my head that kind of fit the melody of a song. And as I got into it, there was some kind of theme emerging—like water. So, I went with that.

It was kind of the same as the whole process—and it’s how I like to make music, anyway. The magic of making music with other people and improvising with other people is that whatever story you had in mind is going to be changed by their reactions. You never end up with what it is you thought you had, because it gets changed in the process. But for me, that’s the magic.

That’s kind of how the titles appeared, and kind of how the music itself evolved: I’d add one layer of music and then realize, “Oh, I wasn’t thinking of it, but now that I hear it, it needs this instrument to play this other kind of part.” And then that might set me on another path, and it might be that I didn’t even use the underlying thing that I’d first recorded.

There was a whole process of recording in this way that was kind of akin to improvisation, that was akin to not really having too well-formed of a plan ahead of time, but just kind of reacting to what I heard and adding something on top of that to keep it evolving. The meaning of it is like that.

You mentioned the fact that instrumental music, the meaning of it might not be apparent just from hearing it. There is something nice about having a title that does encapsulate some of that. If A Love Supreme wasn’t called A Love Supreme, it might not point you in the same direction. I think you would still get those feelings from the music, but it might not be quite so obvious. On the other hand, the great thing about music that doesn’t have any words is that it is very, very open for interpretation, and whatever it means to you is what it means.

You open the album with “I Had A Dream,” which seems connected to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speech. Is the title linked to the following cut, “Like A Memory”?

The way that it worked out, I kind of saw all the titles as a poem, really. And it was interesting that the order of the [songs on the] album is the order that I wrote the tunes in.

I’ve never done that; it’s never worked out that way. But I think because I did it all in such a concentrated period of time, there was a narrative thread even through the writing. I came up with these bass lines one evening, then I wrote two tunes a day for five days, fleshed it out and then started to record. It evolved from there.

So, yes, the name of that obviously has a political meaning. Maybe, it also sort of has a personal meaning, in terms of what the poem of the titles are. I don’t even really know how to describe what the meaning is.

You’ve worked with Manfred Eicher on your ECM releases, and there’s a lot of discourse in jazz around the idea of collective interaction. Was it weird to not have a check on yourself for Tide?

[Eicher] definitely has ways of adding his input in; I didn’t even think of that. The real difference is not because of a producer, but because of other musicians that you’re working with. And the feeling that you get when you’re playing. You can usually feel if it was a good take or a bad take or what’s going on or what’s needed. You can feel how that bounces off the people in the band—that’s really the primary thing that I’ve always noticed.

It’s funny. It’s really hard to explain, but you can tell if things are working or not by the energy that comes from other people. So, if you don’t have that, you’re gonna end up chasing your tail. I think I was able to avoid that to a certain extent. But the way that I did it was just by many, many, many hours spent doing it: 12-hour days, three days just on the bass part, trying to get it to groove enough. Certain moments that might pass by that no one would even notice, I might have spent hours on, because I heard that the piano chord has to come in right at this exact moment: Now, that’s too thick. Now, it’s not thick enough.

While making Tide, did you think at all about being connected to the beginning of the music through folks like Red Rodney—or indirectly to Alla Rakha through playing with his son Zakir Hussain in the Crosscurrents Trio—and how players from previous generations would have perceived the project?

That’s maybe one more thing that makes it of its time.

The ability to do this at home, the ability that we have to communicate with one another, even though we can’t [be in a room together], that’s a big thing that’s coloring our experience of this particular pandemic, this particular situation. … Even as a musician unable to play for audiences, unable to play with people, which is the lifeblood of the kind of music that we make, we’re still able to create something and put it out there. There’s a bit of a time lag—I did this in May, June, and it’ll come out in December. You are going to put it out and people are going to hear it, and it is gonna be “music” in that sense.

A lot of people would say that the period you were recording this was the worst of what we’ve experienced so far in 2020. Was the tumult over social justice and the federal response to the pandemic part of what prompted you to record Tide?

I just kind of did one thing at a time. There was a piece I had written for classical saxophone and piano, and then there’s the music I’ve been working on for a long time, anyway—with big band and vocals. I had kind of finished with those two projects and I said, “Well, let me have some fun and see if I can make a record playing everything.”

What’s the most important thing that you learned from making Tide, and is it transferable to post-pandemic work for you?

In this case, I was really able to think as a producer and spend the time on it that you never have making a jazz recording. The longest record dates that I’ve ever had were maybe three days, and so basically you’re coming in and you’re playing the music with people that you’ve played the music with before, hopefully. One of my keys to trying to make a good record is to have a chance to play the music with a band first, so that you get to know what the tune is, and what it wants to be and how you approach it and work out some of those kinks before you get into the studio. But that’s a document of a performance, and this is clearly something else that I had to edit.

