I have known about Chris Potter for years, but mostly as a sideman, playing with Paul Motian, Dave Holland and most recently as part of Pat Metheny’s Unity Band. At the same time I have also become more of a fan of his efforts as a leader – his ‘Follow the Red Line’ live album from 2007 remains a favorite, with Viva Las Vilnius being essential listening from the last decade. He has recorded with a variety of labels through the years, and has recently joined the historic ECM label, and has just released his debut for ECM. Let’s take a look at Chris Potter The Sirens!
Musical Genre: Jazz
Artist: Chris Potter
In creating The Sirens, Chris Potter assembled a new band, consisting of long-time collaborator Craig Taborn on piano, bassist Larry Grenadier, drummer Eric Harland, and David Virelles on prepared piano, celeste, and harmonium. With this group he steers away from the rock & funk leanings of his Underground quintet, instead focusing on acoustic soundscapes augmented by the textural instrumentation of Virelles.
Potter also dipped into the mythology of ‘The Odyssey’, creating a concept album celebrating humanity and the sea much in the way the classic Homer epic poem did. He specifically looks to the more subtle themes of human interaction and the voices of Odysseus and others to help weave his tale, avoiding the more dramatic battles and characters like the cyclops and other struggles.
As one would expect from a recording based on human interaction from an epic poem, there is a great sense of reflection and introspection throughout. It also works well with the ECM label, with producer Manfred Eicher legendary for his sense of style and evocative moods. But Eicher also knows how to make sure that an artist realizes their creative vision , which was certainly the case here.
The Sirens is not a moody ‘new age’ recording, but a solid jazz session. There is constant interplay and improvisation, and the musicians communicate at the highest level.
Potter plays an array of instruments, mostly tenor and soprano saxophone, but on the title track brings out the bass clarinet. The bass clarinet is not common in jazz, but provides a wonderfully plaintive voice. Given that for the most part the songs are divided up with male and female voices, the use of a low-register instrument for a ‘female’ voiced song seemed odd, but it works very well in the context of the composition against the bowed bass notes.
Throughout the recording there are up and down tempo pieces, moments where there is more atmosphere than composition, times of intense group improvisation, and some gorgeous ballads. But while the album is clearly a concept piece, there is no particular order I found works best – I often listen straight through, but have also shuffled the songs and not had an issue. So while it is a concept album, more than that it is just a great jazz album.
‘Quick Hit’ Song: “Nausikaa” – Nausikaa comes to the aid of Odysseus as he crashed, and helps him throughout his stay and launches him back towards home, becoming a figure of great importance to Odysseus. In the song, Potter voices Nausikaa with the soprano saxophone, and Virelles plays the celeste to great effect. It is an amazing composition, one that will grab you with the immediacy of its voices, and keep you throughout the song.
Would I recommend?: Absolutely! As I said, Chris Potter remains a bright star of the jazz world, and with each new release his compositions get deeper and his sense of improvisation gets broader.
Suggested audience: If you are a fan of Chris Potter, buy this one right away. The same is true if you enjoyed his work with Pat Metheny – the Unity Band might be Metheny’s child, but Potter brings a strong voice and impact to the music. Also, if you love modern mainstream jazz you will want to check this one out!
Here is video of the quartet playing “Nausikaa” live in late 2012: