Q&A with world-class composer and saxophonist Chris Potter, has emerged as a leading light of his generation

"Jazz of course has been associated from the beginning with an oppressed underclass, and has played an important role in the struggle for civil rights here in the U.S as well as inspiring other people around the world in their quest for equality. The greatest musicians have a way of reaching all kinds of people, regardless of background, through the fundamental humanity in their sound. This inspiration can be an important force for positive social change I believe."

Chris Potter: The Rhythm Of The Tide

A world-class soloist, accomplished composer and formidable bandleader, saxophonist Chris Potter has emerged as a leading light of his generation. There Is A Tide (2020) is the new album from Chris Potter and ONLY Chris Potter. Recorded during lockdown, Chris performed ALL instruments including drums, guitar, bass, percussion, woodwinds and, of course, saxophones. This landmark album will be released in Dec with the pre-order available in Sept. For Chris Potter, a musician who has been on the road continuously since the 1990s, whose raison d’etre is playing live, lockdown presented both a challenge and an opportunity. It’s a tribute to his creativity, personal integrity and huge musical talent that Chris was able to take on this challenge and make something unbelievably fresh from the opportunity. Starting in May 2020, as the Black Lives Matter movement was kicking off (reflected in the track 'I Had A Dream'), Chris set out to create something alone, to express his reaction to these chaotic times.  

(Chris Potter / Photo by Dave Stapleton)

Uniquely, playing each and every instrument: piano, keyboards, electric and acoustic guitars, bass guitar, drums, clarinet, bass clarinet, flute, alto flute, percussion, samples and of course saxophones, Chris took just six weeks to complete the whole process. Recording an album like this for the first time required Chris to think about the process of writing, recording and producing in a completely new way. Musically Chris has been able to create something that is not only innovative but grooves like a crazy thing. Building each composition from the bass brings the funk to the fore. Rhythmically there’s a flow that is reflected in the inspiration behind many of the tracks: the title (from a speech by Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar) sets the tone - the tide is the ultimate rhythm.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Special Thanks: Daniel Garel (Edition Records) & Louise Holland (Vision Arts Mgmt)

How has the Jazz music (and culture of) influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I had no idea when I first started playing the saxophone and studying jazz at age ten how much it would affect my life. When you are growing up, it’s easy to believe the ways things are done where you live are the only ways and the “right” ways. Traveling a lot and meeting people from all over the world, it definitely changes your perspective. You start to realize how many “right” ways there are for people to live and make music, and that the spirit of openness, care, and trust that holds people together can take many forms. Jazz music, with its emphasis on openness, improvisation and collective creation, is very much in harmony with this perspective.  I would say the lessons from my physical journeys and my musical journeys have supported each other.

How do you describe your sound and music philosophy? Where does your creative drive come from?

When I encounter a work of art that moves me, I always have the feeling that I recognize the truth the artist is expressing, but I didn’t know it was possible to express that truth, or that anyone else felt it. This is the source of the creative drive for me, why it feels important. I know the deep feelings of meaning that artists like John Coltrane and Duke Ellington have given me. I am striving to make music on that level, both to satisfy an inner need, and to try and create something good for other people.

"Traveling a lot and meeting people from all over the world, it definitely changes your perspective. You start to realize how many “right” ways there are for people to live and make music, and that the spirit of openness, care, and trust that holds people together can take many forms. Jazz music, with its emphasis on openness, improvisation and collective creation, is very much in harmony with this perspective.  I would say the lessons from my physical journeys and my musical journeys have supported each other."  (Chris Potter / Photo by Dave Stapleton)

Do you consider the Jazz a specific music genre or a state of mind? How do you want your music to affect people?

The language of jazz is of course tied to particular historical and geographical circumstances based in the African American community in the U.S. This tradition, which could be considered a genre, carries a lot of power. However, jazz music from the very beginning has been open to many influences, and this openness is itself part of the tradition. In this sense, jazz is bigger than any particular language, it is universal, and able to endlessly change and adapt. Looked at in this way, jazz is more about a way of approaching music than any specific form. Basically, jazz defies definition. I consider this a good thing!

As far as how I want my music to affect people, I hope it can help people feel connected, to themselves and to the world around them, and feel lifted up.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Of course, I would love to be able to go back and hear Miles’ Quintet or Coltrane’s Quartet live, that certainly was a golden era, but I’m excited about the possibilities of the present time. There are endless stories to tell, and endless ways to tell them. A big difficulty these days is the availability of too much information, I think. It is hard for artists to refine their styles in the face of all available influences, and hard for listeners to keep track of it also. There are also troubling economic implications for artists in this digitized world. Still, this life is very compelling, and I’m happy to have the challenge right now of trying to express it in music. Also, there are many fine musicians working today who have carried the jazz tradition to an incredibly high level of artistry, and I’m very grateful for their inspiration and the chance to work with them.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?                             (Chris Potter / Photo by Dave Stapleton)

Here’s something I do miss from the past; I would love to be able to bring back the era of long engagements at clubs. In the old days, Monk’s group might work for 6 weeks at one club in New York, followed by a month at another club, and maybe another month in Chicago or something. Nowadays (at least before Covid times!) we rush around like crazy, usually playing only one night in each city. This is very difficult both physically and emotionally, and also makes it more difficult to achieve musical depth and a unique group sound.

"As far as how I want my music to affect people, I hope it can help people feel connected, to themselves and to the world around them, and feel lifted up."

Are there any exclusively specific memorable moments with people that you’ve performed with either live or in the studio?

It’s hard to think of any one most memorable moment from a lifetime of great musical experiences, so I will just describe the first one that comes to mind. I was playing with the drummer Paul Motian’s Electric Bebop Band in the early nineties, with Kurt Rosenwinkel and Brad Shepik on guitar and Steve Swallow on bass. In the middle of one my solos, the power went off in the club. Paul and I were the only ones that didn’t need electricity to play, so we played duo in the darkness until the power came back on. That feeling of playing in the dark, that unexpected and strange situation, this was a magical feeling.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

Being a great improvisor is a very demanding path. One has to develop enough technical proficiency to play anything that comes to mind instantly. But even more challenging than that, is the level of wisdom it takes to make good musical decisions while reacting to what everyone else is doing. It is this social aspect of jazz that really brings it to life. It requires presence, patience, humility, and courage. I’ve learned a lot about how to live by learning how to play!

What is the impact of music (and especial of Jazz) on the civil & human rights and socio-cultural implications?

Another deep question! Jazz of course has been associated from the beginning with an oppressed underclass, and has played an important role in the struggle for civil rights here in the U.S as well as inspiring other people around the world in their quest for equality. The greatest musicians have a way of reaching all kinds of people, regardless of background, through the fundamental humanity in their sound. This inspiration can be an important force for positive social change I believe.

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