At Slate on the Greatness of the Golden State Warriors

They aren’t just really good.  They are better than you think they are.

http://slate.me/1OIphah

 

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Archives: At WSJ on Jose James’s Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday

Interesting recording.

http://on.wsj.com/1CT9UDk

‘Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday’ by José James

A 21st-century tribute to Billie Holiday from José James celebrates the 100th anniversary of Lady Day’s birth.

José James performs in New York in 2014. ENLARGE
José James performs in New York in 2014. Photo: Donna Ward/Getty Images

Last week marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of the jazz singer Billie Holiday (1915-1959), one of the most influential vocalists in American history. Her distinctive phrasing, facility with lyrics and tempo, and passionate style were an inspiration to a generation of stellar performers including Frank Sinatra, Abbey Lincoln and Tony Bennett. But her reach stretches well beyond jazz, and it is not unusual to find vocalists in other genres—soul singer Luther Vandross, for instance—who were affected and inspired by Holiday’s approach.

“Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday” (Blue Note), by vocalist José James, was released recently with the centennial in mind. It isn’t an unqualified success, but it is a revealing look at how trends in jazz, especially the approach to storied repertoire, have changed in the past few decades.

The recording is Mr. James’s sixth release, and the 37-year-old has taken a circuitous route to this moment. He was born in Minneapolis and grew up there as well as in Duluth, Minn., and in Seattle. Though he lacked formal training in music until he was well into his 20s, he developed a musician’s obsessive interest in it. As a teenager, he bought the 18-disc “Complete Nat King Cole Capitol Recordings” (Mosaic) and listened to it for weeks. He also wrote a vocalese accompaniment to saxophonist John Coltrane’s solo on “Equinox” and showed it to professional musicians on the Minneapolis scene.

In 2004, Mr. James competed in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition, where he was the only contestant who had not been to music school. Yet he wowed judges with a faithful rendition of the classic “Every Day I Have the Blues.” He then spent a year studying music at The New School but lacked the resources to complete his degree. In London, thanks to a jazz vocal competition that he didn’t win, Mr. James connected with Gilles Peterson, a noted DJ and producer; in 2008, he released his debut recording, “The Dreamer,” on Brownswood, Mr. Petersen’s label.

He recorded another disc, “Blackmagic,” for that London-based label, then did a recording of standards, “For All We Know,” with pianist Jef Neve (Impulse!) before signing in 2012 with Blue Note, where he has maintained a vigorous recording schedule. His “No Beginning No End” (2013) was an R&B recording in the D’Angelo and Erykah Badu vein. Last year, he released “While You Were Sleeping,” an album with elements of trip hop and experimental rock. Mr. James was a big fan of indie rock and hip hop in the early ’90s, but he has always called Holiday his “musical mother,” and on his earlier recordings he deploys inflections and techniques reminiscent of her style.

Mr. James possesses a lithe, gorgeous baritone, and “Yesterday I Had the Blues” showcases it nicely. But the range and ease of his backing musicians—the all-star trio of pianist Jason Moran, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Eric Harland—keep making him sound slightly stiff by comparison. Their version of “Good Morning Heartache” suffers from an overdose of restraint. On the other hand, when they loosen up a little, as they do on “Fine and Mellow,” the results are superb. So is the delicate beginning of “Body and Soul,” where Mr. James is accompanied only by Mr. Moran. And the pianist’s elegant solo on “I Thought About You” steals the spotlight.

In the recording’s best moments, Mr. James subtly responds to the play of the members of the trio—a trademark of Ms. Holiday’s singing. Too often, however, the album’s four great musicians slow down so much that the result is like a high-performance sports car stuck in a perpetual school zone.

