Archives: At WSJ on Chris Potter’s Underground Orchestra

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


About jmartin437

I've worked in and around the world of high end cheese for 27 years. I've been everything from a department manager who hired and fired and trained staffs to a weekend warrior who shows up ties on an apron the middle of a rush and talks to customers and cleans up the place. I enjoy it all, and I especially like my current situation conducting informal seminars about cheese at area bars and in class at the 92nd St. Y. The current schedule is always up at In addition I conduct private events that are perfect to lead off birthday parties for foodies and sommeliers and also they make great entertainment for corporate team building events and associates meetings at law firms. In addition, I've been a freelance journalist for 27 years. Currently my profiles of leading musicians and filmmakers appear in the Wall Street Journal and I also wrote about sports for the Root, and for five loooong years, which included the entirety of the Isiah Thomas Knicks era, I wrote about the NBA for the New York Sun. I enjoyed writing about basketball so much that I now do it here at rotations for free.
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