Chris Potter’s Siren Songs

chris-potter-the-sirens“Sing in me, muse, and through me tell the story

of that man skilled in all ways of contending,

the wanderer, harried for years on end,

after he plundered the stronghold

on the proud height of Troy.”

Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fitzgerald

The Odyssey changed my life. I could say that about many books, but it would still be true. As a freshman who didn’t know how much he didn’t know, I sat down with the Robert Fitzgerald translation as my first reading assignment that fall, dreading somewhat the many pages of archaic poetry before me. It didn’t take long for me to become enthralled with the tale and intrigued by the telling. I think I turned a corner and became a serious student thanks to the The Odyssey. I don’t know whether The Odyssey changed Chris Potter’s life, but saxophonist’s new recording on ECM, The Sirens, is a suite of sea songs inspired by Homer showcasing his incisive yet lyrical style whether or not you buy into the tone poem idea.

The Odyssey is an epic not in the latest Hollywood blockbuster sense but in the older one. It is the kind of thing—a long narrative heroic poem that expresses larger myths and relations to gods and the underworld—that went a bit out of fashion after Milton’s Paradise Lost. By the twentieth century, Eliot’s terse, hero-less, and hyper-allusive The Waste-Land had to do. Given this tradition, it is perhaps fitting—and for many jazz fans it will be a relief—to know that Potter has recorded not a tricked-out, string-laden cinematic adventure score but a lean quintet outing. (I wonder, though, what Brad Mehldau and his Highway Rider producer friend Jon Brion might have cooked up along those lines.)

Instead we have straight ahead. Given Potter’s authoritative yet sensitive musicianship and his unerring taste, this is a recording that works without hexameters and the Cyclops anywhere in sight. “Wine Dark Sea” opens with a plaintive, rubato sea-call before sailing into ever-shifting rhythmic waters. Potter constructs his solos on the outer archipelago of harmony while the rhythm section keeps the tension and release constant. This is all just a warmup for “Wayfinder,” an intense quest narrative that captures the hero’s strength, urgency, and confusion. The ballad “Dawn (With Her Cozy Fingers)” settles the waters. Potter’s switch to the bass clarinet’s deep and quizzical tones signals the call of “The Sirens.” If sunny Capri was indeed the supposed locale of these femmes fatales, Potter’s rendering expresses their minor-key malevolence in a kind of sun-spashed noir.

Potter programs his “Penelope” just before “Kalypso,” as though Odysseus’ encounter with his wife makes him recall his liaison with the nymph. Played on soprano saxophone, Potter makes use of the higher pitch to express the ecstasy of reunion but also perhaps the bitter astringency separation can breed in what sounds like a disguised waltz time. Back on tenor, “Kalypso” trades ethereal for earthy, a scrambling, hide-and-seek tune that conveys well the hero’s exasperation with the nymph he can’t quite seem to leave. Craig Taborn’s piano provides a solid vamp for an extended exit. We get the sense that Odysseus is still looking back even as he heads for the sea. A late highlight is “Stranger at the Gate,” featuring Larry Grenadier’s propulsive bass line and Potter’s full, rich tone. Grenadier, Taborn, drummer Eric Harland, and keyboardist David Virelles create atmospheres (as opposed to clouds) and occasional rhythms that suggest “Mediterranean” without calling undue attention. Potter is on tour with Grenadier, Harland, and Virelles; last I saw Taborn, he was with Dave Holland, Potter’s former leader.

This review, if that is what it is, has indulged the literary correlations perhaps more than is warranted. But I blame Chris Potter for making the suggestion in the first place. He is, of course, part of a long tradition of looking into Homer (Chapman’s, in the case of Keats) to see what one finds there. Joyce recast it in 1904 Dublin in Ulysses. The artist Romare Bearden created his remarkable “Black Odyssey” series based on Homer. Steely Dan, with whom Potter has recorded, made use of the tale as an extended metaphor in one of the group’s best songs, “Home at Last.” What is clear is that, literary references aside, Potter is in a prime in which his tonal choices, his confidence in all registers, and his fluid writing are coalescing into some of the most interesting music going in mainstream jazz. His work with Pat Metheny’s Unity Band last year is leading to another project and tour with the guitarist later this year and next, one that promises to reveal Potter’s versatility on yet other instruments, including piano. But the chance to hear Potter with this group, playing this music, should not be missed.

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