In discussing music, Mr. James enthusiastically cross-references a variety of influences. In a 2013 interview with the New York Times, for example, he said that he thought Ms. Holiday’s work in the ’50s was the template for Ms. Badu’s 2000 recording “Mama’s Gun” (Motown). In performance, however, he compartmentalizes, and as a result this recording sounds a tad anachronistic. This kind of fealty to the source material was all the rage in the ’90s and the first years of the current century. Since then, however, performers like Mr. Moran, Cassandra Wilson, Bob Belden, Steven Bernstein and the group Ideal Bread have taken historically vital repertoire and put their own unique spin on the music. Mr. James has tapped into a wealth of influences; it would be great to hear him synthesize them.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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At WSJ on Myra Melford’s Snowy Egret

One of the best recordings I’ve heard this year.

http://on.wsj.com/1xsAs2I

Review of ‘Snowy Egret’ by Myra Melford: Unusual Background, Unusually Good

Myra Melford’s new album, ‘Snowy Egret,’ is inspired by the ‘Memory of Fire’ trilogy by the Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano.

Myra Melford’s new album, ‘Snowy Egret,’ is inspired by the ‘Memory of Fire’ trilogy by the Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano. ENLARGE
Myra Melford’s new album, ‘Snowy Egret,’ is inspired by the ‘Memory of Fire’ trilogy by the Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano. Photo: Bryan Murray

Myra Melford is one of the most interesting and underrated pianists in jazz today. Her work is both ambitious and accessible, full of bright, intense rhythms and complex harmonies. Yet she has remained at jazz’s margins. After participating in the downtown New York jazz subculture of the ’80s and ’90s and spending a year in India thanks to a Fulbright Scholarship in 2000, she relocated to Berkeley, Calif., teaching at the University of California and performing in the Bay Area.

Her work is on par with more celebrated players’, such as trumpeter Dave Douglas, pianist Jason Moran and saxophonist Joe Lovano, but she doesn’t do the things that enhance a jazz pianist’s profile. She hasn’t recorded a collection of classic repertoire, nor has she covered contemporary pop and rock tunes. Instead, she’s created works that take inspiration from the essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” by Albert Camus and the novel “The Woman in the Dunes” by Kobo Abe. The music on her new recording, “Snowy Egret” (Enja/Yellowbird), which is also the name of her newest band, is inspired by the “Memory of Fire” trilogy by the Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano.

In addition, starting Tuesday, she will perform for six nights at the Stone in New York, in a variety of different ensembles. The engagement amounts to a retrospective, as it will feature many of the bands she has led during her diverse career. Some of the highlights include performances by her sextet, Be Bread; two performances each by her quintets The Same River Twice and Snowy Egret; and a reunion of her trio from 25 years ago. A full schedule of concerts is at http://www.thestonenyc.com.

Ms. Melford, who is 58, was born in Evanston, Ill., and grew up in a Frank Lloyd Wright home there. That seems to inform her music, which is strikingly well structured and intelligently arranged. It’s always easy to hear what each instrument is doing and appreciate the often changing rhythms. Although not a member of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, Ms. Melford studied with Leroy Jenkins and Henry Threadgill, two of the musicians who figured prominently in the collective’s early days. Ms. Melford’s music shares the traits of many bands that emerged from the AACM. In her arrangements her use of space is similar to that of Air and Eight Bold Souls, while her willingness to use nontraditional jazz instruments mirrors, at a smaller scale, the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

Most of her ensembles feature unusual instrumental combinations, which yield unique harmonies. For instance, the members of Snowy Egret are drummer Tyshawn Sorey, guitarist Liberty Ellman, cornetist Ron Miles and bassist Stomu Takeishi.

The music on the recording is lean, lithe and appealing. There are numerous passages where the unisons of cornet and guitar are contrasted with the more conventional rhythms of drums and piano. Mr. Sorey and Ms. Melford’s rousing duet drives the recording’s opening track, “Language,” then the two give way to pithy solos by Mr. Ellman and Mr. Miles that are augmented by undulating drumbeats by Mr. Sorey and propulsive riffing by the leader. “Language” is an up-tempo track, but the band is just as adept at turning elegant, slower numbers like “Night of Sorrow” into equally compelling music. Mr. Sorey’s subdued drumming and Mr. Miles’s brassy murmurs underpin graceful solos by Ms. Melford and Mr. Ellman.

