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The Chris Potter Quartet at l'Astral

Matthew Kassel
Contributing Writer
matthew.kassel [at] mail.mcgill.ca

How important are names anyway? In modern, instrumental jazz, I’m not really sure. Names of tunes, I mean. If a tune is good, shouldn’t it stand on its own, name or no name? Saxophonist Chris Potter might say yes.

“We’re doing a lot of new material tonight,” said Mr. Potter after his quartet had worked through the first piece of the night at l’Astral, here in Montreal on Friday, October 8. “That last one didn’t have a name—neither does this next one,” he said dryly.

“Names come last for me,” he added, “I can think of moods, but names...” It was probably a coincidence that the most effective pieces of the night were unnamed. But that still works in Mr. Potter’s favor, because he wrote every piece in the set.

In what Mr. Potter jokingly called “May 2010 #4 (alternate),” he performed a beautiful opening solo on tenor saxophone, smearing guttural into raspy, jumping octaves, finally repeating the last few notes as the surprise vamp for the rest of the piece. Vamps were fixtures this night, as they often are for Dave Holland, in whose groups Potter has played, on and off, for over ten years. You could hear Holland’s influence.

The other members of the quartet—including bassist Larry Grenadier, drummer Marcus Gilmore and pianist Edward Simon—were all reading sheet music throughout the performance. So was Mr. Potter. The stage had the air of a workshop, where ideas are worked out among bubbling minds and tables of scattered papers.

But that made the performance exciting, made the pieces ends in themselves—self-contained—even the anonymous ones, without that final stamp of identification.

Mr. Gilmore guided the arrangements with perfectly placed hits on the snare or ride. He seemed emotionless—in a good way—as though he were fighting to hold back his power. In most of Mr. Potter’s pieces—as in Dave Holland’s, and to go further, Steve Coleman’s (whom Mr. Gilmore also plays for)—a clean-playing, confident drummer is vital. This is because the arrangements are tight, the time measures tricky and morphing. Accidents would be obvious.

In the second, unnamed piece of the night, the band unfurled a cool, blue, swinging mystery. It certainly had a mood. It rocked back and forth between pockets of swing, sly breaks, well-placed hits, and solos smoothly melding into the whole. Mr. Simon accompanied Mr. Potter’s solo with sustained, bluesy trills as Mr. Grenadier put down a deep, melodic bass line.

Perhaps names come last for Mr. Potter because he cares a lot about them. Or not. For the encore, Mr. Potter started out playing somberly on the soprano saxophone. He switched to the tenor half way through the piece, worked up a repeating melodic pattern and ended. I walked out of the theatre in a good mood, whistling the melody, not knowing its name.

Matthew Kassel is a fourth-year at McGill University studying political science and Arabic. When he can, he writes--often about jazz. Find some of his work at http://coldjazz.blogspot.com/.