It gave me the opportunity to think about, “OK, it’s going to start with this one texture, and how long is it going to be on that texture? And then something else should happen that’s related”—all these things that are kind of more like making a good pop record come to the fore, along with the fact that I just don’t have the virtuosity on all these instruments. Like, I can’t just play a killing drum part that whips it up into a frenzy if I want.

I realized quickly that the thing that I could do that sounded the best was just make sure that it grooves all the time. Then if I wanted more activity in that way, I’d add percussion or something. Just like when you hear Sgt. Pepper: These choices about how things are done have an effect on the way that you listen to it. That’s a whole other skill set that I’ve always been interested in. Virtually all of my working life has been focused on being a saxophone player, playing with people and improvising with them. You don’t get to focus on those details quite so much.

The second Circuits Trio album, Sunrise Reprise, is going to be the fourth project you’ll have released through Edition. You also did the Crosscurrents Trio album with them. They’ve let you experiment. Obviously, you’re a big get for the label, but is that freedom why you partnered with them?

Yeah, that’s been the thing—just the artistic freedom and the kind of forward-thinking way that they’re approaching it. The thing that’s different about them, they started well after the whole recording-industry system had pretty much collapsed. Definitely when I moved to New York and all through the ’90s, it was just a much different landscape.

They’re operating from this premise—social media—of getting information out that doesn’t necessarily cost a lot of money, but is going to reach some folks. I feel like I have complete freedom to do what I want—and complete trust from them. As I was saying, I wasn’t even necessarily sure that I wanted to put [Tide] out or that it was at a level that I should put it out. But they were like, “Yeah, do it.”

What did Stapleton say that convinced you?

Well, I think that was the first time anyone had really heard it. I felt like I was in a room of mirrors and I lost perspective: Is this good? So, [his wanting to release the album] was a bit of a vote of confidence, like, “It actually sounds good; I think it would be something people would be interested in, especially as it documents this particular time.”

That’s what I was hoping for; that was its function for me. It’s therapy to deal with everything and that’s kind of how it functions, anyway, I think. Musicians, we’re making music for other people to hear, but we’re also making music for ourselves—something that we feel we need to do to express what we don’t know how to express any other way. And if an audience finds value in that, that’s an extremely gratifying thing. But I wasn’t really sure about it.

I haven’t listened to it now in a couple months, so it’ll be interesting to let it go. I was just completely immersed in it. It’ll be good to hear it someday from enough distance that I might be able to actually judge it.

Even with the freedom that Edition has offered you, big-band projects—especially after the pandemic—are going to be tough to record and tour.

Well, that’s always been an issue. The ECM record—The Underground Orchestra, the Imaginary Cities record—I would have loved to have done a lot more concerts with that band. I hope we can still do more someday. That’s like 11 people; it’s a lot and it’s hard to do. You can sometimes use [local musicians] from wherever you go for certain things, but it’s not the same as the actual people that you call to be on the recording. We’ll have to figure it out as we go along. All these kinds of things, the infrastructure of how that’s gonna work, it’s all a bit of a mystery.

Some of the larger ensemble things that I’ve been writing and that I’ve been thinking about doing could involve using an established group—using the radio bands that exist in Europe. That’s an amazing resource that’s still holding on.

Having revenue come in from your music, it’s a problem for all of us—even to just fund recordings. I think there are different ways to do it: There are grants; there are other ways. I mean, musicians have always found a way to make what they need to make. But the financial situation, it clearly has a lot of impact on the scene. What would Duke Ellington be doing, you know? Would he still be able to keep his big band together? He kept it together through thick and thin—the same folks. And he did it, from what I can tell, with a lot of little gigs. He’d drive through Iowa and do dances. It wasn’t all Carnegie Hall.

Would you ever want to do a project like Tide again?

I don’t know—we’ll have to see. I would prefer that the circumstances that led to it being made don’t occur again. That’s for sure.

I think some good things can come from [this moment], which is kind of the message of the [song titles’] poem. There’s all this intense stuff going on, but there’s the possibility of change that comes from when people are so uprooted from what’s comfortable for them—and when change is so obviously needed.

The whole thing, at the end of it for me, it’s sort of an optimistic take on it. And it kind of moves in that way. The name of the first tune, “I Had A Dream,” that’s pretty pessimistic. It’s almost saying, “There was this amazing thing—and maybe not.” Then it moves through to a more optimistic frame of mind.