An interview with Chris Potter, Jazz Artist-in-Residence from February 22nd-25th. Interview conducted by Chris Anderson-Lundy.
Hey Chris. So as a touring musician, you travel a lot. Do you make it up here to Toronto often?
Yeah, over the years, a fair amount. I guess a fair amount of time goes by and I don’t show up, then maybe I’m here two or three times in a year, you never know. I’m trying to remember the last time I was here – I think it has been a while. Over the years I’ve been here a lot.
Is there a place, when you’re touring, that you find yourself wanting to go back to play again?
Yeah, every now and then we get to go to some beautiful spots, and there’s that thought, “boy, it sure would be nice to take a vacation here,” instead of getting there and being jetlagged, and staying in a hotel room by yourself and waking up at three in the morning. You think, “boy, it would be nice to bring the family, and actually spend a few days and get to enjoy it.” But like I said, yeah, we’re lucky to go all over the place. The Mediterranean – all kinds of places along the Mediterranean – Brazil… I guess at this time of the year, my thoughts tend to drift towards the warmer places! [laughs]
I’d like to go over a bit about your music education. One of the main things that fascinates me about you is that your early musical education – which you spoke about in your opening talk – seems to have come through 3 separate channels: what you figured out on your own, what you learned in school and from lessons, and what you learned as a young professional player. How would you compare the experiences and lessons you’ve learned in with these different methods?
Yeah I guess there were three separate channels. I never thought of it that way. It’s always just contributing to my knowledge about music. And of course, you know, when you’re studying in school from a teacher, you’re also – besides whatever information the teacher’s giving you directly – you’re absorbing the other, maybe, meta information which can be equally or more important: body language, and ways of dealing with problems, and ways of communicating the material. And especially in jazz music, which is so much about improvisation, and things that happen in a moment’s time, I think those things become even more important. So that’s another kind of blurring of those lines, the school thing and the “on-the-job” experience, if you will. Also the fact that many of the teachers that I had when I was growing up, before I got to New York and even when I did move to New York, have ended up being colleagues as well, people that I’ve worked with professionally. So I never really saw it as all that different, but there is a way of approaching music and communicating yourself through music, that playing in front of people, in a concert or club or whatever kind of setting – but just some kind of setting where there is an audience – is a totally different thing than practicing by yourself, and even studying with a teacher. There’s a lot of different ways of using material that you know, and you realize what works and what communicates – what gets your message out. It’s really needed as a musician, I think, to have as many performance experiences [as possible] where you get that immediate feedback. It’s very, very helpful, things that you can’t learn either on your own or in a lesson.
So, things that you get from the way the audience responds to certain things that you’re playing, maybe trying things that your teacher told you to try in a performance setting and finding out something else would work better?
Yeah, a lot of times it’s more subtle than that. It’s realizing “Oh, the way that I walk out and count the band off actually affects the whole performance,” I mean not just the audience reaction but even my opinion of how it goes. If you can go out there like, “alright, you’re in good hands, everything’s cool, and we’re going to enjoy ourselves, let’s go,” you know. Any kind of hesitation or lack of confidence, you realize, just makes it harder for people to get into what’s going on, both in the band and not in the band. The musical signals that you send by what you’re playing, and even your body language, is really vital to making the whole thing work, regardless of the notes you’re playing. It’s those kinds of lessons that are very difficult. And again, you can sit in a room and tell someone that, but you have to go through it yourself, cause everyone has to find their own way of doing it in an authentic way that’s themselves, that’s why it works. You can’t just pretend to be somebody else, you have to be yourself, as they say.
You’ve also talked about learning through imitation, which is of course something that every good jazz musician needs to learn how to do, but when you’re thinking about people who have taught you in the past, are there certain styles of teaching that you’ve learned from them to use in your own teaching?
Really the biggest teaching experiences that I remember were not conscious teaching experiences, and a lot of times they weren’t even in a school setting. It’s more about, you know, noticing how people do things, just watching them. At this point, I’ve had the chance to work with a lot of different bandleaders who set up things in a lot of different ways. Like how you put together a set, the tunes that you choose in a set and what that does, and how you treat things that you want to be done differently in a band. It’s a huge thing to know how to communicate so that it’s actually going to be more [like] what the bandleader had in mind, but also not presented in a way that seems overly critical or too wishy-washy on the other extreme, or whatever it is. Like “hey I’m kind of hearing this thing,” and being able to present it in a way that it’s going to get the right results but still keep the vibe good. There’s all these subtle things, and musical information most of all, but again, just standing onstage and playing with a master musician is the lesson. You have to draw your own conclusions. Hearing them talk is one thing, but standing next to somebody and playing with them – somebody you’ve listened to on lots of records for years – and suddenly they’re reacting to what you’re playing. That’s a huge lesson, as far as what works and what doesn’t and why, things that are really difficult to put into words.
While we’re talking about working with different musicians and bandleaders: We’ve been pretty spoiled as a student body in the jazz program with you here this year and with Dave Holland last year. You’ve worked with Dave for many years now.
For a long time, sure.
So could you tell me a bit about how you two started playing together?
