Chris Potter – Jumping off a cliff with Jazzgroove

US saxophonist, world-class soloist, accomplished composer and formidable bandleader Chris Potter is a regular collaborator with bassist Dave Holland, Mingus Big Band. Chris is the first call saxophonist for many of the worlds leading jazz projects. For his June 2012 vist to Australia, he has composed and orchestrated a stunning collection of tunes featuring himself with the Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra.

Over the last decade the Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra has garnered an international reputation with the worlds leading contemporary composers, partly due to its willingness to experiment with new concepts and its respect for ensemble playing, raw power and tradition of the big bands that have proceeded it. Recent guests include Jim McNeely, John Hollenbeck, Bert Joris, Alex Sipigain, Bob Sheppard, Dave Lisik, Charles Tolliver, Kristin Berardi and Florian Ross.

We talked to Chris Potter about his upcoming collaboration with the JMO. You’ll be able to hear Chris Potter with the JMO at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival and in Sydney and Wollongong (see the bottom of the article for tour details) – oh, and we talked to David Theak from the JMO  as well – read his interview here >

Chris Potter | Photo – supplied

Jazz-Planet: You said in an interview with Mike Brannon on AllAboutJazz in 2006 that ‘willingness to take risks as an improvisor is important to the kind of music I want to make, to make some kind of effort at spontaneously composing… collectively. And to do that you definitely need the kind of people who are willing to jump off a cliff every now and then’. How easy has it been to find that kind of willingness in the groups you’ve worked with?  Have there been any surprises where you expected some level of courage and were disappointed, or expected some caution and were pleasantly surprised by bravery?

Chris Potter: Every group is different, even changing one member of the group can change the whole character of the music, including this risk-taking aspect I was referring to. That’s the exciting thing about this music – like any human relationships, the variables are so intricate and so intertwined that the result is never predictable. However, also like any other human relationships, it’s possible to fall into predictable patterns after a while. To a certain extent, this can be comforting and good, but I also like being challenged to  use my own creativity to its fullest extent. I’d say all of the groups I’ve played with for long periods have had this challenging aspect, really that’s the reason I’ve stayed interested enough to keep being involved in them! I should add that I feel extremely fortunate to have had this level of inspiration from my fellow-musicians, I wouldn’t be the musician I am now without having had these relationships. I have to say, the bravest I’ve worked with might be Herbie Hancock, he’ll go anywhere at any time!

J-P: What have been you most positive experiences (or not so positive if you prefer to answer in that way) of a large ensemble playing your music?

It’s always a thrill when you hear what you’ve written played for the first time, that feeling when it changes from being an idea inside your head into a physical reality that other people are also experiencing. Recording the music for the Song For Anyone album (written for a ten piece chamber ensemble) stands out as a big highlight for me. Of course there have been some more difficult situations also, where you realize that there’s no way your vision is going to come through with those particular musicians, but fortunately those situations have been few and far between!

J-P: What are the challenges (and gifts) of working in this distanced way with a big band. e.g. does the unfamiliarity provide an extra frisson of anticipation or merely a level of anxiety?

I always find it interesting playing the same written music with different groups, since different aspects of the music always come through depending on the personalities of the players involved. Of course it can be a little nervous at first, like walking into a party where you don’t know anyone, but usually after a couple of hours of rehearsal that feeling wears off and the enjoyment of concentrating on the task at hand takes over. In this case, I know the level of Australian musicians is very high, so I’m not too anxious about it!

J-P: In an interview in Sao Paolo in 2007  you talked about the constraints of having less opportunity to ‘tell a story’ over a whole night of playing when you’re in a big band situation, because you have ‘ one shot to do it [and] you have to focus everything on that one thing’. In a concert where you’re the composer of some piece and the featured guest on others, what are the things you have to keep in mind – what are the challenges, when it comes to space to speak and develop a narrative as a player?

Since it’s my own music, of course I can stretch out a little more than usual in a big band situation, but it’s still more of a set role than in a small group, where each performance of a tune can be radically different. I try to look at it like being an actor, that I’ll play my part to the best of my ability. The ability to convey a great deal of meaning within a small set of parameters requires a great deal of concentration and self-discipline I’ve found, and at its best, can be even more revealing of a musician’s message than a whole night of musical ‘freedom’.

J-P: In this tour you’re also working with the McCoy Tyner trio and José James in this wonderful contemporary exploration of John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman and that famous 1963 recording. What are the stand-out enjoyable aspects of working with music that so many people have enjoyed in its original form. What does ‘contemporary exploration’ mean – is the band is bringing that music back to life, or how are you playing with it?

The main thing for me is that it’s such a huge thrill to get to work with McCoy after spending so many hours of my life listening to his music. I’ve learned so much from sharing the stage with him and getting to know where he’s coming from as a person, and it’s also given me further insight into the musical world of John Coltrane. I’ve tried not to think too carefully about how to approach the Johnny Hartman/Trane music, or what to avoid. It’s beautiful, soulful music, and I just try to put my heart  and soul into it and leave it at that. Of course I don’t want to just copy Coltrane, but it doesn’t make any sense to avoid his influence either, so I just look for the pretty notes, that’s all.

J-P: Our standard end-of-interview question – what are you listening to at the moment – what’s making you sit up and take notice?

Hmm, a lot of old stuff, some musicians I worked with recently gave me a bunch of Charlie Parker bootlegs I’d never heard, that’s been keeping me on my toes, even though it was played 50+ years ago!

Chris Potter concert details

McCoy Tyner Trio featuring Chris Potter / José James-USA (Melbourne Town Hall)
Sunday 3 June, 8pm – 9:30pm
McCoy Tyner Trio: McCoy Tyner — piano / Gerald Cannon — bass / Francisco Mela — drums
Chris Potter — saxophone / José James — voice

Chris Potter / Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra

June 2 –  Melbourne International Jazz Festival (The Forum)
Saturday 2 June, 8:30pm – 10:50pm (Doors from 8pm)
A reserve: $55 / $48 conc

June 4 – Sydney (Blue Beat Bar & Grill. 16 Cross St, Double Bay)
Support Set by Kristin Berardi and WAYJO (Western Australian Youth Jazz Orchestra)
$45 table seating / $35 general admission / $25 student concession & JGA Members
BOOKINGS: MOSHTIX 1300 438 849 or call venue directly on (02) 9328 4411

June 5 – Illawarra Performing Arts Centre (IMB Theatre, Burrell St, Wollongong)
2 x sets of Chris Potter and JMO
$35 / $30 / $25 BOOKINGS (02) 4224 5999

Chris Potter / JMO Personnel

Chris Potter: Saxophone, Composer & Arranger

Saxes: David Theak, Murray Jackson, Richard Maegraith, Matt Keegan & James Loughnan

Trumpets: Darryl Carthew, Andy Fiddes, Simon Ferenci & Phil Slater

Bones: Jeremy Borthwick, Dave Panichi, Danny Carmichael & Justin Kearin

Rhythm Section: Carl Morgan (Guitar), Hugh Barrett (piano), Brendan Clarke (bass) & Jamie Cameron (drums)