Thursday, February 2, 2017

Chris Potter - 2002 "Traveling Mercies"

Chris Potter’s “Traveling Mercies,” the followup to his highly acclaimed “Gratitude” album, is in many ways better, but in all ways more adventurous. “Gratitude” paid saxophone debts to the past with tunes dedicated to Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter, but on the new release, Potter is in a traveling mood — ready to explore. Part of his success comes from his ability to simultaneously face jazz’s past and future.

Potter wastes no time getting into a strong electric mode, with guitarist John Scofield sitting in on the first track, “Megalopolis.” They lay down the lead line with a quirky offbeat and plenty of energy. The band, whose players — keyboardist Kevin Hays, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Bill Stewart — are all top-notch, make complicated rhythms seem easy. They kick into 4/4 for a couple of tunes, but stick with a freer rhythmic structure that offers both tension and release. “Snake Oil,” for example, stops and starts, gets going, then hesitates, fast-forwards, and then takes a couple of steps back. It’s dizzying, but intriguing.

Other tracks, though, are as pretty and lyrical as any jazz around. “Invisible Man” has a lonesome melody that Potter renders on flute. The delicacy of the tune creates a faraway, natural space for everyone in the band to solo in careful whispers. In contrast, the meaty version of the traditional spiritual “Go Children” digs into hand-clapping, straight-up pleasure, the bass lines and chord changes tempering the gospel with gritty blues.

“Migrations” brings together his musical journeys, containing a little of everything. It starts with a funky, guitar-fueled melody, but then transforms entirely, easing into a reflective tempo that is light and otherworldly. These abrupt shifts may put off listeners who are more attuned to a consistent, straight-ahead beat, but the textures and nuances flow together effortlessly under Potter’s sax lines.

At times, he pushes jazz to its limits, but always returns to a satisfying coherence. This musical sense, along with his straight-ahead sax playing, has made him one of the most compelling young jazz players around. Acoustic-minded jazz fans may prefer the traditional flavor of “Gratitude,” but the electric guitar, well-chosen sampling and fresh arrangements show that “Traveling Mercies” looks in a different direction.

Chris Potter gets more and more adventurous. On this follow-up to the strong Gratitude, the tenor and soprano saxophonist beefs up strong writing and heady group interplay with occasional sampled sounds and miscellaneous textures like clavinet and reed organ. True to form, he plays additional wind instruments -- alto flute and bass clarinet in this case -- and isn't afraid of overdubbing them to create lush orchestration, on tracks like "Snake Oil" and "Any Moment Now." On the haunting "Invisible Man" he even doubles the alto flute melody with his singing voice. Not until the fifth track, a Meters-like adaptation of the spiritual "Children Go," do you hear a 4/4 tempo; loping lines over odd meters prevail, with pianist Kevin Hays, bassist Scott Colley, and drummer Bill Stewart expertly laying down the edgy grooves. (Like on Gratitude, Hays doubles on Fender Rhodes.) John Scofield contributes tart solos on three tracks, while Adam Rogers adds nylon-string and slide colors on two others. The sweeping, Metheny-esque harmonies of "Highway One" bring the program to a head, followed by a closing bass clarinet/piano duo on Willie Nelson's "Just as I Am." As a jazz record, Traveling Mercies is very much a product of its post-millennial times, but it still comes across as highly individual. Its value will be lasting.

Walking in jazz saxophonist Chris Potter's shoes on his new recording Traveling Mercies may prove to be a rewarding experience for the exploratory listener. The multitalented musician has covered a lot of ground on recent tours and sessions with acclaimed recordings such as the Dave Holland Quintet's Not for Nothin' and Steely Dan's Two Against Nature. His skill as musician, composer, and arranger comes to the forefront on Traveling Mercies to give the listener a glimpse of the musical roads he has traveled so well.

The idea behind the new recording comes from the artist's reflections of recent tours as a bandleader and sideman. The listener will receive a musical itinerary that is layered with different textures and environments, which offers a modern jazz mentality. This is a departure from his previous recording Gratitude which paid homage to great saxophonists such as John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. The music now infuses elements such as sound samples, electric keyboards, guitars, and various elements to create a kaleidoscope of sound.

Potter possesses a strong tenor sound, which is throaty and deep with meaning, but it's a real treat to hear him on bass clarinet, flute, and odd instrumentation such as the reed organ. Combine this with exceptional compositional skills, and choice musicians; Traveling Mercies is a cut above the rest. Guitar wizards, John Scofield and Adam Rogers enhance the mix with progressive playing on many of the selections. Kevin Hays provides nice work on the piano and Fender Rhodes, while bassist Scott Colley and drummer Bill Stewart are a tried and true formula for tight rhythms. Highlights abound on the recording such as the atmospheric "Highway One" and the multi-textured "Any Moment Now," which is a testament to Potter's arranging skills. The recording concludes with the serene "Just as I Am," which features a lovely piano and clarinet duet.

Highly recommended.

Track Listing:

01 Megalopolis;
02 Snake Oil;
03 Invisible Man;
04 Washed Ashore;
05 Children Go;
06 Any Moment Now;
07 Migrations;
08 Azalea;
09 Highway One;
10 Just as I Am.

Personnel:

Chris Potter -tenor and soprano saxophone, alto flute, bass clarinet, reed organ, clavinet, sampler, percussion, voice;
John Scofield -guitar;
Adam Rogers -acoustic and slide guitar;
Kevin Hays -piano, Fender Rhodes, clavinet;
Scott Colley -bass;
Bill Stewart -drums

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