CHRIS POTTER'S UNDERGROUND
Filene Recital Hall - Skidmore College
Saratoga Springs, NY
March 20, 2008
By J Hunter
It's kind of fun to watch kids grow up and when I say "kids", I mean young musicians you're lucky enough to catch early in their careers. In my case, Chris Potter qualifies for this category: I discovered the Chicago native when I heard Concentric Circles (Concord Records, 1994), Potter's first disc as a leader after a four-year apprenticeship with Red Rodney. Although I've seen Potter play with everyone from Eliane Elias to Steely Dan, the high water mark was the truly profound night he and the Dave Holland Quintet gave the Van Dyck a few years ago. The operative word in that last sentence is "was", because Chris Potter's Underground just might have wiped that mark out.
Thanks to a grant from the Filene Foundation, Potter and his partners bassist Scott Colley, guitarist Adam Rogers, and Holland Quintet drummer Nate Smith had given clinics and Master classes the previous day, and many of those students were in the packed-to-the rafters Filene Recital Hall as Potter led the band onto the floor in front of the seats. If you've never seen a show at Filene, there is no stage lighting or spotlights; the only illumination comes from tastefully arranged overhead lights that wash the whole hall and give its exquisite blond wood a lovely soft glow. "It's not every day you see your audience this well," Potter confided, tongue in cheek. The change in perspective didn't seem to hinder Potter or his band, as they rolled into a dynamic version of "Train", one of several cuts they played from Underground's 2007 Sunnyside disc Follow the Red Line: Live at the Village Vanguard.
Here's what Underground has in common with Ike & Tina Turner: A tune may start off nice and easy, but it probably won't stay that way! Several times during their almost-two-hour set, the band broke out of a ballad framework or a soft blues into a wonderfully aggressive place that had your head bopping and your shoulders shaking. "Train" followed this line, ripping off choruses with a weird, staggered meter with the same ease I make coffee in the morning. The rapport this band has is on the same level as the Holland Quintet; they performed astounding feats of formation flying throughout the night, particularly on the grooving second half of "Pop Tune #1", where split-second breaks were performed with acrobatic élan.
It's been almost 14 years since Potter recorded Concentric Circles, so a growth curve is to be expected. But the depth and breadth of his sound on this evening augmented by the hall's exemplary acoustics absolutely floored me. Potter's tenor sax always had the tone you want: Big and broad, with a range as wide as a California freeway. He can knock you out with a fusillade of notes or one long, passionate blast that skirts the edge of dissonance but doesn't fall in. Potter changed up his attack a couple of times by switching to bass clarinet; the expressiveness of that instrument really gave Joni Mitchell's "Ladies of the Canyon" a sweet, succulent taste.
To watch Smith play drums is to watch a great boxer in the ring: He's got a punch that'll knock you into next week, but he can also bob and weave and jab you dizzy. He and Colley kept the groove white-hot going all night long; Smith also brought the nuance with his hand-drumming on "Canyon." I'd seen Colley play with another hard-hitting group, Dave Douglas' Meaning and Mystery band, but in this electric matrix, I was afraid his stand-up bass would be drowned out by Rogers' Fender Telecaster. Colley was unaffected, laying down foundations, solos, and counter-solos with equal dexterity. During "Train", I couldn't decide whether Rogers should turn his guitar up or turn it down, because the middle range he was in started to drive me a little mad. He wisely chose to turn it up on "Arjuna", and spent the rest of the night giving us fretwork straight out of the John Scofield school.
As much as I love the Dave Holland Quintet, Underground is a much better platform for Chris Potter. The DHQ may be (among other things) a fantastic collective of composers and musicians, but Underground is all Potter, and the satisfaction he gets from it can be seen in his smile, and heard in his titanic tenor. To see this Village Vanguard-quality performance in a recital hall in Saratoga Springs was a gift, pure and simple.
J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.