Two of the other highlights from the recording build on the blues, another early influence of Ms. Melford’s. “First Protest” begins with 90 seconds of warp-speed piano clusters and furious drumming that give way to a bass line from Mr. Takeishi that is an abstraction of a bluesy beat. The beginning of “The Strawberry” takes its cues from classic barrelhouse piano before deftly shifting into a stuttering beat that vaguely recalls Argentine tango.

Ms. Melford’s background is unusual among jazz musicians; she’s participated in the jazz scenes of the Midwest, East Coast and West Coast, and there are elements of each locale in her sound. Her lack of media recognition hasn’t slowed her. “Snowy Egret” is her 21st release as a leader, and she has more than double that number as a sidewoman. She was named a Guggenheim Fellow in 2013 and has won awards from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation for her efforts in reworking the jazz program at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Fortunately there is a growing awareness of Ms. Melford’s considerable gifts, even if recognition still hasn’t permeated the mainstream jazz community.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

 

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Archives: at WSJ on Jack DeJohnette’s Made in Chicago

Wonderful recording, wonderful story behind it too.

http://on.wsj.com/1ECsje1

Review of Jack DeJohnette’s ‘Made in Chicago’

Jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette goes back to his roots by convening a band featuring all-star musicians from his early days in Chicago.

Jack DeJohnette performs in London in 2012. ENLARGE
Jack DeJohnette performs in London in 2012. Photo: Getty Images

Drummer Jack DeJohnette has been an integral part of the New York area jazz scene for more than 50 years, long enough to forget that he’s originally from Chicago. Before moving east, he participated in the band that gave birth to the Advancement for the Association of Creative Musicians, a collective that has nurtured several generations of great Chicago jazz musicians.

On his new recording, “Made in Chicago” (ECM Records), Mr. DeJohnette goes back to those roots by convening a band featuring all-star musicians from his early days in Chicago; he is joined by saxophonists Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill and by pianist Muhal Richard Abrams. Each is a renowned innovator and leader who rarely plays sideman gigs. The recording documents an August 2013 concert by the band in Millennium Park during the Chicago Jazz Festival. The band will perform Thursday night at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis and again this summer at the Newport Jazz Festival on Aug. 1.

In the early ’60s, Mr. DeJohnette, who is 72 years old, was a classmate of Mr. Threadgill, 71, and Mr. Mitchell, 74, at Wilson Junior College (now Kennedy-King College) on Chicago’s South Side. They played music together in school settings and at the many jam sessions that took place in the city’s jazz clubs and lounges. It was at one of these sessions that Mr. DeJohnette met Mr. Abrams, now 84, who led an ensemble called the Experimental Band; fittingly for its name, it functioned as a workshop for musicians with ideas that didn’t fit into the jazz mainstream. Messrs. DeJohnette, Threadgill and Mitchell all played in the band, which featured a varying roster of musicians and ultimately grew into the AACM in 1965.

The Chicago Jazz Festival invited Mr. DeJohnette to create a project of his choosing in honor of his appointment as a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. On “Made in Chicago,” the four jazz greats are joined by veteran bassist Larry Gray, who is also a native of Chicago’s South Side.

The set list consists of Mr. Mitchell’s “Chant,” which has been staple of his repertoire for 40 years, and one less-familiar tune each by Messrs. Mitchell, Threadgill, Abrams and DeJohnette. It closes with an improvised jam. There are stellar moments throughout the recording. For instance, Mr. Mitchell’s tense coiled sounds are offset beautifully on “Chant” by Mr. Abrams’s ruminative piano chords. The pianist and the drummer engage in a powerful duet in Mr. DeJohnette’s “Museum of Time.” And Mr. Threadgill’s pungent alto saxophone is heard on several pieces.

