More skimming the surface of Planet Jazz this time with a look at New York-based saxophonist Chris Potter’s 2001 Verve debut Gratitude. I only encountered the album for the first time in January, but reading contemporaneous reviews it is clear that Gratitude was received both as an instant jazz landmark and a comprehensive confirmation of Potter’s remarkable talent at the time of its release. Listening in 2018 it sounds like a modern classic, drawing both on the influence of the post-bebop masters like Coltrane and Rollins, but also owing much to Potter’s gift for crystalline melodies and appealingly knotty (but never too knotty) structures.
Although I only heard Gratitude recently, my first exposure to Potter was in 2000 when he contributed a series of astonishing solos to Two Against Nature, Steely Dan’s first album after a two-decade studio hiatus. His performance on final track ‘West of Hollywood’ was particularly impressive as he essentially closes out the track with nearly four minutes of soloing that is infectiously swinging, melodic and inventive over a trademark ‘Dan complex chord sequence. Despite his obvious phenomenal technical skill, there is also a shifting textural quality and occasional sense of vulnerability to Potter’s playing that renders it constantly fascinating. He is, you sense, always thinking about the meaning of the song and the broader sonic thrust of the track, so his playing is never in danger of overwhelming a piece – rather, it is integral to it, and in service of the overall emotional impact upon the listener.
Continuing involvement with Steely Dan over the next few years would see Potter’s profile rise higher, but it wasn’t too long before he refocused on solo work and began to amass a fine body of work that moves within recognisable post-bebop circles but also adds a freshness and lightness of touch that is unique to Potter. Beautifully and crisply recorded, Gratitude is a brilliant entry point to his work, featuring 13 tracks inspired by and dedicated to jazz sax greats including the aforementioned Collins and Rollins, as well as Ornette Coleman, Eddie Harris, Wayne Shorter, Charlie Parker and Lester Young.
But above all, there are the tunes and so many of them are captivatingly infectious. ‘Trane-dedicated opener ‘The Source’ features a gorgeous central theme, immensely evocative of jazz’s late ‘50s/early ‘60s smoky club heyday; ‘Sun King’, for Rollins, is based around an effervescent melody and some of the most exciting ensemble playing on the album; and ‘High Noon’, for Harris, is supremely funky, founded on intricate Fender Rhodes from keyboardist Kevin Hays.
Hays is part of a set quartet throughout this album that is simply superb. On bass is Scott Colley, whilst drummer Brian Blade is one of my favourite modern players. Always taking musical risks but more often that not locked into a brilliantly hefty groove, Blade first came to my attention with his extraordinary performances on Joni Mitchell’s Taming the Tiger in 1998 (check out the track ‘Lead Balloon’ – not one of Mitchell’s best songs by a long way, but Blade’s playing is breathtaking). One of the most prolific artists of his generation, Blade remains hugely active as a sideman (Redman, Norah Jones, Daniel Lanois, Wayne Shorter et al), co-leader (with Ron Miles, Bill Frisell, Chick Corea, Christian McBride etc) and leader.
Superlative Potter releases since Gratitude include Travelling Mercies (2002), Transatlantic (2011, with the DR Big Band) and – since he began a new relationship with ECM in 2013 – the orchestrally-tinged Imaginary Cities (2015) and the more conventionally-conceived The Dreamer Is the Dream (2017) with a fine quartet featuring bassist Joe Martin, Cuban-American pianist David Virelles and drummer Marcus Gilmore. In recent years, he has also been a key member of Pat Metheny’s Unity Group, arguably the most inspired of Metheny’s many bands and certainly his most musically ambitious. As ever, Potter’s contributions are within the tradition but propelled by a very contemporary-sounding sense of perpetual motion.
Complementing Potter’s amazing talent as a player is his strength as a composer, which is perhaps rivalled only by Joshua Redman among his generation of sax players. Harmonically complex but melodically often appealingly straightforward, his tunes frequently feel like instant standards; the kind of jazz melodies you feel you have known all of your listening life. It’s an impressive artistic trajectory and one that is very much ongoing, but it was with Gratitude that he first began to cement his position as one of the true modern greats.