A musical prodigy who grew up in Columbia, South Carolina, Chris Potter moved to New York City at age 18 to attend Manhattan School of Music.
He first played the Vanguard at age 20 as part of Red Rodney’s band. “I was scared to death when I saw Dizzy Gillespie and James Moody sitting in the front row,” Potter recalls of the gig. “But the vibe was so positive that soon I felt like I was playing in my own living room.”
A players’ player, Chris Potter recorded his first album as a leader in 1992, and has released a dozen albums since then. Always in demand as a sideman, he became well-known through his work with Dave Holland, Dave Douglas and with Steely Dan after that duo reunited in the ‘90s.
Jazz saxophonist Joseph Christopher Potter was born in Chicago, IL on 1 January 1971, but soon moved to [and grew up in] Columbia, SC. His father, formerly a genetics researcher at the University of Chicago, now “crunches numbers” for the South Carolina Department of Education; and his mother is a professor of child psychology at the University of South Carolina.
His first instrument was the piano [“I started playing piano when I was a kid, just by ear”], but Chris was drawn to the saxophone before he entered the fifth grade:
“I remember the first thing I heard was Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck, Take Five. I think I’d always heard the saxophone in a rock and roll context, that harsh, ugly sound. And then I heard Paul Desmond make it real pretty. I started with alto. I was really into Johnny Hodges with Ellington.”
Jazz singer/bassist Jim Ferguson recalls:
“Chris Potter used to sit in with us when I was in college. His folks would bring him to the gigs. He was eight or nine years old at the time and could play well even then.”
Chris expanded his woodwind expertise to include the tenor and soprano saxophones, as well as alto flute and bass clarinet. And the list of influences he cites grew to also include Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Dewey Redman, Stan Getz and Lester Young:
“I studied with guys in Columbia, and professors in the jazz department at the university helped me a lot. I played in the USC big band under Roger Pemberton all through middle school and high school.”
In 1983, at age twelve, Chris was presented with the IAJE Young Talent award for saxophone ... an international honor which that year also included drummer Terri Lyne Carrington [with whom Chris would later record], bassist Charnett Moffett, and pianist/vocalist Harry Connick, Jr. Also, by the time he was thirteen, he was playing professional gigs.
One of Chris’s earliest gigs was the Aspen Music Festival in 1984, where he first met drummer Myles Weinstein. Myles was impressed enough that, years later, he remembered Chris and invited him to join his combo The Jazz Mentality -- an association which continues [sporadically] even today.
Two years later, well-known champion of young jazz musicians Marian McPartland came through Columbia and heard Chris, then 15. She was impressed also -- enough to recommend to Chris’s father that Chris was ready to join a touring band like Woody Herman’s. Mr. Potter insisted that Chris stay and finish high school first, however. [Still, McPartland’s attentions would pay off in another way later on ....]
Besides, by sticking around Columbia for a few more years, Chris was present and ready when his first Big Break came:
The Red Years
1989 was a turning point for Chris in many ways. He graduated high school, was named a Presidential Scholar for academic and musical excellence, received the Hennessey Jazz Search scholarship, was voted America’s top high-school jazz instrumentalist by Down Beat, and received a Zoot Sims scholarship to study jazz at The New School for Social Research in New York -- the city where jazz happens, the Major League, where pretty much any aspiring jazzman has to be ....
Perhaps most importantly, it was the year he met bebop legend Red Rodney at Columbia’s Main Street Jazz Festival. Here’s how Red told it:
“The organizers came to me and introduced Chris as the young local star. They said, ‘We want him to play a few numbers with you’; every town does this, and we always let them play for a couple of songs and send them off. But Chris played so sensationally, we kept him the whole set -- and the rest of the weekend.”
BTW, Red should know when a “child prodigy” is “something special”, as he was one himself: by age 16, Red was working full-time in the big-band big leagues ... and he was also good enough to land the trumpet chair in Charlie Parker’s quintet [and hold it for three years].
So Red asked Chris to call him when he got to New York later in the year, and Red would introduce him around. But, as it happened, when Chris finally did call, Red had just lost the saxophonist in his own quintet and needed a replacement -- early proof of Chris’s impeccable sense of timing. Red snatched him up immediately:
“I watched him grow. When he got to New York, he went all over, listened to everybody, soaked it up like a sponge -- then spit it out like Chris Potter. He has his own sound, his own style, and his time is by God sensational. Every place I bring him all over the world, people just stand up and cheer, and he’s not the kind of player who plays screech music for that kind of attention; he gets it by sheer artistry.
“He’s something special. It’s funny. Of all the youngsters out here today, they didn’t find out about Chris until after all the ballyhoo. But he’s the man.”
Chris’s first year in New York was spent working with Red Rodney and attending The New School, where he met many musicians who would impact upon his career later -- including Owen Howard, Brad Mehldau, and teacher Kenny Werner, who relates:
“Chris was in my composition class at the New School for about a year. When he called me for a private lesson, I had no idea how he played. We started with a bebop tune; but he went further out on the second thing we played, and on the third tune he was playing in the language of my contemporaries, guys who grew up following all of Miles’ bands and aspiring to the kind of spiritual strivings that defined Coltrane’s music. By the fourth tune, I wanted to take a lesson from Chris.”
The following year , Chris enrolled in The Manhattan School of Music, where he remained until he graduated in 1993. Here he met many more musicians he would also work with later -- including Bill Warfield, Ryan Kisor, Tim Sessions and Junko Moriya.
This was also the year that Chris recorded his first album, as a member of Red’s quintet. His recording career didn’t take off immediately, though; in 1991 he didn’t record at all. However, that year he did emerge as one of the three finalists in the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute tenor sax competition, along with Eric Alexander and winner Joshua Redman.