But the record falls prey to the issues that mar many “supergroup” recordings. The product of only a few days of rehearsals, it is an uneven affair; there are moments of sublime synthesis followed quickly by moments where the playing feels measured and less assertive. Yet the best parts are intriguing. Save for some gems on imprints like Nessa and Delmark, Chicago’s avant-garde jazz scene of the ’60s was under-recorded, and this album—though made a half-century later—offers a glimpse into what might have been heard during some of those Experimental Band gigs.

At Mr. Abrams’s urging, Mr. DeJohnette moved to New York in 1964 and quickly found elite-level work, playing in bands led by saxophonists Jackie McLean, Charles Lloyd and Wayne Shorter. In 1969, he joined Miles Davis’s band, playing on the classic “Bitches Brew” sessions. During the ’70s, Mr. DeJohnette made his mark not only with his own group, Special Edition, a showcase for several up-and-coming saxophonists, but with New Directions, which featured such top players as guitarist John Abercrombie and trumpeter Lester Bowie. Much of Mr. DeJohnette’s time since the early ’80s has been spent performing with Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio, which has become one of the most popular groups in jazz.

Messrs. Threadgill and Abrams also moved to New York in the early ’70s and still live there. Mr. Mitchell spent some time in Europe before settling first in Michigan and now in Oakland, Calif., where he teaches at Mills College. It is easy to hear the Chicago roots in their sound, but not so much in Mr. DeJohnette’s—and I suspect that is the point of “Made in Chicago.” He shows his Windy City side, and it adds a new, introductory chapter to the lengthy discography of a great jazz drummer.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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At WSJ on how NBA Defense has Changed

http://on.wsj.com/1GF6zMA NBA-Basketball-07-08-SeasonHow NBA Defenses Got Turned Inside Out Forget protecting the rim—now defense in the pros is all about guarding the perimeter Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry, right, blocks J.J. Redick of the Los Angeles Clippers during the playoffs last season. ENLARGE Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry, right, blocks J.J. Redick of the Los Angeles Clippers during the playoffs last season. Photo: USA Today Sports/Reuters By Martin Johnson March 1, 2015 6:14 p.m. ET 1 COMMENTS

For generations, the key to playing great team defense in the NBA was simple: having a great center. From Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Hakeem Olajuwon, fearsome big men were almost always at the heart of the best defenses. This made intuitive sense: The better a team is at protecting its basket, the better its defense should be.

Today’s NBA, though, is turning this basic understanding on its head. Now good defense is no longer mainly about guarding the rim. It’s about guarding 23 feet or so away from it. Stopping the three-point shot has become the paramount defensive objective in the NBA. Offenses are launching them in unprecedented volume, which is forcing defenses to focus on preventing them, and changing how defenses are built. This season, entering Sunday, the top defensive teams in the league based on points allowed per possession were the Golden State Warriors, Milwaukee Bucks, Houston Rockets and Atlanta Hawks. Each of these teams either lack a dominant rim protector or they start a center who has missed a significant part of the season because of injuries.

What they do have is the ability to harass three-point shooters. In the NBA, the teams that allow the lowest three-point shooting percentage have become a reflection of the league’s overall defensive ratings. The top four teams in three-point defense entering Sunday were Houston, the Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State and Milwaukee. (Portland ranks sixth overall.) Advertisement Meanwhile, the three worst defenses this season—the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves—were among the worst at three-point defense. In other words, stop the three, and you have an excellent chance of stopping your opponent. It is the latest reflection of how shots from long range have revolutionized the sport.

“It’s the biggest change in the game in a generation,” said Jeff Van Gundy, a former New York Knicks and Houston Rockets coach who is now an analyst for ESPN and ABC. “It used to be that you wanted to get an open 15-foot jump shot. Now that’s what defenses will concede because everyone wants to shoot threes.”

“It has completely changed the way players are valued on the market,” said John Hollinger, the Memphis Grizzlies’ vice president of basketball operations. “Now we put a premium on length and basketball IQ.”

