The Saxophonist: How long have you been playing with the group that performed last night?
Chris Potter: We did a bunch of gigs with James [Francies] playing keyboard and Eric Harland last year and we recorded a record, which hasn't come out yet. So it's a project that kind of began in the summer of last year, sometime around then. It was just so much fun that I decided to record it. So, this was actually the first time Eric wasn't able to make it and Obed [Calvaire] filled in and he did an amazing job.
This is obviously a much different kind of thing then a lot of more acoustic music I've made. It's the sound of the synths, the loop pedal that I have, and the delay and harmonizer kind of stuff. It's fun for me to be able to kind of explore these sonic areas that just lead you in a different kind of a creative direction and maybe have more to do with some of the music that's coming out now, things with loops, things with samples.
SM: So you think that's where jazz is heading?
CP: I think that's one direction. Jazz is kind of anything that we make it. That's the thing about it, where exactly it begins and ends is not definable. If you start doing that then the music is dead, but it's obviously not. It can grow in all kinds of ways; this is one way that feels kind of like it's got some vitality to it to me. It's not that we're explicitly trying to sound like hip hop or anything, but it definitely comes from exposure to that music and all kinds of music. And just the sonic environment, again, it makes you think of different things. This is the first time I've done it where I didn't have the sampler with me. There's another piece of equipment which is really samples of stuff that I introduce. I didn't have that yesterday, but that's also fun because I make these samples at home and I'm not like, sampling other records. I'm using whatever instruments I have at home (I have a bunch of instruments) and then kind of messing with the sounds in certain ways. And it's almost like a different form of composition. The way that you can combine these textures can really be surprising. So yeah, it's an interesting avenue for me.
SM: Who is someone that you've shared the stage with, that has strongly inspired you or has had a huge impact on your playing?
CP: There's a long list. I'm lucky. I moved to New York with a thought in my head that I wanted to work with musicians that I'd been listening to that inspired me and I've had a chance to work with a lot of them and I've learned so many things along the way that I didn't know that I would. All the musical relationships that I've had over the years have all given me something. Probably the longest continuing one has been with Dave Holland, who was very inspiring on a lot of levels, obviously one of the benefits is one of the strongest voices on the bass that's ever been. He's a very strong person and just seeing how he navigates through life. Now I've known him and we've been working together for a little less than 20 years.
I've had a chance to work with McCoy Tyner, John Scofield, and Paul Motian. There's a long list of people now that I've had a chance to work with. Steely Dan, musicians with widely different ways of working and different things that they are kind of focusing on in their music. Jim Hall is a name that should be in that list, [he] has kind of taught me that any approach can work really if it's done with enough vision and following through.
Dave Holland, he's very methodical in how he works and how he practices, [he] take[s] a musical problem and just looks at it from as many different angles as possible, and thinks about it in this way. Someone like Paul Motian is much more by instinct, relying on artistic instincts and just going, okay, there needs to be a cymbal beat here and then silence and then one snare hit or something. I always got the feeling that he was trying to approach the drums as if he'd never seen a set of drums before and of course, it only worked because he actually could play the drums. He had great time and he had control over the instrument and could get a bunch of different sounds out of it. The music that we'd make had a different focus because it was about what the artistic choice was going be from one moment to the next.
Pat [Metheny], he likes to really have things in order. Depending on the situation, a lot of the music that we were doing (which was more structured), he's thinking of it as having a compositional structure and even the solos fulfill kind of a compositional role, so they're kind of getting from here to there and then you go into this other section, and it works like that. Working with Herbie [Hancock], he was just kind of like anything goes, you just didn't really know which direction he was going to go at any moment because he could go anywhere and that's kind of how he enjoys making music. So all these different relationships with musicians that are on such a high level, have given me so much inspiration.
SM: Is there anyone that's not a musician that's made a huge impact as well?
CP: My family, that's the first thing that comes to mind. Of course the people I grew up with and then the people I share my life with now. It's hard to think of any one person. I read a lot, so I think I get a lot out of that. Ways of thinking about the world and ways of thinking about art I get from literature as well.
SM: So you move from South Carolina to New York at a young age. Was that a big transition for you?
CP: Oh yeah, it was terrifying. I just dived in. I was 18 and naive enough to just dive in, which I'm glad I did. But I didn't know how much I didn't know. I hadn’t ever lived on my own before and then I was in New York. I was at the New School for one year and then I was at Manhattan School of Music for a couple of years. So I did have school to go to. That was some kind of structure, but honestly, I wasn't really that interested in school. I was learning but my real focus was on hanging out and seeing all these great musicians that I've been listening to for years and getting experience working with as many as many people as I could.
