Chris Potter/Underground Orchestra – Imaginary Cities
(Double LP, ECM 2387. LP review by Andrew Cartmel)
With its elegant black and white covers and often cutting edge material, the ECM label can project a forbidding, austere image and it’s possible to forget that they also record music possessed of considerable warmth, which grooves and swings — like this album written and performed by Chris Potter. Potter was a sax prodigy who made his debut playing bebop with Red Rodney and went on to work with Herbie Hancock, Jim Hall and Ray Brown. He has been recording with ECM since 2000, starting as a sideman for Dave Holland. Potter’s Underground Orchestra grew out of his Underground Quartet, with some significant changes, beyond its obvious expansion in size. Fender Rhodes player Craig Taborn moved on to piano, and after forsaking bass in the quartet, Potter opted to have two players here, Fima Ephron on electric bass guitar and Scott Colley on double bass. There’s also an adroit string section consisting of David Eggar on cello, Lois Martin on viola and Joyce Hammann and Mark Feldman on violin. All this adds up to a very distinctive, powerful and agile big jazz band.
Lament presents Colley’s warm, rounded bass sounding against a shifting curtain of melancholy strings with Potter foregrounded as Nate Smith’s drums kick in softly and Adam Rogers’s electric guitar begins to comment. The violins escort Potter through the changes then drop away as he solos, underpinned by Taborn’s piano. This is a majestic, lovely and haunting piece, moving and coolly romantic in a way that could never tip into Kenny G. territory (Potter plays soprano sax, tenor sax and bass clarinet on the album). Adam Roger’s scant, thoughtful electric guitar brings a country twang to the proceedings. Potter is articulate and heartfelt, his sax is persistent and poetic, chattering and sharp with the strings building in intensity and frequency before everyone flattens out in a smooth, relaxed plateau of sound. Potter offers a shapely, piercing sign-off.
Firefly opens with scattered piano and modernist, elliptical, fractured sounds from guitar and drums. Potter’s boppish sax comes nosing through this futuristic landscape as Nate Smith begins his solid, punchy drumming. There’s a call and response dialogue between the violin and Potter and the mellow chugging of the electric bass by Fima Ephron against Smith’s drums and Roger’s guitar licks. Shadow Self sounds almost like a film soundtrack piece with the suspenseful see-saw bowing on the strings from Joyce Hammann, Mark Feldman, Lois Martin and David Eggar. The violins are elegantly sharp and strident as they chatter, squeal and slide in skittering runs, paving the way for an exultant, celebrant Potter to enter against a backdrop of mesmeric, metronomic percussion (Steve Nelson plays vibraphone and marimba on the album). The strings are to the fore again in Sky, this time with an Indian sound. Taborn plays rainfall piano and there’s an assertive, silvery solo spot from Potter that becomes frayed and fiery.
The ambitious four-part title track Imaginary Cities takes up both sides of the second record in this two LP set. The first movement, Compassion, features some especially tasty sax by Potter and memorable electric guitar from Adam Rogers. The second movement, Dualities, showcases great drumming by Nate Smith. Part three, Disintegration, showers notes like falling autumn leaves, with rolling percussion and sonorous unison playing on the reeds (all by Potter). The final movement, Rebuilding, impresses with the smoothly bubbling flow of Roger’s electric guitar and the acerbic angularity of the string section which make this such a distinctive combo.
Chris Potter comments, “I was hearing a real thick rhythm section sound, also with vibraphone… I didn’t want a classical-meets-jazz feeling. I wanted it all to be completely integrated. And, in places, the lines between the written material and the improvised material would be a little blurred, and the strings would improvise, too.” He’s achieved an impressive piece of writing for large ensemble and has created a big band to be reckoned with.