By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Chris Potter Quartet
Lift: Live at the Village Vanguard
Since breaking in as a teenager with the (now late) trumpeter Red Rodney in New York, 33-year-old saxophonist Chris Potter has amassed a reputation that earned him invitations to join a bevy of the more profound ensembles in jazz. In the last few years alone, he has come through town with the Mingus Big Band and high-profile groups led by Dave Holland and Dave Douglas. These bands share a sense of freewheeling sophistication, refusing to compromise between swinging propulsion and humdinging melodies on the one hand and innovative harmonies and thorny time signatures on the other. Potter's own recent discs have generally achieved a similar breadth.
But Lift ups the ante in bold, legacy-molding fashion. Recording live in the basement club that is jazz music's foremost shrine, the multi-reedman relies exclusively on the iconic tenor sax and seizes the spotlight with solos and song structures that are both brawny and brainy. Right out of the chute, Potter announces the opening track, drummer Bill Stewart's "7.5," with a 45-second solo that punctuates his gliding, galvanized phrases with low, stentorian honks in a manner reminiscent of Sonny Rollins. Then the ensemble joins in and fractures the traditional blues rhythm into seven and a half measures, as inferred by its title.
At the other end of the album, Potter careens through a slippery four-minute solo to presage the closing cut, Charles Mingus's "Boogie Stop Shuffle." The beginning of Potter's own "What You Wish" could be an homage to John Coltrane, with his broad, portentously restless sax passages hovering on the horizon and then gently swelling to the forefront against pianist Kevin Hays's block chords and Stewart's ride cymbal and tom-toms. Another highlight is Potter's "Okinawa," where his unaccompanied first minute is deliberate, plangent, and yearning toward the upper register while his second solo (after a poignant interlude by Hays) is by turns wistful and whimsical, then melodically driven into a frenetic, beseeching tour de force before floating back down to earth.
Hays, Stewart, and especially bassist Scott Colley all provide inventive yet empathetic accompaniment, but Potter commands the spotlight more distinctively than on any of his previous discs. That doesn't necessarily make Lift better (or worse) than the rest of his catalogue. It just brightens some of the colors on what was already an impressive virtuosic stylistic palette.