SM: So did you start off gigging right away?
CP: I joined Red Rodney’s band maybe three months after I moved to New York. That was kind of a taste of what the jazz life really is like. You go on the road and you make recordings. It's such an incredibly valuable experience; having that direct link with someone that worked with Charlie Parker and the first wave of bebop. He was a true bebop character.
SM: What does your practice schedule look like now?
CP: It’s always been kind of a mess, I'm not that methodical. There are things that I work out. If I really want to be able to deal with this, I'm going to have to make sure I do it in every key. See if I could do it backwards, see if I can do it retrograde, whatever kind of thing, but I don't usually have a plan when I start. I just pick up the horn and I start playing and it’s never that long before something occurs to me that I can't quite do, that I could do better, or just something that catches my interest. And then time goes by.
It's whatever works. Something that I was mentioning in the master class, is that the reason that I've spent so much time doing this, is really because I enjoy it. So as long as you can keep that enjoyment going in (in whatever way it is), then anything and any process can work. This is something I feel like what I've learned from having worked with all these musicians with completely different ways of working, is that whatever thread it is that you're wanting to follow, go ahead and follow it. I'm not the 30 minutes and then 30 minutes of this kind of guy. That's not the way my mind works. Sometimes I think the way that I have learned things has not been really efficient. Maybe it could've been more efficient, but I'm on the other side. When you try things and you try to keep making things work that really don't work, then you end up understanding deeply why they don't work. If you really just go through and make the mistakes, then you learn why they’re mistakes and then you go back. I feel like I've done a lot of that.
SM: So what point in your life did you want to pursue music as a career?
CP: I started playing around 10 years old and I just got interested in it right away. By the time I was 13, I was starting to work around Columbia, South Carolina and definitely all through high school. Playing lots of weddings and venues, and I was playing a few times a week. I don't remember ever having to decide. It was just what I did. If I had chosen to do something else when I graduated high school, everybody would have been like, what are you nuts? I was fortunate to have a family that was supportive of it. It's like a phase that I started going through that I haven't grown out of. I don't think I will at this point.
SM: When memorizing a tune, what’s your process?
CP: A lot of times I kind of like to play it through on the piano.
SM: Would you say that piano is as important as playing saxophone to you?
CP: There's no way that I would have the structure in my head and it just because it's more visual, but also you can hear more than one note at a time. When it says f minor seven, you can
mess around with what that means, as a group of notes. You can hear lines against other lines. So as far as learning a tune, I would often start just kind of check out what the structure of it is on the piano.
Some of the time, I can look at the chord and then I can just kind of hear in my head what it is. I just start trying to play through it and notice different things that are connected in different ways. Also, get an idea through the changes. That's a big thing I was thinking about too, is like not just thinking in blocks (one chord to another chord), but thinking how can the lines move through it, how can there be a thread that begins here and goes through the tune, which is how we perceive music.
It’s just playing through it a bunch. I'm a firm believer in getting rid of the music as soon as you can. It's really easy to not really memorize a set of the changes and use a real book. Even if you played a tune a bunch if you just don't kind of decide, okay, I'm gonna learn it, then you can keep reading it for a long time. But I really find that when I internalize the structure of a tune and what the harmony is and everything from memory, I play differently on it. I just understand it in a kind of a deeper way.
That’s something that I kind of believe in almost every situation is, the less paper you have to look at the better. I mean obviously written music is hugely time-saving, a way of getting information across, there's no way that you could have all this incredibly complicated music without some system like that, but that's not music.
I want to make sure that I'm forcing my mind to understand what the intervals are and how it works together so that I can then move those sounds around. If I read it, I’m actually making the sound and you can execute these things. Then once you're done playing it, you don't necessarily have any more of an idea of how it works, then you’re at when you started. Unless, you force your mind to go, okay, what's happening here? How is this being structured?
SM: Do you have to think about theory a lot now or is it all in your ear?
CP: Theory exists as a way to explain how the sounds work. I still have to think about it. When I'm writing and I'm looking for what's going to be my next move, I don't want it to be chaos. There has to be some kind of organizing reason for making the moves.
