Chris Potter – The Masterclasses

Written by Chris Anderson-Lundy

Chris Potter’s opening talk in the Tribute Communities Recital Hall was a rare appearance for the entire jazz program. As more and more students filed in, the chatter and anticipation grew, everyone occasionally glancing at the piano, microphone, and music stand onstage just in case Chris had snuck on somehow without anyone noticing. After a short intro from Jazz Area Coordinator Barry Elmes, Chris was onstage, saxophone in hand. Within a few sentences, he began playing a solo rendition of “I’ll Remember April,” a long, twisting, and compelling display of his incredible playing. His effortless mixture of bebop and modern vocabulary demonstrated the sheer amount of time he has spent practicing, the incredible and highly individual sound he has developed, and why he is one of the foremost saxophonists and composers today.

Chris Potter has maintained this lofty position in the jazz world for quite a while; he began performing professionally at age 13, and moved to New York City at 18 to join the band of trumpeter (and bebop great) Red Rodney. Over the course of his career, he has released around 18 of his own albums, and has appeared on well over 100 albums as a sideman. He has performed and/or recorded with many of the biggest names in jazz and beyond, including Paul Motian, Herbie Hancock, Jim Hall, Dave Holland, Ray Brown, Pat Metheny, Joe Lovano, Joanne Brackeen, among many others. He is the youngest musician ever to win Denmark’s Jazzpar Prize. In December 2014’s issue of Down Beat, he was voted the #1 tenor saxophonist in the world. And this year, he was the York Jazz program’s artist-in-residence.

This year marks the second consecutive year of the artist-in-residence program, last year having been a huge success with legendary bassist Dave Holland. The week after reading week last year – in four very busy days – Dave shared his music and his thoughts with us while we stared back at him in awed silence, which I’m sure must have freaked him out a little bit. But clearly something went right, because we got to do it all over again with Chris Potter.

Chris’s schedule was just as busy as Dave’s, with three masterclasses, four coaching sessions with Jazz Workshop classes, a rehearsal with the Jazz Orchestra, and of course the faculty jam at the end of it all. In this post I’ll be covering the 3 masterclasses Chris taught: the “Introduction” masterclass, and the “Composition” and “Improvisation” masterclasses.

Introduction Masterclass
You may think the title of “introduction” is a little vague – and it is – but it also allows for a huge breadth of topics for Chris to speak on, which is exactly what he did. The masterclasses all took place in ACE 235, packed full of chairs and people, including a student rhythm section of pianist James Addis, guitarist Pat Sloan, bassist Peter Eratostene, and drummer Chris Arsenault.

Chris Potter started the masterclass by stating that he planned to go into detail about some of his musical concepts, and began talking about his views of chords and harmony. Right off the bat he established a concept that I had been struggling to get my head around in his playing for a while: when he is writing a tune or playing a solo, he is usually focused on specific voicings of chords rather than the basic chords themselves. As he demonstrated many times throughout the week, Chris is a very capable pianist, and he attributes this type of thinking in voicings to his piano experience, a way of playing his favorite piano voicings on saxophone. And in case you weren’t sure, you can only play one note at a time on saxophone, so this type of thinking leads to a lot of interesting lines and melodies which are a big part of his playing. Chris demonstrated this concept of harmony by playing “It Could Happen To You” – first on piano, then on saxophone. This symbiotic relationship he maintains between piano and saxophone is evidently very important to him; as he finished a few minutes of playing piano and picked up the saxophone, Chris said, “now my ears are open.”

Once Chris finds a topic, he can continuously teach new concepts and find paths and relations to other topics in an endless flow of changing ideas, much like his soloing. The first masterclass continued like this, with short questions from the audience coming quickly when Chris’s long tangents and lessons came to a pause. Some of the many topics covered during the first masterclass were: building harmony from two-part melody to complex voicings, creating patterns out of chord voicings and arpeggios, Chris’s classical influences like Bartok and Messaien, and Coltrane’s method of dividing scales into patterns of thirds. But perhaps the simplest idea Chris put forward in this masterclass was to “learn the basics, so you can get to the fun stuff.” Well, it SOUNDS simple, anyway.

To end the class, Chris called up the rhythm section to play a rendition of “Alone Together,” with James and Pat switching up comping and great solos all around.

Composition Masterclass
The composition masterclass on Wednesday was a surprising and interesting class. From attending the opening talk and intro masterclass, I expected more student questions followed by long, winding, and tangential answers, but Chris switched it up for this one. He came to the piano with some manuscript paper and said that instead of trying to talk to us about composing, he would just compose on the spot so we could see the whole process. This was a surprise, and it made for an exciting experience. He asked six people in the front row to select one note each, for him to make into a tune. The notes selected were C#, Ab, F, E, F#, and A. Not the friendliest group of notes, so I was interested to see what Chris would do with them.