Chris returned to the studio in 1992, again to record with Red. And then ....
Chris’s first recording session outside of Red’s group was for a 1992 big band date led by fellow MSM student Bill Warfield. Around this time, he also began “moonlighting” as a regular member of John Hart’s quartet. And in the fall, he finally recorded as “an equal” rather than backing up someone else’s studio date -- when the “leaderless” Jazz Mentality cut their first album.
Suddenly three more record dates poured in for December ... and then on the 29th, just before he turned twenty-two, Chris recorded his first album as leader, for the Dutch label Criss Cross.
Events now gathered even more momentum. The following month [Jan ’93], Marian McPartland [remember her?] asked Chris to appear on her next record on Concord Jazz -- the first time he recorded for that label. She thus brought him to the attention of Concord founder Carl Jefferson, who then tried to sign Chris to his label.
This was a rather strange move, as Concord was known primarily for a very mainstream, late-swing sound as exemplified by Rosemary Clooney, Mel Tormé, and Scott Hamilton. And Chris, in his songwriting and playing up to ’93, was already demonstrating a more experimental slant to his work:
“I didn’t really think they wanted me and I said I’m not really interested unless I can do exactly what I want to do, and to my surprise they said yes. It’s been a real fruitful relationship ever since.”
Chris recorded ten more times in 1993: one was his second [and final] session as leader for Criss Cross, three were dates for Concord, and the last of those three, in December, was his first Concord recording as leader. However, that date wasn’t released until 1994, when everything shifted into high gear ....
1994 began quietly for Chris, as far as recording goes -- he didn’t enter the studio until June. But those early months were still eventful:
Concentric Circles was released to rave reviews -- it was more visible than his Criss Cross records, owing to Concord’s superior distribution clout, so that some critics thought this was Chris’s first release as leader! It was generally agreed that A) here was a frighteningly talented, original-thinking young creator, and B) this was not your typical Concord album.
On a more sombre note, 27 May 1994 saw the passing of Chris’s mentor Red Rodney after a bout with cancer -- his 1992 recording with Chris was his last ever:
“It was a very weird feeling when Red died. It was definitely an adjustment .... He always went out of his way to feature me and showcase me and mention me, which I really appreciate to this day. I don’t know what possessed him, but that vote of confidence really helped me out.”
Suddenly “at loose ends”, and with his new album cementing his reputation, Chris threw himself into his work. He immediately recorded and toured with Paul Motian, led another Concord date much different from the previous one [and dedicated it to Red], spent most of the summer on tour with Steely Dan ....
By October he was about as busy as a jazzman can be. Example: on 7 October he recorded a live album with The Jazz Mentality in Manhattan. On the 9th he recorded a duo concert with Kenny Werner in California:
“The concert was on a Sunday afternoon in Berkeley, and I had to do something in New York on Saturday night. I took a 7:30am flight to San Francisco Sunday morning, and the hotel didn’t have a room for me when I arrived. So I showed up at Maybeck without showering, totally frazzled.”
It’s just go go go. [BTW, there is absolutely no indication of any frazzle on that record: Chris burned on his horns and got more rave reviews.]
All told, from June to December of ’94 Chris played on ten new albums and made umpteen gigs and tours. In 1995 he recorded twelve more. In 1996 he opened it up even more ....
Moving In, Moving Up
In 1996, Chris recorded twenty times ... and on more than half of those he was either the leader or an integral part of the group and present on every track [as opposed to a sideman on just a few selections]. His Concord date that year was Moving In, an album that brought increasing critical attention to the sophistication and inspiration of his compositions as well as his saxophone playing ... and also one which represented a “stripping-down” of his combo sound that he has continued to explore on his own dates ever since.
His 1997 release Unspoken garnered a lot of attention, seeing as he was leading a combo of elder, better-established all-stars: namely, John Scofield, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette. It would be so easy for “the young guy” to get swamped by such heavy company, but Chris not only held his own, he managed to actually lead the date, imprinting it with his persona, turning out one of the finest efforts of his career, and impressing the heck out of everyone.
Since then, Chris’s life and career have experienced ups and downs, much like anyone else ....
On the minus side, in recent years Chris has experienced recurring bouts with Meniere’s disease, which has cost him virtually 100% of the hearing in his left ear.
On the plus side, Chris toured Europe in 1998 for a very prestigious series of concerts with Jim Hall, the 1998 recipient of the Jazzpar Prize. [This Danish honor is bestowed upon “an internationally known and fully active jazz artist who is specially deserving of further acclaim”, and it is one of the biggest and most respected jazz awards in the world.] The following year, Chris found himself awarded the Jazzpar for 2000, and headlining that year’s concerts! This was the first time that a musician has played the Jazzpar concerts as a sideman and then gone on to become a Jazzpar winner himself. And Chris is the youngest Jazzpar recipient ever.
And when the 1999 Grammy Award nominees were announced, Chris was one of the five finalists for Best Jazz Instrumental Solo of the Year. His nominated work was his tenor solo [hear it here! - 186K] on In Vogue, a track from Joanne Brackeen’s Pink Elephant Magic.
Chris continues to work with an ever-wider variety of jazz musicians, and he’s still just as likely to be found on an obscure neophyte’s first record on an obscure label as working with a Big Name -- he hasn’t gotten “too good for” anybody. By now he maintains membership in about five or six bands besides his own, he works hard, he grows audibly all the time as both a player and a writer ... we can only wonder what will come next, where he can go from here. When your star is on the rise, the sky is not the limit.
Courtesy of John MacLeod