By Jeff Cebulski
The passing of Wayne Shorter and the retirement of Sonny Rollins now begs the question: Who is the premier living jazz tenor saxophonist? (Well, not a world-shaking issue, but still.)
The list of viable candidates is fairly long; Joe Lovano, Charles Lloyd, JD Allen, Eric Alexander, Kamasi Washington, James Carter, and Joshua Redman are certainly among them, at least from the U.S.
Let me suggest that serious consideration should be given to Chris Potter, whose new album, Got the Keys to the Kingdom: Live at the Village Vanguard, demonstrates the remarkable depth and breadth of his talent in his embodiment of classic and neo-classic styles represented by the elite musicians listed above and adds to the great recordings from one of Jazz’s holy places.
The album, recorded in the famous shrine of modern jazz in 2022, seems a bit short, in that Potter and his stellar cast of friends—Craig Taborn on piano, Scott Colley on bass, and Marcus Gilmore on drums—played for several nights at the Vanguard; one wonders if a box set will eventually emerge.
This collection has no original compositions. In the spirit of famous recordings past, Potter and his crew visit and reconfigure six tunes of varying pace and genre, demonstrating their ability to improvise and solo in the “Body and Soul” style of Coleman Hawkins, where a sliver of melody then moves to creative commentary and also in a more traditional style of melody-solo-melody. It is here that Potter, morphing saxophonists-past, shows the depth of his learning and cogent application of what he has learned.
Potter (who BTW was born in Chicago) has been relatively busy throughout the pandemic; he recorded two albums with his Circuits Trio of keyboardist James Frances and drummer Eric Harland as well as a multi-tracked solo album. Throughout his over three-decade career, he has shown comfortability working with multi-genre music and motifs. The fact that Potter is a desired sideman to many quality artists proves his value.
And if you are a fan and occasional viewer of YouTube video performances, you should note that one format Potter is especially gifted in is the traditional sax-bass-drums trio. Having seen him twice in trios and listened to the online presentations, I can say that no such concert has excited me more than Potter’s in the past decade. If you doubt, go online and check out his versions of The Police’s “Synchronicity II,” usually with Colley along. I mean…just do it.
On Keys, Potter dives into blues spirituals, folk tunes, a classic ballad, and a Charlie Parker bit, moving from one to the other with evident fluidity, creating space and form for his talented friends: Taborn, who cut his jazz teeth as a member of the great, early James Carter Quartet; Colley, who has partnered with Potter over the decades (check out Colley’s albums on Criss Cross); and Gilmore, who has been a “rising star” among the many great drummers of our time.
Interesting that the album’s listing is bookended by the two blues spirituals, almost as though Potter has an almost liturgical agenda, perhaps fomented by the event’s symbolizing his emergence from pandemic solitude, an expression of joy and humility. The first, Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “You Gotta Move,” begins Hawkins-like with a hint of the melody before Potter and the band, well, move. Partway through the 14-minute excursion, I hear Coltrane-ish sustains and statements that suggest Potter is aware of the jazz-cum-spiritual essence of the proceedings. At the end of the recording, the nearly as long title cut expands on this essence, with Potter sounding more like Rollins in the lower register and in the climbs up the tonal range during fluid runs, where his mind, like Sonny’s, is running wild.
Something more exotic occurs in the Amazonian folk tune “Nozani Na,” where shades of Potter’s work with Dave Holland and Zakir Hussein appear, accompanied by Colley’s steady, Eastern-scaled pace.
Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Olha Maria” adds a Latin touch, headed by Colley’s Spanish-influenced solo that includes Jimmy Garrison-style strumming. Potter joins to create a neat, lovely duet while Colley riffs accordingly. Taborn’s classical-tinged comping pushes this song into an epiphany of creativity before Potter takes off with luxurious, intense expressions.
In the midst of all this is yet another rendition of Billy Strayhorn’s “Blood Count,” a chance for Potter and Taborn to show off their capacity for interplay. Toward the middle, when the saxophonist reestablishes the melody, a remarkable moment occurs when Taborn plays an orchestra-like shimmering wave that suggests Potter might have hired some strings for a brief visit.
And then, the power thrust and evidence of Potter’s dexterity, Parker’s “Klactoveedsedstene.” What are Potter’s speed credentials? This performance answers that, in spades. Kudos to Colley and Gilmore for both staying with the man and pushing him forward. Here is where my allusions to Potter’s trio work are referenced more directly.
Throughout, the support of Taborn and Gilmore evince their ability and restraint in whatever motif is presented to them, understanding that their saxophonist is the man and yet contributing their own talents in more-than-regular ways.
Will this recording push Potter to the top of the tenor list? While it’s really just a fun consideration, fans of saxophone jazz should give this recording a serious listen and, at least, appreciate the musical greatness it represents. And maybe wish for that box set.
Chris Potter, Got the Keys to the Kingdom: Live at the Village Vanguard. (Edition Records, 2023)
Chris Potter, tenor saxophone
Craig Taborn, piano
Scott Colley, bass
Marcus Gilmore, drums
About Jeff Cebulski
Jeff Cebulski, who lives in Chicago, is a retired English educator (both secondary and collegiate) and longtime jazz aficionado. His career in jazz includes radio programs at two stations in southeast Wisconsin, an online show on Kennesaw State’s (GA) Owl Radio from 2007 until 2015, and review/feature writing for Chicago Jazz Magazine since 2016, including his column "Jazz With Mr. C". He has interviewed many jazz artists, including Joshua Redman, Charles Lloyd, Dave Holland, John Beasley, and Chris Brubeck, as well as several Chicago-based players. Jeff is a member of the Jazz Journalists Association. Contact Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org