by Ian Mann
March 26, 2019
With its skilful mix of acoustic and electronic sounds “Circuits” is a hugely successful album that combines intelligence and sophistication with raw excitement in pretty much equal measures.
(Edition Records EDN1123)
Chris Potter (reeds, guitar, keyboards, percussion, sampler), Eric Harland (drums), James Francies (keyboards) plus guest Linley Marthe (electric bass).
It represents a considerable coup for the leading British jazz / classical label Edition to have acquired the signature of the leading American saxophonist, composer and bandleader Chris Potter.
Acknowledged as one of the world’s leading contemporary saxophonists Potter has been a huge influence on other saxophone players and is regarded by many as the natural heir to the late, great Michael Brecker.
Prior to his move to Edition Potter had been signed to ECM for whom he recorded a trio of excellent albums, “The Sirens” (2013), “Imaginary Cities” (2015) and “The Dreamer Is The Dream”, the last of these providing the bulk of the material at a powerful performance by a stellar quartet at that year’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival, for my money the best show of the entire event.
Potter began his career in the band of veteran bebop trumpeter Red Rodney and has since appeared as a sideman on more than fifty albums. He has enjoyed a particularly creative musical relationship with Dave Holland, appearing on many of the bassist/composer’s recordings and collaborating with him in the all star quartet Aziza (with drummer Eric Harland and guitarist/vocalist Lionel Loueke).
Potter also enjoyed a lengthy tenure with guitarist Pat Metheny’s Unity Band, a stint that helped to raise his profile enormously. Others with whom he has worked extensively include trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Paul Motian.
The intensity of Potter’s 2017 performance in Cheltenham alongside pianist David Virelles, bassist Joe Martin and drummer Nasheet Waits was somewhat at odds with ECM’s cool aesthetic and in many respects it wasn’t too surprising to see Potter moving on from the label. It says much for the integrity of Edition that a musician of his international standing should then choose to move to a British independent.
That said Potter has close ties with the UK, having worked as a visiting tutor at Birmingham Conservatoire. In 2012 his ‘Chris Potter Ensemble’, featuring himself and a band of Birmingham students, appeared at the 2012 Cheltenham Jazz Festival playing arrangements of material from Potter’s 2007 album “A Song For Anyone”.
Potter explains the inspiration behind “Circuits”, his twentieth album as a leader, thus;
“This is an idea that I’ve had for some time. I was kinda itching to get back into grooveland and I was talking to Eric Harland about it. We’ve been working together for many years and he recommended calling James Francies, who I was not familiar with, and it just immediately worked. This album feels like a turning point in musical direction for me, so it feels very fortunate to have some fresh faces involved to help support it. To me, the album has a feeling of being unconstrained by convention.”
Francies, born in Houston but now based in New York is only twenty four and something of a rising star. His début album “Flight”, released on the prestigious Blue Note label, mixes jazz, soul, funk and hip hop influences and features a number of illustrious sidemen including Potter. He cites fellow keyboard players, and Houston natives, Jason Moran and Robert Glasper as major influences on his sound.
The “Circuits” band has been cited as being an updated version of Potter’s Underground quartet featuring keyboard player Craig Taborn, drummer Nate Smith and guitarist Wayne Krantz (later Adam Rogers). It renews Potter’s fascination with electric instrumentation with the leader credited with tenor & soprano saxes, clarinets, flute, sampler, guitar, keyboards and percussion. Francies’ contributes electric keyboards while guest Marthe adds his electric bass groove to four of the album’s nine tracks.
Album opener “Invocation” acts as a kind of overture with Potter overdubbing himself on a variety of reeds with bass clarinet prominent in the chorale like arrangement.
Potter readily admits the influence of hip hop and electronica on this album and this is immediately apparent on the following track, “Hold It”, as Harland lays down a powerful, urban groove, enhanced by Francies’ inventive keyboard texturing. Potter is primarily featured on tenor, his sound urgent and direct but with subtle overdubs on flute finding their way into an already busy mix. Potter solos on tenor with power, fluency and authority and the overall group sound is sometimes reminiscent of fellow saxophonist Donny McCaslin’s output on the instrumental albums “Casting For Gravity” “Fast Future” and “Beyond Now”.with the quartet that would eventually become known as David Bowie’s ‘Black Star’ band.
With Marthe added on electric bass there’s little let up in terms of energy and intensity on “The Nerve” which commences with Potter processing the sound of his alto flute through a loop pedal to create a kind of layered pipe organ effect. Harland and Marthe then combine to create an off kilter funk groove that facilitates another forceful solo from Potter on tenor. The leader is followed by the impressive Francies on acoustic piano, but the young musician provides keyboard colour and texture elsewhere too on this frequently stunning blend of acoustic and electric sounds.
Written by Amenoudji Joseph Vicky “Koutome” brings an overt West African influence to the proceedings. Potter toured extensively with the Benin born guitarist Lionel Loueke as part of the Aziza quartet and it was Loueke who introduced Potter to the records of the Beninese group Orchestre-Poly-Rhythmo de Cotonou. “Koutome” is sourced from their repertoire with the Mauritius born Marthe bringing an authentic African element to the arrangement.
“It’s a very simple kinda groove”, explained Potter to Stuart Nicholson in an interview for the March 2019 edition of Jazzwise Magazine, “but the way it fits is a little different to anything I’d heard. It’s like a way of using this simple material with the rhythmic accents falling with the melody against the bass line, so I wanted to bring that in as a kind of contrast”.
There’s an unmistakable West African lilt to the music and the arrangement allows the rhythm team of Marthe and Harland to demonstrate their virtuosity. Potter largely features on tenor and Francies on electric piano, but there’s an element of judicious overdubbing too on a piece that is infectious in its rhythmic vibrancy and essential in its joyousness.
