Inspirado: Chris Potter Underground

Chris Potter Underground: Nudnik

Chris Potter is a non-stop inspirado-creating machine. He’s a tenor-saxophonist, the leader of this group and a member of many of the bands that have helped shape my musical personality. This particular video is a live performance of a tune from this band’s first album Underground at the North Sea Jazz Festival in 2004.

There’s obviously a high level of virtuosity on display here. Chris Potter has complete control over his instrument, playing lines with perfect time and using varied dynamics and articulation to breath life and feeling into what would otherwise be an endless series of notes. Craig Taborn, the keyboardist, often doubles as the band’s bass player, requiring a phenomenal amount of independence between his limbs and fingers, especially with odd-metered music like this. The drummer (Nate Smith) and guitarist (Wayne Krantz) are also ridiculous, and I could go on and on about the individual strengths of these players, but what’s really amazing to me is what they accomplish as a group and how they do it.

Hive Mind

What stands out in this particular performance is the ability of these guys to collectively be mindful of a pre-determined tempo and form without explicitly addressing them in their playing. The intro is a great example. There’s one chord and a tempo they’re obviously all thinking about, but it’s never explicit until the drums break into a solid(ish) groove at :54 and, even then, the other musicians are doing all they can to avoid any feeling of rhythmic resolution. The effect is basically a ton of tension, which builds all the way through the first section of the melody to the more open section at 3:53. This idea comes back on the more energetic sections of each of the solos. Towards the end of Chris’ solo, over a three-bar repeated form in 4/4 (Db major 7, C minor, B major 7), it becomes difficult to tell which of those three chords is the resolution thanks to the drummers placement of fills, and the keyboardist and guitarist move from open chords and a repeated bassline to sparse, quick notes that take away any sense of a downbeat. Why is this cool and what does it require to pull off?

This is four guys collectively thinking one thing but playing four different things, sometimes in direct conflict with the one thing they’re all thinking. On top of the individual ability to keep track of tempo and form without playing them in a clear way, they have to listen to each other to make sure they’re all in the same place, which again complicates keeping track of tempo and form. This means two things: 1) they’ve individually practiced all kinds of polyrhythms (i.e. a dotted quarter note in 4/4), giving them the ability to play one rhythm while thinking of another and 2) they’ve invested a lot of time playing together as a band, giving them the ability to hear three other rhythms while playing a fourth and thinking of another.

The result is a band of four guys that can sound like twenty and, on a dime, turn back into four. They can go from a complete cacophony to executing a tight, composed piece of music, all thanks to the time they’ve invested in themselves and each other. I highly recommending checking out any of their recordings or seeing them live if you get the chance. INSPIRADO!

(P.S. I have a transcription of this tune for any of you who want to learn it.)