He made this sequence into a bassline, made each note one bar except for a two-bar E, changed the Ab to a G# spelling, added a D at the end to fall back into the C# at the repeat of the eight-bar sequence, and began writing a melody in contrary motion to the bassline. Where the bassline was static, the melody was moving and developing – and vice-versa – creating depth and contrast. After quickly completing a “first draft” of the melody, Chris began putting chords to the bassline, getting around the dissonances by writing chords that weren’t using the bass notes as the root, and leaving open space for improvisation. He began soloing over the progression, even changing the chords on the fly when he thought something else would work better. He quickly wrote a two-chord intro progression with a pedal to build into the main tune, and in between choruses to break up the harmonically complicated head. And all of this in about 20-30 minutes.

After writing an interesting, complex, and thought-provoking piece of music in 30 minutes, Chris moved on to taking questions from students, and delved into specifics about how he wrote some of his tunes. He talked about musical inspiration in his 2013 album The Sirens, talking about how it was inspired by his rereading of The Odyssey, and about how he usually writes from a specific theme or concept upon which he can build and create variation. He spoke about his methods when writing string quartets, specifically the one he wrote for in his most recent album, Imaginary Cities. One of the longest answers he had was to a question about writing in odd meters, something which he does often. This was also a topic Dave Holland discussed last year, as it comes up in many of his tunes as well. Both of them had similar things to say about odd meter: the meter doesn’t come first, the groove does. More specifically, Chris talked about how he doesn’t begin writing a tune in an odd meter just for the novelty of the meter, but writes a melody or progression with a good groove and then goes about counting the measures.

When asked about writing for different, very specific groups of musicians in his many projects and bands, Chris emphasized tailoring charts and parts to the personalities of the musicians playing them. Although it takes time to get to know how a person plays and approaches music, once you do know where their strengths lie it helps to write to those strengths and bring the best out of the musicians you’re writing for. Or to put yourself in the place of those musicians by playing different instruments to see how your parts actually feel when played, and to make sure they’re interesting and fun to play.

Though the introduction masterclass contained a lot of interesting information, I think that the more specific heading of composition allowed more depth and detail, and Chris’s “instant composition” style of teaching was interesting and engaging.

Improvisation Masterclass
Chris began this masterclass by playing “Giant Steps,” starting it as a ballad, moving outside of the time, and gradually gaining more momentum through winding lines, creating the illusion of two parts, before finally playing the head in an up tempo, finishing off by copying Trane’s exact ending from the recording. In short, he improvised.

Keeping to the theme of ballads, Chris went more in-depth on the intricacies of playing and improvising in slower tempos, emphasizing sincerity and establishing a connection to the song (usually by learning the lyrics, or just by the melody alone). One interesting thing he mentioned for practicing was to play every tune as a ballad, leaving lots of space and time to think and to improve lyrical and melodic playing. Though the subject was improvisation, Chris spent some time emphasizing the importance of the melody in jazz, instead of just playing through it to get to the solos.

When asked about improving time feel in solos, Chris suggested playing along with records, listening to the time feel of other players and comparing where they place the time, and isolating time when practicing. He stressed that when you’re improvising, all of the specific things you’re using in your playing should just be coming to you because you’ve isolated them and worked on them independently before bringing them together in a performance setting.

Something that I found very interesting in this masterclass were the harmonic simplification techniques Chris explained to free up the soloist and allow them to work outside of the changes. To accomplish this, Chris emphasized listening intently to the musicians around you to be able to adjust your playing and the form of the piece to fit with something somebody else is playing. Often the example Chris would use was a soloist keeping one note held for a while, allowing the rest of the band to fill the space with different ideas and substituting different (usually simpler) chords to get away from the harmonic structure of a tune. In this way, players can build off of what others are playing instead of simply repeating each other or playing apart. It also allows for total freedom within the music; when something outside the changes is played with conviction it can work, but it works even better when others are adjusting to support and compliment it.

Having worked with so many musicians in so many different contexts, Chris had some insights on playing with different people to keep it interesting and getting to know people’s distinctive sounds and how different musical personalities would combine in a collective setting. Though he said it’s important to know the musical language of the musicians you play with and the musicians you idolize, it’s just as important to carve your own path and form your own unique sound. He described it as “taking stock of your inspirations” and forming your own goals and individual musicality.

And, of course, he had to play a blues. Chris and the rhythm section played a relaxed and engaging “Sonnymoon For Two” to finish up the final masterclass.

All in all, I was very happy to have attended the masterclasses, and I think they were very well organized. With some prompting with questions and ideas, Chris Potter can go on for a long time explaining highly developed concepts, while being an unassuming, down-to-earth guy who’s pretty good at the saxophone. Personally, the pages of notes I scrawled quickly into my notebook while he was throwing idea after idea at us will keep me occupied practicing, listening, and playing for quite a while.