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Chris Potter - Lift: Live At The Village Vanguard

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Artist: Chris Potter

Album: Lift: Live At The Village Vanguard

Label: Sunnyside

Review date: Jan. 4, 2005

The definitive part of any live jazz album is the first tune. On “7.5,” Chris Potter roars over a standard contemporary rhythm section while Kevin Hayes busts in with a Fender Rhodes tricked out to sound like a touch-tone phone. It sounds like they’re playing on two different tunes, in two different styles, recorded in two different studios. Little by little, a conversation starts to take shape. Potter and Hayes’ interplay is subtle, more of a shared sense of direction than a call-and-response. It’s hard to discern even when one of the players isn’t imitating a communication device. Their conversation is there, however, and when the piano pokes around during Potter’s solo, you can hear how he and Hayes seem to know where to be when the other starts or ends a phrase. By the end of the piece, drummer Bill Stewart and bassist Scott Colley have joined in on the action, with the band sharing a minimal approach that sounds almost harmolodic. The feeling of a band coming from different places and ending up together is one of the most invigorating listening experiences I can think of, and Lift: Live At The Village Vanguard is nothing if not invigorating.

Recording an album at the Village Vanguard has been a rite of passage for tenor players since Sonny Rollins made his debut as a leader there. Potter has been quick to acknowledge the weight of influence (see Gratitude, his 2001 tribute to his idols), though the figure hovering over the proceedings is not Rollins, but the late master of harmonically obtuse post-bop, Joe Henderson. The comfortably abstract ebb and flow of Potter’s lines echoes Henderson, and to a lesser extent Joe Lovano, bobbing and weaving in a way that incorporates harmonically complex ideas without breaking with the tradition too radically. Such a description would sound insulting to a dedicated avant-gardist, but you get the feeling that Potter is proud of his lineage and his place in it as one of the few young lion tenor players with his own sound.

Potter sounds comfortable and assured on the 12-minute title track, rattling off serial patterns that sound as natural and heartfelt as any blues lick, and blues licks that sound as intelligent and considered as any serial pattern. He spends five minutes on an unaccompanied intro to a tune he undoubtedly played to death while working with the Mingus big band, “Boogie Stop Shuffle.” Where most players would use this as an excuse to bust out eight billion hackneyed patterns that are older than the tune itself, Potter eviscerates the melody and builds a solo that’s as searching and honest as the composer’s own best work. The band comes in, plays hard, delivers convincing solos but otherwise stays out of the way. They know whose show this is, what it means to his career, how things can either go up or down from here depending on the strength of his vision. When the applause crashes in at the end of the album, it’s for a player who has, or will soon have, a marquee name and a set of expectations to live up to, fail to meet, or to outright ignore.

By Dave Morris

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