The title track commences with “Revolver” style backwards tape loops, the “Circuits” of the title perhaps. Harland’s drums then crash in as he and Marthe eventually establish a propulsive groove as Potter’s tenor cuts a swathe through the swirling electronics. There’s an edginess and urgency about this track that is wildly invigorating as the leader cuts loose on tenor, fuelled by Marthe’s deep grooves and Harland’s dynamic drumming. There’s little let up in terms of energy as Harland and Marthe provide the rhythmic ferment behind a wildly inventive synthesiser solo from Francies. Harland himself then cuts loose with a truly volcanic outburst behind the kit and there’s a brief cameo from Marthe at the bass prior to a high energy collective coda. “Circuits”, the track is truly electrifying, a genuine ‘tour de force’.
In his interview with Nicholson Potter also mentions the influence of James Brown, Herbie Hancock and Weather Report and some of this feeds into “Green Pastures” with its rumbling synth bass grooves and effective use of bass clarinet. But the piece is best defined by the leader’s soaring, anthemic tenor and Francies’ quasi-orchestral, Zawinul-esque keyboards.
“Queens of Brooklyn” is the album’s one true ballad, an urban eulogy that features the leader on various reeds, including soprano sax, bass clarinet and flute as Francies, on acoustic piano, and Harland offer empathic support. The latter combines exquisite cymbal work with a smattering of hip hop groove.
The restless “Exclamation” restores the energy levels once more with its darting, scurrying melody lines, Marthe’s ominous bass figures and Harland’s crisply frenetic drumming. It’s a maelstrom of activity topped off first by Potter’s garrulous sax soloing and then by Francies’ contributions on delightfully filthy sounding Rhodes and mercurial analogue synth.
It’s back to the core trio for the closing “Pressed For Time”, written by Francies. The younger man’s hip hop background finds expression in Harland’s syncopated grooves but there’s also a hint of Weather Report in the multi faceted keyboards. As the piece gathers momentum, with Harland a kinetic bundle of energy behind the kit, the leader digs in on tenor, as powerful and fluent as ever and still bursting with ideas. Francies himself figures strongly on Rhodes in a feisty dialogue with the hard hitting Harland.
With its skilful mix of acoustic and electronic sounds “Circuits” is a hugely successful album that combines intelligence and sophistication with raw excitement in pretty much equal measures. The electronic elements (the texturing sampling, looping, layering etc.) are carefully constructed but never detract from the energy and spontaneity of the performances. For all the electronics this is music with a jazz heart, played with fire, passion and precision. The standard of the musicianship is exceptional throughout, with Potter, Harland, Francies and Marthe all performing brilliantly. In turn they are well served by the engineering team of Josh Giunta, Chris Allen and Greg Calbi.
“Circuits” is surely destined to become one of the jewels in Edition’s crown, and no doubt one of its biggest sellers to date. It is highly recommended to all but the most dyed in the wool jazz traditionalists.
And to any adventurous rock fans who may be reading this, having come to the music via Donny McCaslin’s connection with David Bowie, this album is recommended to you too.
Potter is touring the “Circuits” material extensively in the US and Europe, sometimes with Harland and Francies but more often accompanied by players drawn from a pool of musicians including Craig Taborn (keyboards), Tim LeFebvre (bass) and Justin Brown (drums).
The remaining dates are listed below. Unfortunately, and somewhat ironically, there are no scheduled performances in the UK at present, but at least we Brits still have this splendid release – on a UK label – to enjoy.
27th March 19 - Vaulx en Velin, France (Taborn, Lefevbre and Brown)
28th March 19 - Valence, France (Taborn, Lefevbre and Brown)
29th March 19 - Vernouillet, France (Taborn, Lefevbre and Brown)
30th March 19 - Roanne, France (Taborn, Lefevbre and Brown)
31st March 19 - Auditorium del Conservatorrio Piacenza, Italy (Taborn, Lefevbre and Brown)
1st April 19 - Porgy and Bess Vienna, Austria (Taborn, Lefevbre and Brown)
3rd April 19 - Casa da Musica Porto, Portugal (Taborn, Lefevbre and Brown)
4th April 19 - Rotterdam, Netherlands (Taborn, Lefevbre and Brown)
5th April 19 - Tilburg, Netherlands (Taborn, Lefevbre and Brown)
6th April 19 - Utrecht, Netherlands (Taborn, Lefevbre and Brown)
8th April 19 - Moods Zurich, Switerland (Taborn, Lefevbre and Brown)
9th April 19 - Blue Note Milano Milan, Italy (Taborn, Lefevbre and Brown)
11th April 19 - Theater Russelhiwm Russelsheim, Germany (Taborn, Lefevbre and Brown)
12th April 19 - Berlin, Germany (Taborn, Lefevbre and Brown)
13th April 19 - Nasjonal Jazzscene Vitoria Oslo, Norway (Taborn, Lefevbre and Brown)
15th April 19 - Jazzit Musik Salzburg, Austria (Lefevbre and Brown)
16th April 19 - New Morning Paris, France (Lefevbre and Brown)
17th April 19 - Rijkevorsel, Belgium (Lefevbre and Brown)
26th - 27th April 19 - Regatta Bar Boston, MA
30th April - 1st May 19 - Blues Alley Washington, DC
2nd - 5th May 19 - Jazz Standard NY, NY
17th May 19 - Performance Hall at Logan Centre Chicago, IL
18th May 19 - Union Colony Civic Ctr Greenley, CO
21st June 19 - Miner Auditorium - SF Jazz SF, CA (Francies & Harland)
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For more information please visit; https://editionrecords.com/releases/chris-potter-circuits/