Chris Potter brings jazz prowess to Chapel

Amelia Perron

The Lawrence community had the rare privilege of hearing Grammy-nominated jazz saxophone giant Chris Potter and his band Underground in the Lawrence Chapel last Friday night.
Potter brings an illustrious background to his playing. He has studied at the New School and the Manhattan School of Music, continuing on to play with such musicians and groups as Kenny Werner, Marian McPartland, Red Rodney, Mingus Big Band, Steely Dan, Dave Holland, and a number of others. His performances have brought him to festivals and concert venues around the world.
Potter’s mastery of his broad influences has created a masterful personal idiom. “One of his albums, “Gratitude,” is literally a dedication to all of his influences including Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, Lester Young, Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, etc.,” said jazz saxophonist Ben Doherty, ’07. “Potter has studied what each of these guys have done and internalized and what comes out in his playing is this vast amount of history he has learned with his own spin on it.”
Potter, of course, can base his creative explorations on a very solid technique. “His technical ability knows no bounds,” Doherty said. The fluency of Potter’s playing never surpassed his musical expression, however. His tightly structured solos stayed close to form, and even with all the notes he fired out, he didn’t waste a single one.
Potter never distanced himself from his band (Craig Taborn, keyboard, Nate Smith, drums, and Adam Rogers, guitar) either, interacting with their creative input, and with three strong musicians behind him, there was no need to leave them in the dust. Doherty noted, “Nate Smith grooves so hard you just can’t help but get into it.”
In case a stellar band, unimpeachable chops and a deeply internalized intimacy with the jazz greats wasn’t enough to win over the audience, Potter also gave them music that no one, jazz connoisseur or newcomer, could turn away from.
“A lot of their tunes are groove-based,” said Doherty, highlighting the accessibility of the music. “They may have complex melodies and harmonies, but when it gets down to it, the blowing sections are generally wide open grooves.” Of Potter’s original compositions, he added, “I think it is very sophisticated and forward-looking without being complex just for the sake of being complex.”
In an afternoon master class, students got to see Potter’s more human side and a hint of what makes him great. “The majority of his practicing happens all in his head just simply thinking about music,” Doherty remarked. “He said if you really thought hard about a particular thing for an hour then that would be really good for a day.” A welcome thought to most young music students, and perhaps an explanation for Potter’s concise style.
Doherty shared one final testimony to Potter’s intuitive approach to playing — or perhaps to his modesty. “[Another saxophone student] gave Chris Potter a transcription of one of Chris’ solos that [the student] had transcribed for him to autograph. Chris looked over the transcription for a few minutes and said ‘I played this?’ Then he signed it, ‘I can’t play this — Chris Potter.’