Monday, February 4, 2013

Review: The Sirens - Chris Potter


Chris Potter: Tenor and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet; Craig Taborn: piano; David Virelles: prepared piano, celeste, harmonium; Larry Grenadier: double bass; Eric Harland: drums

Potter’s thematic recording based on Homer’s Odyssey (and also his ECM debut as a leader) begins with “Wine Dark Sea,” on which he (on tenor) and his group start with a strong introductory statement, like we’re already in medias res.  Then comes a solo bass figure, piano and drums join in, and then Potter and Taborn play the tune’s gorgeous theme in unison.  This tune is a like a slightly faster version of “Maiden Voyage” (appropriate for a recording based on the Odyssey), with a similar-feeling chord structure.  (The winding melody also reminds me a bit of Keith Jarrett’s “Spiral Dance,” from Belonging, another ECM recording.)  Potter then plays a powerful tenor solo, gliding throughout the range of the saxophone, exemplifying the phrase “effortless mastery.”  Taborn then plays an aggressive and melodic solo, sounding like a slightly more percussive Chick Corea.  The group re-states the melody, slows down, and ends on a falling tenor line—a cliff-hanger—prompting the listener to ask, “What’s next?”

“Wayfinder” has a slightly faster tempo than “Wine Dark Sea” and begins with some loose playing from the group, including Virelles on prepared piano, after which Potter states the theme on tenor.  Taborn and Virelles then engage in come intense improvisation in tandem with drum accompaniment.  Then Taborn and Potter play a fast, thorny theme.  Potter is hyper-alert in his solo, playing each phrase off the previous one.  After a re-statement of the theme, the cut has another abrupt, teasing ending.

“Dawn (with Her Rosy Fingers)” begins with a slow melody played by Potter on tenor with meterless, impressionistic accompaniment from the rhythm players, which is followed by a wispy, barely-there solo from Taborn.  Then Grenadier contributes a coy, unfussy bass solo.  Potter plays a graceful, dancing solo and re-states the theme to end the cut.

“The Sirens” has a slow, hazy, opening with just a hint of drums, Potter on bass clarinet playing a melody similar to a melancholy Irish folk tune.  Grenadier then plays a probing arco bass solo with Taborn providing accompaniment.  This vaporous music could be the background for a ballet or modern dance.  Potter returns, this time on tenor, and he plays a passionate, beseeching solo, his tenor sound cutting like a searchlight through the fog.  At the end of the solo, and the cut, he draws out a note for a long time that hangs like an unanswered question.

“Penelope” is a bluesy, lower mid-tempo tune with an elusive meter.  Potter, on soprano sax, displays his virtuosity in his solo while remaining musical and tasteful.  Taborn plays a limber, laid-back solo, and the cut closes with another teasing ending.

Things lighten up with “Kalypso,” which does sound vaguely like a calypso, though ECM-style, with a disjointed melody and somewhat loose rhythmic accompaniment.  This is the most “straightforward” jazz of the recording, the tune basically a reworking of “I Got Rhythm.”  Potter, on tenor, starts out his solo sounding like a bit like Sonny Rollins on “St. Thomas,” and he is able to stretch out and display his virtuosity at length.  Taborn sounds very Keith Jarrett-ish in his solo.  The cut ends with an ostinato like the one from the standard, “Star Eyes,” with Harland improvising some controlled fireworks on drums.

“Nausikaa” has Potter playing the pretty theme on soprano with out-of-tempo accompaniment.  The remainder of the cut is a showcase for an improvised duet between Taborn on piano and Virelles on celeste.  This duet works well, the celeste providing a magical frame around the piano phrases, the keyboardists receiving sensitive accompaniment from bass and drums.  Except for a bit of noodling at the end, Potter refrains from soloing.

“Stranger at the Gate” is a lower mid-tempo tune with a brawny theme stated by Potter on tenor.  Potter plays a logical, elegant solo, the rest of the group providing stellar support, especially Taborn.  Then Taborn plays a fine solo that starts out loose and floating and evolves into a series of powerful runs.

The recording ends quietly with “The Shades,” a brief (two-minute), delicate duet between Taborn and Virelles (on prepared piano).   This last cut could be the background music for a suspenseful scene in a French film.

“The Sirens” is an excellent recording.  The music generally has the seriousness and “gravity” that is characteristic of ECM recordings, but it is not ponderous and it’s always engaging.  Theme-based recordings are risky, flirting with pretentiousness, but everything on this recording works: compositions, pacing, improvisation, and accompaniment.  I would have liked the spotlight to have shined on Grenadier and Harland a bit more.  But this is really Potter’s show, and he delivers the goods.  It’s hard to imagine the saxophone being played better, on all counts—sound, technique, musicality.  From beginning to end, Potter’s meditation on the quintessential journey story gives his listeners a beautiful ride.

Addendum:  Our friends at NPR have provided a 73-minute performance of (mainly) The Sirens music by Chris Potter and his quartet at the Village Vanguard.  This kind of service by NPR is awesome.   

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