If jazz wasn't heady enough, Chris Potter wrote an entire album inspired by The Odyssey
As a teenager in the late'80s, tenor saxophonist Chris Potter performed with the great Red Rodney. He later went on to collaborate with luminaries like Herbie Hancock, Jim Hall, Paul Motian, Dave Holland, and, more recently, he was a member of the Pat Metheny Unity Band. While he's played as a sideman on a hundred albums, Potter also has fifteen albums under his own name, including his brand new ECM debut, The Sirens, which was inspired by Homer's The Odyssey.
A deft and exciting improviser, Potter will be joined by the equally vigorous bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Eric Harland for his two-night stand at Dazzle this weekend. We spoke with Potter about how The Odyssey inspired The Sirens, what it was like to perform with Red Rodney and how his playing has changed over the last two decades.
Westword: Was it challenging at all taking Homer's The Odyssey and translating that into music?
Chris Potter: That might have been one of the easier parts of it. I just kind of felt inspired after reading it. I wasn't really planning on reading the book and writing some music. When I read it again, I thought, "This is so evocative and me makes me think of some music."
So I started sketching out some little themes that seemed related to different episodes from the book, and before I knew it, I had pretty much a whole album's worth of stuff to draw on that all kind of seemed to have a mood that hung together -- that there are different moods within it, but that the whole thing had a kind of flavor that felt like one statement.
So that might have been the easiest part of the process. That just kind of flowed out by itself. The execution of it, getting everything planned and just actually delivering on that initial vision -- maybe that was more of a challenging process.
You wrote it in two weeks. Is that pretty fast for you to write a whole album?
Yeah. Normally the way it works is that I'll write a tune, I'll bring it into the band and maybe we'll have a chance to play it. We're work that into the repertoire. Then, maybe a couple of months later, I'll bring something else in. So it's over a longer period of time, and they're not all connected, and they're not all... I mean, this is the first time that I've done something like this where I did have kind of a story in mind, like something that wasn't musical that joined it all together.
So that was a much different process than normal. And, yeah, a couple weeks to write enough music that I felt good about was pretty short because I'm often writing a lot of tunes. There's a lot of stuff that has never seen the light of day and a lot of it won't because I just don't like it enough. I end up writing a lot and throwing a lot away but then if you just write a lot, then you're going to have some stuff that you end up liking. This was an unusual situation in that everything kind of worked out from the beginning. I didn't really throw anything out.
With the tunes you like, do you change them a lot or do you stick with the original idea?
It really depends. It's an interesting process, especially with jazz music. You write some notes on the paper and then, depending on who's playing the music and how they approach it and what happens that day or whatever, you might decide that it works the way it is or you might decide that it needs some kind of change. You might imagine it as being at a particular tempo or something like that and then when you play it you realize, "Oh wait, that's way too fast. It should be much slower."
Once you introduce it into a group setting then the tunes seem to take on a life of their own. They no longer really feel like you're... you know, like it doesn't even matter who wrote it. It's just that you're trying to figure out the best way for that song to be done. So that's sort of a challenge there.
You've also talked about how you wanted to play the storyteller a little more with The Sirens rather than just blow through some difficult changes. Can you expand on that?
Just the mood of the whole thing... I knew before I had read The Odyssey that I kind of sound in mind that I was looking for. I knew that I wanted to something not electric -- something acoustic -- after making a few records with the Underground band. It was just time to do that.
I kind of imagined the sound as being a little more spacious, a little more... I don't know how to describe it. There was a certain sound that I was looking for. When I read The Odyssey, I realized that was kind of the mood that I wanted to get anyway, but let me see if this can help me get to that musical place. So that was sort of the thinking behind that.
Since The Sirens was your first album on ECM as a leader, was there any kind of conscious decision to tap into that ECM esthetic at all?
You know, that was just a fortuitous situation because I wrote all the music and we had already played it live well before I got in touch with [ECM founder] Manfred [Eicher] or he got in touch with me about recording it. The way it worked out... I have known Manfred, not all that well, but I've known him for years, and I guess we've been on each other's radar.
But some of the ECM employees who live in New York came to the gig at the Vanguard, where we were doing this music for the first time and mentioned to Manfred that maybe he'd be interested in recording it. So the whole environment and the music kind of came first, but it did seem very fortunate that just at the time when I was ready and wanted to make a record that would kind of fit ECM's esthetic, ECM showed up and wanted to record it.
I was reading about how you play certain songs on the soprano where it was like you're speaking in a woman's voice. Can you expand on that?
Some of it was just related to the fact that those tunes sounded good on that instrument, and I was also conscious of wanting to have some textural variation the record with the different woodwinds, so it wasn't all tenor. But that was kind of a reason to... I think that those songs fit so well. I was thinking of them being sung in a woman's voice, so an octave higher than the tenor.
I mean, I have to say also that with the all the programmatic thing about and everything, I kind of hope that if you didn't know that you could still appreciate that on some other level. But maybe, for some listeners, that might offer a way in, that they can understand exactly how I was thinking about it.