Chris Potter - ts, bcl (website | myspace)
Adam Rogers - g (myspace)
Craig Taborn - Fender Rhodes (myspace)
Nate Smith - d (myspace)
Dave Holland's Prime Directive was one of the first contemporary jazz albums I bought. For a long time, it served to measure the growth of my understanding of jazz: I loved the melodies and rhythms right away, but a lot of the rest was way over my head. Progressively, as I returned to it every few months, I followed along more and more. It remains a favourite recording of mine.
Chris Potter was, of course, a big part of Prime Directive and the subsequent DHQ albums. On last year's Critical Mass, though, my impression of his playing was often one of empty histrionics. Talking with people after Potter's Underground band's concert - even with people who professed to admire him as a saxophonist and to have enjoyed the show - a similar emptiness lingered behind the fireworks: impressive, but not particularly satisfying.
As I consider Miles Davis's Cellar Door band to be an unsurpassable example of jazz-funk, I was most pleased when, on the opening "Underground," Craig Taborn brought Keith Jarrett and Michael Henderson together over Nate Smith's muscular groove. Drummer and keyboardist would often hook up like this throughout the concert, seemingly to the exclusion of anything the other two may have been doing. This disconnect posed an intractable problem: over that kind of rhythm, there isn't really much you can do except burrow into it, which, was clearly the last thing Chris Potter was going to do.
The saxophonist was fast, loud and virtuosic almost all the time, whether over a hard groove or the slow, ballad-ish "Celestial Nomads." When he did take a more percussive approach, it didn't seem sincere. Taborn's a fantastic pianist, capable of complex feats, but also knows how to work the simplest gestures into an exciting groove (his abilities were put to amazing use in Tim Berne's trio with Tom Rainey when I saw them in the PP Café last February - or was it February 2005?). My favourite Taborn moments came when he used the Rhodes less pianistically. On a great intro to "Zevya," he used the pedals to achieve a very soft attack, and for the saxophone-Rhodes duet that prefaced the encore of Billy Strayhorn's "Lotus Blossom" he gave the chords a strange, distorted beauty. Potter's use (or non-use) of rhythm and space was totally different, almost diametrically opposite.
On bass clarinet, Potter was more lyrical. On "Togo," introduced as a traditional African song, melody had room to breathe for the first time, as he wound variations on the modal tune and accompanied a surprisingly quiet Taborn solo with a gentle riff. The mood changed when Potter picked up his tenor and dove into a duet with Nate Smith, who ably avoided too much Coltrane-Jones mimicry by tethering his powerful playing to the tune's original African polyrhythm and by unexpectedly interrupting his flow to build tension.
"Next Best Western" epitomised the problem, but also suggested a way out of it. It started with an unaccompanied and unfettered display of Potter's virtuosity, but I was never overwhelmed by it in the way I have been by, say, Evan Parker. Later in the tune, the tempo was slow, but only Taborn's cool falling chord sequence hewed to it. Adam Rogers brought a frantic riff and Smith stoked a busy groove, while Potter played emphatic flurries. The overall density pushed the saxophone further back in the mix, creating a more collective and interesting dynamic.
Perhaps the band's internal balance wasn't what it usuallly was: we were informed that Adam Rogers was so sick he had almost given up on playing the gig altogether. His participation was understandably muted. Maybe last-date-of-European-tour fatigue played a role, too. They're currently touring in the US (see Potter's MySpace), I'd be interested in your reactions if you see them.