Wikipedia is great for some things, but, like most teachers tell their students, you can’t always trust everything on it. Here’s why. When speaking to saxophonist Chris Potter, I casually comment on his living in Budapest.
“Budapest? No, I don’t live there. I think someone put that on my Wikipedia page.”
As it turns out, Potter is married to a Hungarian woman, and their young daughter was born in Budapest, and he does have an apartment there. Potter says, “I was spending a lot of time last year there, so most of last year I guess you could say that was true. And I’m sure we’ll be spending more time there in the future. But I never gave up my apartment in New York, and we’re all in New York now.”
Potter, still relatively young and still ascending as a musician, is nevertheless one of the most highly esteemed jazz tenorists on the scene. He appears at McCarter Theater on Friday, April 24, on a twin bill with guitarist John Scofield, who has a high-level reputation of his own.
Potter will be bringing in a band known as Underground (Adam Rogers, guitar; Nate Smith, drums; and Scott Colley, bass), which explores the funkier, more soulful side of jazz. It is something of a departure from Potter’s more well-known mainstream post-bop sound, but it grooves and swings, and that’s Potter’s ultimate goal.
“It’s a project I’ve been doing for the past few years,” says Potter in a phone interview from a southern California hotel room. “There are a lot of influences, from straight-ahead jazz, and funk, a little bit of the avant garde, European classical music, African music, Indian music, the music that all of us in the band are checking out. It’s just a way for the band to use its influences more explicitly, and put together something that would just be fun to listen to. At the end of the day, that’s the most important thing.”
Potter was born on New Year’s Day in 1971 in Chicago. He later moved to Columbia, SC, as a toddler when his mother, a professor of child psychology, got an appointment at the University of South Carolina. His father was also an educator who became an administrator at the state education department after giving up a career as a genetics researcher.
“South Carolina, basically, was a great place to grow up,” says Potter, who doesn’t show even the hint of a Southern accent, at least not on the phone. “It’s obviously not the biggest jazz scene in the country, but there were a few really excellent players and some really good instructors, people I was able to learn from, saw I was interested, and really helped me out. And the fact that it was such a small town meant that I got a lot of performance experience at a young age. There wasn’t a lot of competition for the gigs.”
Indeed, Potter’s first professional gig came at the age of 13. He began playing piano and guitar as a youngster, picked up the sax at 10, and was heavily influenced by the music his parents listened to. “They had a record called ‘Chicago, the Blues Today,’ that I just listened to over and over again. That and the Beatles,” he says. “My parents also had some jazz records, some Miles Davis records, Coltrane, Dave Brubeck, Eddie Harris. They had a few things that got me wanting to play saxophone, so when I was 10, I just bugged them and bugged them until they got me a saxophone. I started taking lessons and getting into the history of music, and that did it. Never looked back.”
At 14, piano great Marian McPartland heard Potter play and was impressed. By the time Potter was ready to move to New York, at the age of 19, he had made some connections. His first big gig was with trumpeter Red Rodney, with whom Potter played for four years. “I started playing in Red’s band as soon as I moved up to New York in 1989,” he says. “That was a rare chance, to work regularly with someone who was such a real contributor to the music of the bebop era.”
By the mid-1990s, Potter had recorded five albums and had gone on the road with, among others, Steely Dan and the Mingus Big Band. Despite in 1998 coming down with a condition known as Meniere’s disease, through which Potter lost much of his hearing in his left ear, he continues to play and strive for a transcendent sound.
“I have always been pretty driven to get better and better,” Potter says. “The level of the music that’s out there to strive for is so deep that there’s a lot to study. I really want to feel as if I was trying to make a contribution myself on that level. If you’re serious about that, then there’s just a lot of work to do. It’s always difficult just to think about working and getting gigs, but the real challenge is trying to make music at the highest level. That was my main focus when I was 18, and that continues to be my main focus right now.”
Scofield, 59, is in another phase in his career, but he has similar goals and desires. One way he wants to make a mark even beyond the substantial impact he has already made on jazz is with efforts like Piety Street, his latest record.
The disc focuses on the music of New Orleans, especially the town’s enduring gospel music tradition. “Piety Street is the name of the record and the band,” he says. “I went there to make a blues record and ended up playing all gospel tunes.” He will be featuring vocal music, with pianist John Cleary doing most of the singing. This is something of a departure for Scofield.
“When I got down to New Orleans and figured out what I was going to do, as a fan of old-time gospel music, instead of playing 12-bar blues, it would be good to do all gospel. If you’re going to do songs, why not have a singer?”
Hurricane Katrina has receded some from the national consciousness, but her impact is still felt on the culture of New Orleans. “I know a lot of musicians from there, and a lot of them left,” he says. “Some of the guys I was playing with down there were commuting in from other towns. That changed the music scene because some of the guys just left and won’t be back. And all of them have stories about what happened — about losing instruments, about losing homes, definitely about losing sheet music, tapes, and all kinds of stuff. I sure hope it doesn’t change a lot, because I love the music, but I can’t see how that’s not going to happen.”
Scofield and Potter will share a venue on April 24, but not the stage. The two will not collaborate on anything, or even jam. “No, we haven’t even discussed working or anything like that. I love his playing, though,” says Scofield.
John Scofield’s Piety Street Band and Chris Potter’s Underground, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. Friday, April 24, 7:30 p.m. Chris Potter on jazz saxophone and John Scofield on jazz guitar with their bands. $37 to $46. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.