‘It’s the biggest change in the game in a generation.’ —Former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy on the reliance on the three-point shot

The three-point shot was introduced in the 1979-80 season, but it took a long time to catch on as a weapon. During that first year, Atlanta made 13 three-pointers the whole season. The next season, they made 10. Usage of the three slowly grew, then jumped in the 1994-95 season, when the three-point line—initially 23 feet 9 inches from the front of the rim, 22 feet in the corners—was moved to 22 feet uniformly. The league returned it to its original length in 1997 and has left it there. But after an initial decline, reliance on the shot has grown, in part because it has been found to be more efficient than the mid-range shot. Now the average team is taking 26.8% of its shots from three-point range, up from last year’s 26%, which was an all-time high.As Van Gundy said, teams used to have only one or two capable shooters on the court at once; now teams can deploy four or even five.

“It’s made defense in the NBA much more team-oriented,” said Blazers coach Terry Stotts. “You can’t game-plan to isolate against one guy; you have to defend the entire court.”

Stopping the three was one of Stotts’s points of emphasis when he took over the Blazers before the 2012-13 season. It has driven their rise from 21st in defensive rating during his first season to the league’s upper echelon this season. Stotts said the primary strategy was keeping the ball on one side of the floor, rotating back into the paint to stop drives and forcing long-distance two-point shots. “We want to be in position to contest as many threes as possible,” he said.

Milwaukee Bucks swingman Jared Dudley played last season for the Los Angeles Clippers, the team that led the NBA in opponents’ three-point percentage. He contrasted what the Bucks do versus what the Clippers did. “With the Clippers, we were determined to run shooters off the line”—that is, prevent threes from being taken—“but sometimes that allowed them to drive to the hoop,” he said.

He said the Bucks’ approach is more comprehensive. In addition to running shooters off the three point line, the Bucks try to force ballhandlers toward the baseline, where the passing angles are more severe. Or they force shooters to dribble the ball toward a help defender, frequently long-armed forward Giannis Antetokounmpo or center John Henson.

A lot of three-point attempts nowadays occur on fast breaks when defenses are scrambling to locate and guard opposing players, so the Bucks make transition defense—getting three or four players to the defensive end as quickly as possible—a point of emphasis. “It takes a lot of communication,” Dudley said. “You’ll always hear us talking to each other about what’s going on on the floor.”

All of that said, experts see an eventual leveling off in the league’s infatuation with the three. For one, defenses are catching up: The leaguewide three-point percentage is down

to .348 from .360 last season.

Van Gundy sees a more imminent change. “I think you’ll see a difference in the playoffs,” he said. “Teams won’t want to risk an off night where they shoot 7 for 34 from three and cost themselves a home playoff game.”

you’ll see a difference in the playoffs,” he said. “Teams won’t want to risk an off night where they shoot 7 for 34 from three and cost themselves a home playoff game.”

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Archives: At WSJ on the new recordings by Rudresh Mahanthappa and Rez Abbasi

http://on.wsj.com/1LzuY72

Reviews of ‘Bird Calls’ by Rudresh Mahanthappa and ‘Intents and Purposes’ by Rez Abbasi

Two new discs revisit and revise Charlie Parker and ’70s jazz rock

Saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa’s most recent album is ‘Bird Calls.’ ENLARGE
Saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa’s most recent album is ‘Bird Calls.’ Photo: Jimmy Katz

Saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, who is 43, and guitarist Rez Abbasi, who is 49, share more than South Asian and American roots. Each musician is a vital figure on his instrument, the two jazzmen rose to prominence about a decade ago, and they have played together in several bands.

Earlier this month, each released a recording that takes vintage repertoire in a new direction. Mr. Mahanthappa’s disc, “Bird Calls” (ACT), offers a series of tunes inspired by the music of Charlie Parker—but so deeply abstracted that it is no rote tribute recording. Instead, the saxophonist who counts Parker as a cornerstone influence sought to trace the jazz great’s impact on his own style. Mr. Abbasi looks back to the jazz rock of the early ’70s on his “Intents and Purposes” (Enja), but he rearranges this repertoire for an acoustic ensemble.

