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Analysis: Chris Potter’s Improvisation on Kasper Villaume’s “The Sniper”

BY Dr. Darren Pettit


I have seen Chris Potter on several occasions, and each time I see him perform I am amazed at the level of creative flow that he displays. He seems to possess an unending well of ideas and his solos are always interesting. There seems to be a lack of repetition of vocabulary that is unusual, and I have not discovered many licks that he uses extensively. Nearly every great jazz improviser repeats material. Charlie Parker was exceptionally gifted at repetition without sounding repetitive. Coltrane repeats ideas (sometimes verbatim) from one chorus to the next. In looking at influences on Potter, I would have to say that Joe Henderson more closely resembles his approach than any other player. Most of what is played is entirely original and very little cliché and pet phrases exist. There are a few instances where the vocabulary resembles something from Parker or Coltrane, but it is used in such a way that it is difficult to see.


The tune itself is an AB form. The A section is sixteen measures, and the B section is eighteen measures. The harmony of the entire A section is Gm7. The B section is Bbm7 for fourteen measures, the fifteenth measure is Ebm7 to Fm7, the sixteenth measure is F#maj7 to F7, and the last two measures stay on F7. The F#maj7 is a chromatic insertion (or tritone sub) to get back to the F7, and the F7 at the end of the B section is a backdoor ii-V (without the ii) to G minor. Also, there is an implied ii chord over the Gm7 (Am7) in the A section and over the Bbm7 (Cm7) in the B section. In other words, the A section could be analyzed as Gm7 alternating measures with Ami7. Although Potter does use the Am7 extensively in the A section, I am going to label that as a superimposition over the Gm7. The implied ii chord is incidental and is primarily a comping pattern.


The improvisation is packed full of information. Potter uses chromatic and diatonic enclosures extensively, compound melody, superimposed harmonic structures, metric elasticity, rhythmic displacement, and motific development. These are some of the ideas that I would like to explore in this analysis.


Potter uses enclosures extensively in this solo. Enclosures have been an important aspect to improvisation since the beginnings of jazz. They are used as decorative elements that target specific notes (usually chord tones), and occasionally are used to delay resolution. They also can suggest side-slipping within a melodic structure. Chris Potter uses them extensively and they have become a part of his palette. Most of the examples are a combination of chromatic and diatonic approaches, and Example 1 is no exception with a diatonic A above and a chromatic F# below. It is played over the Gm7, and the target note is the G. The Bb and A are the upper neighbors, and the F# is the lower. Example 2 is similar, but it has a fully chromatic enclosure resolving to C. Example 3 is a double enclosure with Bb and A as upper neighbors, and F and F# as the lower neighbors. I included example 4 to show that it is exactly the same as example 1 transposed up a half-step. It is played over the Bbm7 with the resolution to the seventh. 












The enclosures that are provided in the examples are not all of them. He uses enclosures and chromatic approaches extensively, and I doubt if he even thinks about what they are. Most of the playing in this solo is targeted playing, and enclosures are an excellent way to melodically target a resolution or a temporary shift in tonality. 


Another technique that Potter uses is compound melody. Compound melody is the use of 2 or more simultaneous melodic ideas. Example 5 has an upper melodic fragment that moves rhythmically back and forth between the Bb and C before resolving to the G, a lower melodic fragment that mostly pedals a Bb (with a temporary shift to B), and a middle pivot that primarily centers around E with an occasional D. I’ve broken this into two staves with ex. 5a and 5b to clearly illustrate what is happening.   











This is true mastery at work. This is not a simple exercise, but is spontaneous composition at a high level. To show the reader that it is not a fluke, I’ve included a second longer example below. This is like a Bach violin partita with more chromaticism. The upper melody is primarily a G blues scale with an added B and the lower melody pivots between E, Eb, D, C#, and C. When listening to this, it is apparent that Potter is not only a technician who plays at the highest level of ability, but he is also a brilliant improviser.  



















Another component that Potter makes extensive use of is chord substitution. In example 7, he is playing over a Gm7. The example begins with an outline of the Gm, moves chromatically up to an Abm then AbM, continues up to the Am, then moves to a D7, and resolves to a Gm. So the substitution is essentially: i-bii(bII)-ii-V-i. He then does it again. This creates a harmonic tension in the solo that cannot be achieved diatonically.













 In the next example (ex. 8), Potter is using repetition and imitation as means of motivic development. He also deploys rhythmic displacement and tempo flexibility to add more interest. The initial motif is a descending scalar idea that goes C, Bb, Ab, and G. The rhythm is essentially long-short-short-long. The first imitation is a transposition up a step, the second is down a 4th from the original with an alteration to the interval sequence. The third iteration is the original again, and the fourth is down a fifth and this is with a rhythmic compression. He does this several more times to finish the idea, and winds it up with the “Indiana” bebop lick.













Obviously, transcribing this thing was a bear! Some of the transcription (like most) is an approximation. I tried to get as close to the rhythms as possible, but it is difficult to parse out divisions of the beat when the improviser is compressing and expanding the time while aiming for the downbeat. Melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically, Potter is a target driven improviser. I think this is part of the reason why he is so interesting for me to listen to. Combined with a deep understanding of harmony, his technique is ridiculous (an academic term). For a full analysis, please refer to the transcription itself.


There are stages of learning and understanding the improvisatory arts. The first stage is the informative stage. This is where the student collects information from teachers, players, and literature. Potter’s teachers were Parker, Coltrane, Rollins, Henderson, and Eddie Harris. You can hear them in his playing. Parker with the beautiful lines and chromatic approaches and enclosures, Coltrane with the deep harmonic awareness, Rollins with the development of thematic ideas, Henderson with his own approach to the changes, and Harris with the funk! The second stage is the stage of familiarity. This is where the student takes the unfamiliar information that has been collected, and digests it. Potter has obviously practiced and absorbed the jazz vocabulary. It then begins to be usable information in the form of access. The third stage is fluency. Fluency is a type of competency in the art with regards to usage of the information. It is at this stage that the information becomes comfortable and somewhat easy to use, and it also begins to integrate with the ear. The final stage is the intuitive stage. This is where the improviser no longer needs to think about the material, and simply plays. Direct access to the information is always available. This is the point at which the mind and the ear become interconnected. The music is not entirely pre-determined, the vocabulary just spills out in a stream of consciousness much in the same way that we use language to speak with one another. Potter has clearly achieved mastery.

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