This is a “salvaged” transcription of an interview with saxophonist, bandleader and composer Chris Potter conducted in late January 2015. He had just arrived in Chicago prior to the Jazz Showcase as part of a tour with a small-scale version of his Underground Orchestra. The conversation served as the raw material for an article on Potter (occasioned by his excellent new album on ECM, Imaginary Cities) that was published by All About Jazz.
On touring as a quartet as opposed to the full 11-piece Underground Orchestra
We’re doing almost all of the material from the record in sort of a scaled-down, small-group version [at the Jazz Showcase], and then there’s a long history of Underground music that we can do too. So we’re dividing the repertoire between the two. And we’ve got some new things that haven’t been recorded too that we’re doing from time to time.
[The styles are] pretty different. It’s the same musical material, and it’ll sound fairly similar for a minute. The thing that you gain is that it’s much more flexible. It can be much freer; but then, of course, it’s just a very different sonic environment with much less variation. The way the whole thing worked with the original band is that there was a concert at Lincoln Center in November or December of 2013 with the whole large ensemble, the 11-piece group, and then we went in to record it about a week later. But prior to that we had gone out as this same group with Fima [Ephron, bassist], Nate [Adams, drummer] and Adam [Rogers, guitar], and we played this music kind of how we’re playing it now — as a small group. Because I wanted to get the rhythm section accustomed to what the music was before doing the fully orchestrated version so that we already had a comfort level of what the tunes are. And then when we met everyone else, it was kind of fleshed out. In a way, we’re returning to the way we played it first before adding all the orchestra members.
The thing was that I had already written all the full orchestration by the time we went on the road and we played it as a small group, but I did change some of the solo forms. You know, when you actually play something, you often realize things about the tune that, when you’re sitting by yourself in a room writing it, you don’t always really know what’s going to work in an improvisational setting — how it’s going to feel, if it’s too closed, it’s too open, if it needs another section. So I think there were a couple minor things that we decided to do on the road to the solo sections, which helped when we got to the full version. We knew exactly what the solo sections should be. I mean, I was thinking of the large group all along. It’s not like I wrote the arrangements for the large group after playing it with Underground. I already had it all done. But the process of going out and playing it as a small group really helped make a better record in the long run.
That’s always one of the interesting and challenging things about writing jazz music. A lot of what you’re thinking about when you’re writing is the the stuff that’s not there. You’re thinking about the solos and the way the band is going to play it together — things that can’t be notated. It’s a bit of a zen exercise.
On the long period of time between recording Imaginary Cities in December 2013 and releasing it in January 2015
That was kind of because of happenstance. Virtually all of last year I was on the road with Pat Metheny. And there was something that happened where we weren’t able to mix right after recording, and I was glad about that because I wanted a little time to live with it before mixing it. But then it was like, well, January? No, that’s not going to work because he’s busy these days and I’m busy these other days. And it kept going on down the line. And first I thought, okay, we can do it in the late winter, early spring. Well, okay, maybe we can all be in the same room in the summer. Finally we weren’t really able to get together until October or something like that. So a long time ended up going by before we mixed it. That was not what any of us had in mind, it was just because of scheduling issues. And it didn’t make sense to put out the record before now because I was on the road with Pat, you know, pretty much the whole year. So we were able to mix it and get it out in time for me to start working as a leader again. But, yeah, it didn’t seem like such a bad thing to let it have that much space. We could all hear it again fresh.
On whether that period of time left him more satisfied or dissatisfied with the result
Of course, I mean, that’s always a part of being a musician. You’re listening for things that you could have done better or that you want to do better next time. But I guess I’ve done this enough where I’m able to kind of let it go. Maybe it’s easier than it used to be. Because there’s no sense in beating yourself up about it. There is a lot of sense in learning from things and going, okay, maybe next time I would approach this a little bit differently. But I’m actually happy with the way it turned out, too. I had an idea of a statement that I wanted to make, and I feel like it’s that. And it was a particular time and place, and if I were to do it again it would be a little different. But it is what it is.
That’s the other thing, too, is when you make a record and you go through the whole process, you listen to it a million times, you pick it apart, you decide what you’re going to do with this and that. Invariably, by the time it comes out, you’re just done with it. You’re ready to do something else.