Guitarist Rez Abbasi. ENLARGE
Guitarist Rez Abbasi. Photo: Jimmy Katz

Mr. Abbasi’s recording is especially interesting, as he didn’t listen to much jazz rock when he was growing up. He was an adolescent when this fusion was all the rage, but he shunned it, preferring traditional jazz for his studies and listening. Thus he brings a fresh set of ears to his set list of classics by Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, Herbie Hancock, Billy Cobham, Larry Coryell and others. Also, his band, the Rez Abbasi Acoustic Quartet, is well suited to this music. The band features vibraphonist Bill Ware, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Eric McPherson, and the vibes/guitar front line creates sumptuous textures and intriguing harmonies. Mr. Crump’s bass sound is deep and resonant and Mr. McPherson’s drumming makes excellent use of his brushes and tom toms.

All of these elements come into play in this repertoire. For instance on Joe Zawinul’s “Black Market,” a hit for Weather Report in 1976, Mr. Crump’s bass is able to approximate the catchy lines that Jaco Pastorius brought to the original, while Messrs. Abbasi and Ware take an innovative approach to the lead roles. The band’s take on Mr. Hancock’s “Butterfly” is more concise than the original, as the solos are shorter, but the improvisations are more wide-ranging in their musical references. Overall, the band lightens the tone of the pieces on this recording and, in doing so, it displays the versatility of work that might otherwise seem dated.

Mr. Abbasi was born in Karachi, Pakistan, and grew up in Los Angeles. His early influences on guitar were Jim Hall, Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell. He moved to New York in 1987, and since then he has played with a wide variety of performers, including rhythm-and-blues great Ruth Brown and such leading jazz musicians as trumpeter Dave Douglas, pianist Kenny Werner and saxophonist Greg Osby. He is also producer and musical director for his wife, vocalist Kiran Ahluwalia.

Mr. Mahanthappa was born in Italy to Indian parents and grew up in Boulder, Colo. He settled in New York in 1998 after receiving a bachelor’s degree from the Berklee School of Music in Boston and a masters from DePaul University in Chicago. His most important sideman gigs include stints with pianists Vijay Iyer and Danilo Pérez, trumpeter Amir ElSaffar and drummer Jack DeJohnette. “Bird Calls” is the latest recording by Mr. Mahanthappa where he reconsiders his musical roots. Recordings such as “Kinsmen” (Pi Recordings, 2008) and “Apex” (Pi, 2010) explore his connections to India and Chicago, respectively. “Samdhi” (ACT, 2011) offers his take on ’70s jazz fusion, which is an influence.

For those listeners who are not dedicated students of Charlie Parker’s music, “Bird Calls” may work best initially as an academic exercise. Mr. Mahanthappa lists which Parker tune influenced the originals on his disc, and a minute or two of comparative listening is instructive and revealing. It is easy to connect the dots from Parker’s evergreens to the new material, and in doing so, the building blocks of Mr. Mahanthappa’s passionate yet complex style are apparent.

Both of these recordings are as ambitious as they are accomplished. “Intents and Purposes” takes an often overlooked and frequently disdained aspect of jazz history and makes a case for its spot in the canon. Rather than treat it as sacred text, Mr. Mahanthappa takes Mr. Parker’s music on his own terms.