But there's always more to learn in this way. I've sort of gotten addicted to watching these YouTube videos where they have the score going while you hear the music, and I'm learning a ton from them. Today [I watched] Chopin and a lot of it's pretty basic but there's all these little twists and turns in ways that the voice leading goes to make it sound as clear as possible. It’s all these things that are in the textbook. So when you hear the clarity of it and the beauty of it, there's a reason that the theory is expressed that way.
SM: What are some of your favorite albums of as of right now?
CP: I say that a lot of the albums that I listened to when I was first starting are still very special to me. I think that's often true because it makes such an impression when you're first starting out.
There’s a Duke Ellington suite, called “The Queen's Suite.” I remember hearing that on the radio when I was 11 or something. “Charlie Parker with Strings: Live at Carnegie Hall,” I think there's only five tunes, but he's just sailing over the strings and it was the first time that I heard Bird [Parker] where I just understood what was going on. “Giant Steps,” was kind of the first record of Trane’s [John Coltrane] that I heard that really got me. Obviously “Kind of Blue.” That was a big one. There’s just so many. There's a lot of those early records that are still really special, where I just know every note.
SM: Out of your fifteen plus albums you have recorded, do you have a favorite?
CP: Yeah, usually it's the new one. It's a weird thing actually, to hear some of my older records. It’s better than I thought it was, although not always. Because you're picking every little thing apart to try and understand, what worked and what didn't you're looking at every nuance under a microscope. It’s also something that you're involved within the moment. So yeah, it's often the latest one. There's a new one with my new group that you saw [at the concert] that I've been working on, and the record was super fun to make to because I had it a lot of overdubs in my home studio. I used flutes, clarinets, guitars, gongs and all kinds of stuff.
SM: Do you have a process for writing your own compositions?
CP: I generally have an idea of what the ensemble is going to be and who's going to be in it. I think about their musical personalities because that really determines how the music will play out. Sometimes I just write tunes just because I just want to write a tune, but usually I have an idea of who's going to play it, which really helps me to focus on what it.
Then you start thinking about what the focus is going to be. Is it going to be acoustic, do you want it to be more similar to a straight-ahead kind of language. Do you want it to be super spacey and airy? Do you want it to be super funky? Do you want it to be very difficult or maybe simpler forms so that you can do different things with it? Usually one leads to another and then you're starting to also think different moods. Does it have somewhere that it can go? So it all varies.
SM: How do you feel about bootlegs [recordings]?
CP: It's interesting. I've found that there's a real generational divide. I'm right in the middle. Most folks that are older than me just hate it. [But] a lot of folks younger than me just are like, well that's just what everybody does. You just assume that that's what everyone is going to do. It's just kind of a part of life. It's not worth being mad at. I don't mind it that much. There are some things that I don't like as much as other things. It's kind of annoying when the quality is bad. If I'm sitting there watching it and [thinking], ‘I really would not get interested in my music from this clip.’ I don't know if it helps or hurts. I just don't know.
The fact is 20 or 30 years ago when you would produce a record, you would want to keep control over what's out there because it's being sold. Of course people were making tapes and sharing them, but a large amount of people were going to the record store and buying recordings. I do hope that people will listen to what I choose to put out, because that's what I'm choosing to put out. That's what I'm working on. It's like you spend all this energy with writing music, getting a
band together, and then the thing that gets the most hits or whatever is just me doing a tune by myself. But I'm not a hundred percent against it. It just seems like that's the way it is.
SM: What's your best advice that for someone that's like an upcoming musician that wants to play jazz or music for the rest of their life?
CP: It always seemed like a ridiculously risky thing to do, but maybe now more than ever. If I was a young musician coming up, I don't know. People that need to do it, they just need to do it. You might not end up being able to really make all your money by playing music. You never know but it's worth a shot. I really don't like that there's so much focus now that musicians have to be their own publicity machine. That can be such a drag on your time which would be better spent actually orking on music.
If you want to really be a musician, the most important thing is for the music to be strong and not everyone is going to be able to maybe go on the road and be the leader. But you can find some way, and everyone tends to find their level. I think because people need music, the ways of monetizing what you do as a musician, that's gotten harder. But what I see when I go around the world, is that there are people who are just really into it and it really must give them something and that's important.
If you can focus on the music, that's where the joy comes from. I wish I had some easy answers because it's not easy. There’s a lot of talented people I find, but the people that that ended up really doing it are the people that spend the time. Like natural talent is really not enough, there's just a dedication to it and trying to get better.