So it was actually kind of nice that I was playing different music all last year. Now I’m returning to it and it feels fresh instead of feeling like I’ve been in this musical world the whole time, waiting for the record to come out.
On his description (above) of Imaginary Cities as a “statement”
Well, I mean, [the statement is] the music. It’s hard to put it into words. If you could put it in words, maybe you wouldn’t need to play it.
To some extent, I like the idea that maybe the listener can supply their own narrative — something that means something to them when they hear it. That’s one great things about instrumental music. It can mean different things to different people; it can mean different things to the same person at different times. I did kind of have some things in my mind, which you can glean a little bit from the names of the movements of the suite. I had this vision of imaginary cities — not just a visual vision, but an idea about the cities that we live in. Because I was on the road when I was writing it, the actual pieces were probably written in fifty different cities. So I was really thinking about cities, and I was in a lot of different ones as I was writing, and I was thinking about how they’re all put together and how societies work. And it’s sort of my wish for the way I wish cities were, the way that societies could be organized in better ways that would benefit more of the people that make up those societies. I had my own ideas about that, which are reflected in the titles. The first movement is “Compassion” because that’s where it should start. And then [with] the second movement, “Dualities,” I was thinking of all the different dualities that exist in a society, that exist in a city, that both keep it together and can tear it apart: old and young, rich and poor, centralized authority versus individual freedom, all these things. There are different ways to balance them which might work better in different places at different times. But you have to find a balance. There’s some wisdom needed to make everything work. And then the third movement is thinking about all the things we need to take apart, that’s why it’s called “Disintegration” — you know, let’s dismantle some of these things that are no longer functional for us. And then the fourth one ends on an optimistic note, maybe building something new out of that.
On Imaginary Cities as program music without a program
That was my programmatic idea in my head. And I felt like it gave it a certain focus and emotional resonance to me as I was working on it. I hope that’s translated to the listener even if they decide to supply their own narrative.
The four-movement suite grew out of one tune. I started writing this tune, and then I realized, wow, there’s more in this tune than fits in one thing. And I started thinking about the whole thing, and realizing what that could be. But, obviously, the whole album has a sonic environment that’s both pretty specific and also puts you in this sonic world in which I tried to explore a lot of the different things that that grouping of instruments was able to do — lots of different sets of orchestration, lots of different ways of… some of it is very tightly written, where it’s really through-composed. Some other parts are very improvised and open. But I was conscious, of course, that this is an unusual sonic environment that I’m creating and I want some continuity through the whole thing. It was an interesting process writing it, because I really threw away a lot of stuff that I just didn’t quite feel fit. In some ways, some of it might have even been better than what ended up on the record, but I ended up feeling like there was an overall esthetic that the album needed the whole way through. And I just had to work on it and work on it until I whittled down exactly what that was — to myself, even. And that’s what we ended up doing.
On the recording overflow and outtakes
A lot of it’s being recycled into very different forms [with] some of the same motives and the same ideas. You might not be able to recognize that it comes from the same place, but that was sort of the process. It’s like painting layers and layers and layers of different things on top of what’s already there. What the viewer actually sees is one thing, and if you could peel off the layers it would be something completely different.
Something that I’ve discovered in the past couple of years, maybe since The Sirens, is that if I’m thinking of something that’s not music, and then I write music about that, I find it can take me out of my purely musical head and make me think more in terms of mood and development. And I end up liking the music that comes out of that. I like what it does to my thinking. Maybe in some ways it helps me to get out of my own way — I’m not just thinking about notes and how to put them together, I’m thinking more about feelings and stories.