For today’s musicians, jazz history is often the 800-pound gorilla in the room. It’s nearly impossible to address the glorious history of the music without getting lost within it. With their new recordings, Messrs. Mahanthappa and Abbasi solve that classic dilemma.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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Archives: At WSJ on Chris Potter’s Underground Orchestra

http://on.wsj.com/1tnz5jz

Adding Instruments, Adding Influences

The prolific saxophonist Chris Potter expands his quartet on the new album ‘Imaginary Cities,’ bringing in hints of South Asia and Béla Bartók

Saxophonist Chris Potter has appeared on more than 150 records, 18 of them as a leader, and his powerhouse group Underground is one of the leading quartets in jazz; on his new recording, “Imaginary Cities” (ECM), he does something completely new. His usual working band, augmented with a vibraphonist, two bassists and a string quartet, is billed on the disc as Underground Orchestra, but it is neither an exercise in jazz meets classical nor a situation where the strings simply operate as a smooth response to the other band members. Instead, Mr. Potter uses the additional instruments to reflect Arabian and South Asian inflections and the influence of Béla Bartók. The members of the quartet dial it back a bit, which results in a complex and remarkably diverse range of sounds. The Underground Orchestra is playing Jazz Standard in New York through Jan. 31.

Saxophonist Chris Potter. ENLARGE
Saxophonist Chris Potter. Photo: Bart Babinski/ECM Records

Mr. Potter, who is 44, made a striking first impression on the New York jazz scene as an 18-year-old with his outstanding contributions to the band of bebop great Red Rodney, demonstrating both a unique facility with the style and an original voice. He has since performed on a regular basis with bands led by bassist Dave Holland and by drummer Paul Motian, and he is a member of the Unity Band led by guitarist Pat Metheny. He also toured with Steely Dan in the late ’90s and recorded with them on the 2000 disc “Two Against Nature” (Giant). In each setting, his commanding tone and formidable technique on the tenor and soprano saxophone grew, and he became one of the most admired reedmen of his generation—winning jazz magazine polls and, in 2000, becoming the youngest musician to win the prestigious Danish Jazzpar Prize.

Chris Potter Underground Orchestra

Jazz Standard

Through Jan. 31

Mr. Potter formed Underground Orchestra after an invitation from Jazz at Lincoln Center to present music there. He first recorded with the quartet he calls the Underground in 2006; the sound recalled the ferocious energy of early ’70s jazz rock. It was the rare jazz band that played as if it was trying to raise the roof of the venues that hosted it. The quartet features Adam Rogers on electric guitar, Craig Taborn on Fender Rhodes keyboards and Nate Smith on drums.

Those three musicians are present on “Imaginary Cities,” but in different roles. Mr. Rogers plays acoustic guitar on some tracks, Mr. Taborn plays piano, and Mr. Smith uses his drums more as a textural element than as a lighted fuse. Much of the music on the recording is pensive and compelling. For instance, “Lament,” the first track, begins with the strings creating a mesmerizing set of harmonies before Mr. Potter, almost edging in from the margins, joins in. The saxophone and strings work gradually to blend, building substantial tension en route.

The title track started out as a single tune and grew into a four-part work with sections titled “Compassion,” “Dualities,” “Disintegration” and “Rebuilding.” Mr. Potter sought a musical statement about what future cities might resemble. The suite features gorgeous textures of sound swelling around different soloists. Mr. Potter is on tenor and soprano saxophone as well as bass clarinet, Steve Nelson on vibraphone and marimba, Mr. Rogers on guitar, and Mr. Taborn on piano, and their backing pushes the solos toward scintillating climaxes. The other four tracks on this sprawling set of music follow similar strategies and showcase a wide range of improvisatory acumen, especially from bassists Scott Colley and Fima Ephron and violinist Mark Feldman. The panoply of sounds, both subdued and distinctive, gives the recording a textural unity that highlights the rhythmic subtleties and harmonic invention.

“Imaginary Cities” continues a series of innovative endeavors by Mr. Potter. His 2013 recording, “The Sirens” (ECM), was inspired by Homer’s “Odyssey” and showcased the work of emerging pianist David Virelles. Mr. Potter’s other non-Underground project, 2007’s “Song for Anyone” (Sunnyside), showcased some of his early writing for strings. Mr. Potter has long been an idol of the student set. It is not uncommon to see college-aged youths at his shows practically taking notes on his saxophone playing and improvisations. With the release of “Imaginary Cities,” those students may begin to take notes about Mr. Potter’s compositions as well.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal

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