In recent years, Chris Potter has been hatching a new identity. Already considered one of his generation's premier improvisers, the tenor saxophonist has been devising a way to merge his cutting virtuosity into a different type of working band; one that conjures up crisp, backbeat-heavy electronic textures. On Tuesday, Sept. 16, Potter led his quartet, called the Chris Potter Underground, back into underground Manhattan for a show at the Village Vanguard, broadcast live on air by WBGO and live online by NPR Music.
In two discs, the Chris Potter Underground has established an attractively progressive sound, merging knotty rhythms, angular harmonies and even free improvisation with the accessibility of pulpy, visceral grooves. On faster tunes, it works in part because of its oblique references to funk polyrhythms; on slower songs, beautiful melodies emerge over fuzzy washes of sound. The sound also owes much to its rhythm section, which seems able to compose spontaneously while still exercising the tact required around electronic instruments. Guitarist Adam Rogers, who made his debut as a bandleader at the Vanguard earlier this year, interjects floating riffs and amplified shredding alike; keyboardist Craig Taborn, who often rigs up innovative plugged-in atmospheres with his own projects, is characteristically fluid on the Fender Rhodes; and drummer Nate Smith rounds it out with plenty of hard-edged kick and snare accents.
Potter first emerged as a young New York prodigy around the dawn of the 1990s. A stint with bebop legend Red Rodney, three years a trumpeter to Charlie Parker, earned him plenty of opportunities, as did the support of Piano Jazz host Marian McPartland, who brought him to the attention of Concord Records. But, unlike many young stars, Potter matured quickly: In countless subsequent recordings as both leader and sideman (at times reaching 20 appearances on disc per year), he established an eclectic, forward-thinking voice celebrated by critics and peers, with a level of technical control to match.
Not yet 40, Potter continues to rise to the forefront of the jazz world. Having long played in high-profile bands led by Dave Holland and (until recently) Dave Douglas, Potter has been fielding more and more requests for gigs; these days, it's hard to think of artists with whom he hasn't yet worked. In 2007, he celebrated the release of two very different projects at once: Song for Anyone, a set of intricate originals orchestrated for a 10-person ensemble, and the Chris Potter Underground's Follow the Red Line, recorded live at — where else? — the Village Vanguard.
Currently residing in Hungary while off tour, Potter returns to the city where he made his name on stage. With Red Rodney, Potter made his debut at the Village Vanguard as a 19-year-old saxophonist in 1990.