On working with the Underground Orchestra
I was very, very happy that everyone who’s on the record was able to make it, that they were able to do the concerts at Lincoln Center and then a week later we could go into the studio. The members of the string quartet probably least of all, but these are all musicians that I’ve had long associations with. Even the members of the string quartet, three of them were the strings on an album I did a few years ago called Song for Anyone, which is the other large-ensemble, chamber thing that I tried to do. I was able to build on things I learned during that process while making this. I never really studied composition or orchestration at school. So I walked in with a bunch of stuff and just had never really worked with strings before. So when you actually hear it played and you hear these kind of voicings work in a certain way for strings. It’s a little more familiar for me writing for horns — for one thing, just knowing how it feels to play a wind instrument. But there’s certain kinds of voicings that work better when you’re writing for horns that just don’t work as well for strings. There’s just a lot of technical things about how to approach writing for those instruments. And also trying to write a little longer-form things that aren’t just tunes but have fleshed-out ensemble sections and things like that. So that was mostly on a technical level, I guess. But all the other musicians I have long history with, and I play a lot of music with. And they’re some of my favorite musicians to work with, obviously, so when I was writing the vibraphone parts, I wasn’t writing vibraphone parts, I was writing for Steve [Nelson]. And the same for Craig [Taborn, piano] and for Adam and Nate and Fima and Scott [Colley, double bass]. I was really thinking of all these people specifically as I was writing it. And I’ve had enough experience working with them all that I kind of knew the things that would hopefully draw out their strengths and allow them to do what they do within this context.
It was just a thrilling experience, really, to work with all of these people that are my friends and I know well. And they each brought so much to the music. It felt like everyone took it seriously and studied it and showed up ready. When we rehearsed, everyone was really focused. It was a really positive experience for me and just a real joyful thing to get all these people together that don’t usually play together and have them bring this idea that I’d been imagining for a year in my head and finally hear it. It’s a real thrill. It’s hard to even explain.
On the ideal listener experience of Imaginary Cities
I would hope they enjoy it on whatever level and maybe it can have some meaning. It’s always the hope of every artist that you’ll be able to say what it is you feel like you have to say well enough that other people can get something out of it too, that it means something to them. And if you’re fortunate enough to be in a position where you’re able to get it out there, where people can listen to it, to feel like it’s received, and that there’s something in it that maybe someone goes, ‘Yeah, I have those feelings too. I didn’t know they could be expressed in that way.’ This is always what I feel when I feel moved by art. It’s this recognition, this feeling that there’s something that I see in their experience that I really recognize as part of my own experience and that makes my appreciation of that higher: ‘Oh, yeah, there’s some beauty in there that I never thought about in that way.’ If there’s any way I can bring that to people, that’s a wonderful thing and a real privilege in a way.
I hope it shines through that, of course, there was a lot of technical things required to make it work, deciding what kind of influences work and figuring out how to use them, and how to use the instruments, just the technical playing of the instruments — of course, those are all factors, but I hope what comes through is the feeling behind it, and that all those influences that you might hear that remind you of this or that are being put together in a way that comes from a real feeling standpoint. I didn’t want to make something interesting. I wanted to make something that just really feels vital to me. And in the process of trying to describe that thing musically, you have to go through all kinds of technical hoops and deal with the reality of sounds and deal with the history of music because this is the matrix we can work in. It’s a language to be intelligible. It has to be related to other things. But I hope that that’s not the only level that a listener can appreciate it on, that they can appreciate it in a more experiential, less ‘thinking’ way and more emotional. When there’s something that really moves me, on one level, it’s like, wow, to put that together took a lot of thought and a lot of attention to all kinds of detail. But then really what you take away from it is the heart, the beauty of it.
On the present and the future
At the moment we’re out on the road playing this music. As I said, there’s a lot of music I have that hasn’t been recorded yet. I’m not really sure what my next album is going to be yet. Of course, I’m beginning to think about that in a major way. But it has been busy on the compositional front. I just kind of finished up dotting the i‘s and crossing the t‘s on these two commissioned things that are happening soon. In March I’m going to perform a concert with WDR Big Band in Cologne, so I wrote a whole concert’s worth of big-band music for that. Most of it was written while I was on the road with Pat, and I’m just finishing it up. And then there’s another thing in June. There’s a saxophone quartet called the Prism Saxophone Quartet, and they’ve been commissioning a bunch of jazz saxophone players to write a bunch of stuff. So I wrote a piece for them too. That’s been my thinking: I’ve been working hard here in the room while I’ve been on the road.
But, really, for the next couple months I’m just going to be focusing as much as I can on working with the band and trying to make it good every night, and also think about what my next moves are going to be. At any moment, I probably have 20, 25 tunes that I like and haven’t ever gotten around to recording. Or that could be edited and stuff. So there’s no shortage of that. I just have to decide which direction I want to go in next. Which is a very fortunate place to be.