Yeah, I first met him when I was still playing with Red Rodney, and Red passed in 1994 so it must have been the early ‘90s when I first met Dave. He was playing with Joe Henderson’s band. We did a double bill at the Blue Note, Red Rodney’s band and then Joe’s band. So that’s the first time I met him and I must have been in my early 20s I guess. I think the first time we played together was when I called him to play on an album of mine a few years later. I was recording for Concord and they said “would you be interested in doing an all-star kind of record?” and I went, “well, I don’t know, let’s see if these guys will do it.” I called John Scofield and Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland, and they all said yes. And I walked into the studio and there they were, and I was scared to death. But once we got into it, it was like, “oh, it’s just like making music with my friends.” They were totally into just figuring out how each tune should go, and what the vibe was, and working on different things, making suggestions, and it was fantastic, just a joyful experience. So that’s kind of where Dave I guess realized where my own music was headed, and he called me maybe two or three years after that to join his band, around 1999-2000. We were very active doing the band with Steve Nelson and Robin Eubanks, the quintet, for years. And now it’s more sporadic and more, kind of, collective projects, but I’m glad that we still have a musical and personal relationship because he’s obviously been a big influence on me. Spending that much time with someone on the road and developing music together is a special kind of relationship.
I’d like to talk a bit about your composition style. That’s something you’ve been talking about in the masterclasses here. I’m in the Jazz Orchestra and we’re doing some of your big band charts, and I’ve taken a look at your smaller group writing, especially for Underground, and I noticed that something that comes up often when you’re playing with different meters or switching between meters is that you’ll write a melody in a more common time like 4/4 or 3/4, then later put the same melody into something less common like 7 or 10. When did this come about in your writing?
I don’t know, I mean the whole thing about using odd meters, I always imagined different ways to put things, just to vary things a little bit. I mean, as great as dang dang-a dang [imitating swing rhythm] is, there are other possibilities too, and I always imagined that. Again, like listening to the Rite of Spring, even listening to tabla music, you realize there’s other patterns that can work. The thing that I’m always looking for, no matter what the meter, is a certain sense of groove. So, whatever kind of melodies, whatever kind of bassline, whatever kind of situation I set up, I always want to make sure that it feels comfortable to play over in a certain way, and has a certain groove. So it kind of comes from that, more than necessarily thinking that I’m going to write something in 10, like usually I come up with the groove and then start counting the beats.
Another thing was—and you talked about this in your first masterclass, the introduction masterclass—the wide leaps you write into a melody. You explained that as sort of the way you’re playing a chord voicing on saxophone, and creating these huge leaps. And it comes up in your soloing as well, you’ll start at the low end and within a few jumps you’re screaming into the altissimo. Is that something that’s just always been a tendency in your playing or was there a conscious development towards that?
Well yeah, I mean like everything else it’s something that I’ve developed over the years and that I could develop further. But yeah, it kind of comes from hearing and thinking of these big voicings, hearing these extensions. And sometimes there are repeated notes in the series, maybe sometimes not, but it’s always choosing which notes to put in that arpeggio to give it the sound, to define the harmony, or to make the harmony less definite sometimes. You know, you put the major 7 and the minor 7 in there, somewhere in the way it’s stacked, and it gets a little more nebulous as to what it is, but you go for the sound. And again, if you know the material well enough then you can mess with it like that.
You mentioned in your opening talk the necessity to leave New York in order to make a living with music full time.
I don’t think it’s just the New York scene, I think it’s just that there isn’t any town that you could stay in. In order to keep playing with creative musicians, there isn’t a big enough audience in any town to support someone staying there doing that all the time. You have to travel around and meet your audience where they live. And it’s always been like that to an extent, I mean, musicians have always traveled around playing, but I think it used to be more common to have longer engagements, like at a club. I think in the ‘60s, they’d play six weeks at the Village Vanguard, and then go to Chicago and play a month there, and those days are kind of gone, unfortunately.
What are some things you’re working on right now? When you’re practicing, what’s the first thing you’re doing presently?
I’m about to record with a new band, so I’m really thinking a lot about that music, and how I’m going to approach playing it. And a lot of the things can be difficult to describe, because it’s kind of putting your artistic foot forward, and I know it when I hear it but I don’t know ahead of time what it’s going to be, I have to kind of search for it. So I’m working on all these different tunes of mine that I’ve played. Even if I really know how to play them, I know how they go, [I’m working on] how I want to approach playing them or what the centre of that song is, and how can I go from there. And I’m always just working at being better as a saxophonist, too. I mean that whatever I do, hopefully I can take it to a higher and higher level. There’s always somewhere else to go. And at a certain point maybe it’s not even better, but just that it keeps moving, because you keep growing as you get older. You have different seasons in your life that make you think of different things or make you approach the same old things that you’ve been working on for a long time in a new way. So it never stands still. Again at a certain point I don’t even know if it’s progress but you can’t stay in the same place, that’s the only thing you can’t do, because it just gets stale. That always gets really boring for me, quick. I might have an easier life if I thought “ok, I do this and that’s it,” but that’s why I became a jazz musician, because I just can’t seem to do that.