The great jazz saxophonist Chris Potter brought his newest project as a bandleader, the Chris Potter Quartet, to Yoshi’s Oakland last Sunday for a fantastic show. Since his career began 20 years ago, Potter has distinguished himself as one of the very best and most virtuosic saxophonists on the scene, equally comfortable as a sideman for bassist Dave Holland in his progressive Dave Holland Quintet as with the more traditional pianist McCoy Tyner at Herbst Theatre in 2011. He’s amassed an impressive resume as a sideman with much of the who’s who of jazz today, including recently with the new Axis Quartet with Joshua Redman.
But he is equally capable as a bandleader, first as the head of Underground, a group that was part fusion, part rock, and now with his first acoustic ensemble, the Quartet. Potter has a similar approach as a bandleader as Holland, emphasizing collaboration among the band especially for solos, rather than a simple trading off between musicians: the key is to be in tune with the entire group all the time and constantly responding to and building on what the other musicians are doing.
The Chris Potter Quartet has a classical sensibility: the music is controlled and thoughtful, at times elegiacal, much like Branford Marsalis’s “Songs of Mirth and Melancholy” or Brad Mehldau’s “Highway Rider.” This is partly a product of the unique musicians and their musical experience and propensities. On bass is Larry Grenadier, who has been playing consistently with Brad Mehldau’s Trio, and he anchors the group without taking the spotlight. Eric Harland is on the drums, bringing his experience playing innovative rhythms in more progressive ensembles like several of Holland’s groups, including the Dave Holland Overtones and Prism projects, as well as the collaborative James Farm Band with Joshua Redman. And relative newcomer, Cuban pianist David Virelles, one of Jane Bunnett’s proteges, holds his own with the group, using his Latin jazz and bebop training to give the group an unconventional but very pleasing sound.
The two sets at Yoshi’s were to promote the Chris Potter Quartet’s new album, released just two weeks ago, “The Sirens,” which takes its name from the characters in Homer’s “Odyssey,” upon which the album is based. This acoustic album, and thus Potter’s set, may be his most accessible and best to date; gone are much of the dissonant sound walls from his more progressive work, replaced by beautiful melodies that still have an edge. While the album is excellent, there is no substitute for seeing Potter live; he’s one of the very best improvisers and always present on stage, which gives his shows an amazing energy that cannot be captured in recordings.
The first set included several pieces from this album, starting with the contemplative “Wine Dark Sea,” which faded seamlessly into the more mellow “Wayside,” with Potter doing an impressive extended solo on tenor sax. He paid tribute to Paul Motian, with whom he has played as a sideman, in “The Owl of Cranston” on soprano sax, with soft cymbals setting the mood, and a lovely, calm solo on bass. One of the highlights was Chris Potter’s tenor sax solo on the calypso piece “Kalypso,” full of energy and depth, and perhaps most surprisingly, quoting from the old standard “Pick Yourself Up”–not quite repertoire usually associated with Potter. They finished the set with the eerily inviting yet melancholic title song from the album, “The Sirens,” which saw bassist Larry Grenadier bowing an entrancing solo. The group received a well-earned standing ovation for what was a truly amazing evening of acoustic jazz.