Thursday, April 30, 2015

CD Review: Chris Potter Underground Orchestra - Imaginary Cities

Chris Potter Underground Orchestra
Imaginary Cities

Chris Potter didn't set out to do a concept album about the state of the urban landscape. But in some ways the music on Imaginary Cities does come off like a musical assessment of it. Any given piece of real estate, be it rural or urban, comes with many layers to it, geologically and historically speaking. The suburban sprawl that we see while driving, crammed to the gills with billboards, fast food establishments and the occasional Mom and Pop store - what did it look like half a century ago? Inner city communities still have buildings that was constructed in a period prior,  with storefronts commingling with houses, in various states of repair, still echoing a time when neighborhoods were self-sufficient and there was no need to hop on a bus or get in a car to go and do your shopping.

Where does it go from here? Was it better back then, or is it better to keep move forward? Maybe it's neither of the above, and better to just stare out at the vast sky and soak in the scope of it.

These visuals spring to mind on the tenor saxophonist's new album, which takes his Underground quartet (pianist Craig Taborn, guitarist Adam Rogers, drummer Nate Smith) and adds two bassists (upright player Scott Colley and bass guitarist Fima Ephron), a string quartet and vibraphonist/marimbaist Steve Nelson to it. They create a rich sound, especially during the different sections of the four-part "Imaginary Cities" suite, "Compassion," "Dualities," "Disintegration" and "Rebuilding."

The names, when taken together with the music, conjure up images of various aspects of city life.  "Dualities" seems to depict the contrast between the minor strings and the bright sounding marimba. "Distintegration" is especially telling, where Potter's soprano and the strings move rather freely over a mix of acoustic guitar and basses, creating some eerie tension. Some of it sounds completely composed, while other sections give everyone space to move freely. Finally, to read more into the whole concept, Potter aptly ends by proposing solutions, not merely bringing up issues. "Rebulding" begins with Smith laying down a odd-time groove that Potter (back on tenor) and Nelson use to great advantage. The 11-minute piece goes through various shapes, holding down the groove before switching in the final quarter into a more midtempo section.

But that's only half of the album. "Lament," which precedes the title suite, features Potter's tenor playing over a yearning two-chord vamp towards the end which still has plenty of fire brewing, the strings giving the music a more expansive sound, never acting as a sweetener. The quartet gets as much frontline room as Potter on "Shadow Self," which is inspired by Bela Bartok. The closing "Sky" acts something like a final statement to the whole city concept of the album. The music is vast and expansive, as if trying to encompass the surroundings, again bolstered by the arrangement of 11-piece group.

Strings and jazz can make strange bedfellows. Even the way the strings are recorded can impact the impact of the music. Potter uses them in his music to alternately create tension and reinforce the beauty of his music. In doing so, new things are discovered with each listen, from the shape of melodies to subtle colors that Craig Taborn uses to add drama. It's a work that gets more meaningful with time.

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