Sunday, February 24, 2013

CD Review: Chris Potter - The Sirens

Chris Potter
The Sirens

There have been moments during the last few Chris Potter albums where it's been easy to think, This is the future of jazz. Not to say that there aren't a lot of musicians advancing the music, but saxophonist Potter is someone who's fairly close to "mainstream" jazz but approaches it with the vision of, if not an avant-garde player, than someone who really pushes himself and listeners in the direction of adventure. He's a creative player, on tenor and soprano, as well as bass clarinet. For a musician who has played with Marian McPartland and Steely Dan, he has brought a good deal of fire to Dave Holland's groups, and Paul Motian's trios. In fact Motian's Lost in a Dream probably ranks with some of the best jazz albums of the last decade.

But the real excitement can be found on albums by Potter's Underground units, where he forgoes bass, has Craig Taborn cover those duties with keyboards and lets his Holland bandmate Nate Smith go wild on drums. On their 2009 album Ultrahang it seemed like Potter might have taken some cues from Tim Berne and he clearly knew what to do with them.

For his first album as a leader on ECM, Potter has brought along Taborn (on acoustic piano), with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Eric Harland for his core quartet. The extra sense of experimentation comes with a second pianist, David Virelles, on prepared piano, celeste and harmonium. Virelles (who just released the highly-regarded Continuum on Pi Recordings) only seems to appear on a few tracks, if my ears are being accurate. But he adds a twist to the music without cluttering the balance of the quartet. The pianists' spare duet that closes the album leaves you wanting a lot more than some bare exchanges of sound too.

The compositions were inspired by the writings of Homer, and that being said, many take the slow and thoughtful course. The minor title track begins with Potter on bass clarinet, leading to a bowed solo by Grenadier in the same register as the reed, wrapping up with the leader switching to tenor. "Strangers at the Gate" finds Potter on soprano, and a dialogue between Taborn and Virelles with the latter's celeste being the more dissonant voice. In contrast, "Kalypso" doesn't quite capture the feeling of its synonymous title, but it gets Harland to play the melody with the tenor and get a little space of his own to flex a little.

Being an ECM album The Sirens has the majestic and somewhat dreamy production of Manfred Eicher setting the mood, though Potter reveals the bite in his playing as well. "Wine Dark Sea" begins gently but as his tenor solo develops, he gets a little more jagged, with the fire of the Underground albums coming into the mix. "Wayfinder" continues with the same type of wooliness, with Virelles adding some prepared piano clicks and celeste. Marked by shifting time signatures, the band still almost locks into a funk vamp by the end of the tenor solo.

Potter's sense of adventure is still going strong and this new album offers proof, which only grows with repeated listens.

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