Saturday, October 03, 2009

CD Review: Chris Potter Underground

Chris Potter Underground

Stephen Byram's cover art is pretty distinctive. It often has a work-in-progress look to it, like some random sketches - squiggles even - has been randomly thrown onto a canvas. Or else someone's canvas has been taken by someone else, who scribbled over it.

In my mind, his work is closely associated with Tim Berne, since he's designed numerous - if not all- the covers for the saxophonist's albums and CDs since the late '80s/early '90s. So it's funny that Byram designed the cover to the latest Chris Potter Underground CD Ultrahang because it too bares something of a resemblance to Berne's work with his Science Friction and Big Satan outfits. Neither group employs a bassist, and Science Friction (if they're even still together; it's hard to keep up with Berne sometimes) uses a similar saxophone/guitar/keyboards/drums instrumentation as Underground. Not so coincidentally, the keyboardist in both bands is Craig Taborn. (Big Satan foregoes the keys.)

Although both groups operate in the settings of herky-jerky melodies that take listeners on long bumpy rides, Chris Potter's writing is nowhere near as convoluted (in the positive sense) as that of Tim Berne. In fact, Ultrahang is almost a funk album. Not funk as in laying down badass grooves created strictly for dancefloor enjoyment and what comes later, but music that has funk at its core. Adam Rogers frequently pops his strings like a funk bassist, adding emphasis behind Potter's tenor. He also bends and slides around some metallic notes during the title track, as if to say he could fill in for Marc Ducret in Berne's band if he felt like it.

The funk also becomes evident during the solo passages of tracks like "Rumples" and "Facing East" when the band kicks into a vamp that can get pretty vicious between Nate Smith's drums and the Taborn/Rogers axis. "Rumples" in fact comes closest to a straight theme with sprays of 16th notes over a 4/4 groove. Compared to the other tracks, it's almost conventional, and worth nothing that it's one of the few tracks not written by Potter but by Rogers.

Potter continues to astound, not only as a bandleader (or catalyst, really) but as a writer and soloist. Before the multi-leveled "Interstellar Signals" closes out the program with a blend of ballad and free improvisation, the saxophonist excels with intense workouts like "Boots" and "Times Arrow," the latter marked by a fast, staccato flurry of tongued notes during a solo that he ends with a honk. After blowing a tenor solo in "Facing East," he returns after Rogers' solo with the bass clarinet to adjust to the more pensive mood which the song takes at that point.

On previous Underground albums, the band has covered songs by Radiohead and the Beatles, transforming them into things that work in the context of a progressive jazz group. This time around, it's Bob Dylan's "It Ain't Me Babe" that gets the treatment. The biggest hook of the song might be Potter's intro to the tune, but the languid, almost country feeling they give to this classic sounds beautiful here.

Music like this proves why Potter has been called one of the most studied (and copied) saxophonists on the planet.

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