Having the SFJAZZ Collective in residence at the SFJAZZ Center (201 Franklin St. SF) and hearing their season material coming together is always fun and inspiring. To shed some light on their four nights of performances (10/27–30) as well as the inner workings of the band, SFJAZZ staff writer spoke to tenor saxophonist and Music Director Chris Potter.
Saxophonist Chris Potter is a mild-mannered man whose performances can be intimidating.
Not that he’s looking to upstage anyone. He’s not like that.
He’s known as a team player, someone who elevates any given musical situation. But he’s also someone who can take a bird’s-eye view of whatever the situation might be, size it up, and — mysteriously, even if he’s stepping in at the last minute — execute in a “how-did-he-do-that” kind of way. It’s not easy to be the soloist who comes after Potter. The late Jimmy Heath, one of jazz’s most revered saxophonists and musical thinkers, once recalled playing an outdoor gig with 15-year-old Potter. Tourists were wandering about. No one was paying attention — except when Potter took a solo, causing Heath to say to him: “Boy, you’re E.F. Hutton. When you play, everybody listens.”
Potter, now 51, is entering his second season as Music Director of the SFJAZZ Collective, which will perform a program titled “New Works and Reimagined Classics” this month (Oct. 27-30) at the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco. The seven-member all-star band will premiere a bunch of original compositions along with some surprising arrangements of familiar tunes — including one in which Potter melds “God Bless the Child” (by Billie Holiday) with “That’s the Way of the World” (by Earth, Wind & Fire). “There’s a harmonic progression that’s pretty similar” in each, he explains, “and I was like, `Oh, wow, that could work.’ So it uses material from both tunes.”
As said, bird’s-eye view.
Potter has never been a Music Director before — and the Collective, founded in 2004, never had a director until Potter’s arrival. He brings a formidable resume to the role.
Raised in Columbia, S. Carolina, where he began playing professionally in his early teens, Potter moved at 18 to New York and was quickly hired by trumpeter Red Rodney, who recognized talent. (He’d played with Charlie Parker.) Rodney became a mentor, as did drummer Paul Motian, and bassist Dave Holland. Potter played extensively with their bands and, over the years, has collaborated with everyone from Marian McPartland and Ray Brown to Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, and Steely Dan.
He plays killer bebop, he excels at post-Coltrane burnout — and mostly, he just plays like Chris Potter. A model improviser for a generation of saxophonists, he is known for his consistency, his clarity and continuity of line, and his soulful way of shaping solos — connecting the dots to tell stories. It’s been more than 35 years since that show with Jimmy Heath, and people still stop to listen when he plays.
Here is our conversation.
Q: You’ve been given this title of Music Director. The band — by definition — is, well, a collective. It feels like there could be a bit of a contradiction there, and I’ve been thinking about it — how do you direct a collective?
A: I’ve thought about that, too!
Q: Does it get tricky?
A: At first, I wasn’t sure about my role. The fact that it’s a Collective means exactly that — everybody writes music, everybody gets a vote. So what does the musical director do?
But then, just like with any group, I realized that it’s useful to have someone saying, “Okay, let’s work on this now.” Not trying to micro-manage. Just to keep things rolling. So I’ve kind of figured out that that’s what the role entails. On the other hand, everyone is so strong musically, and different members of the group wind up making suggestions about some aspect of an arrangement and the arranger goes, “Oh, yeah!” It seems to be working.
Q: What are your goals as Music Director?
A: I just want the music to be as strong as possible. I want to present something that shows the best of everybody’s talents. One of the strengths of a band like this is that there are so many different voices. Everyone’s coming in with a different compositional slant, with a different way of arranging, with a different way of thinking about things, and that can make for a very interesting and well-rounded program.
It just takes some shaping: What’s the set list? Is everybody getting a chance to solo? Everybody has input, but it’s a bit on my shoulders to present some frameworks for what we’re doing. Because with a group like this, it can get sprawling. Somebody has to say, “Let’s work on this tune next.”
It’s been pretty frictionless so far.
Q: Tell me about the Collective’s repertory for the upcoming season.
A: We’re still narrowing it down. I feel pretty sure that we’ll do an arrangement of mine – I started arranging Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child.” And as I got into it, I realized that parts of it were like “That’s the Way of the World” by Earth, Wind & Fire… So it uses material from both tunes.
The other piece that I’m pretty confident we’ll use is an arrangement by Warren (Wolf, the band’s vibraphonist) of the great Donny Hathaway tune “Someday We’ll All Be Free.” Other than that, (bassist) Matt Brewer brought an arrangement of a Max Roach tune called “Garvey’s Ghost,” though I’m not sure that we’re going to do it. Maybe. We’re thinking it’s a good idea to have enough repertoire so that we don’t have to play the same tunes on every concert, to keep it more flexible.
I think we’ll mostly do original material. We haven’t tried to figure out how things will flow; there’s no set list. Not yet. But I’m feeling the way I did last year. It’s kind of amazing. We don’t have that much contact during the year. I think Warren sent out a text a few months ago: “Hey, is anyone writing a swing tune?” But somehow, when we finally get together, everyone brings what they’ve been working on, and it turns into a complementary set of tunes. There’s a lot of contrast from tune to tune. There’s contrast between tempos and styles, and I think it’s going to hang together really well. We’ve all been saying, “This is going well.”
Q: The Collective is almost 20 years old. I remember going to the first press conference (in 2004), when SFJAZZ announced the group’s formation. Bobby Hutcherson was there. Joshua Redman was there. It was exciting for me. But I’m on the outside. Over the years, I’ve wondered: What is the Collective’s reputation among musicians?
A: I’ve watched a lot of my friends come in and out of the band — musicians whose work I love and who I’ve worked with in various contexts. And it really is a very special situation that there’s an organization such as this that can make this happen. It doesn’t have to happen. It was the fact that SFJAZZ wanted to put a group together that brought this into being.
Everyone in the band knows how high the level of musicianship has been, and we want to continue with that. We know about the band’s earlier editions. We’re proud of it.
It’s a very unusual situation to have a venue — an arts center, a nonprofit arts organization — that can fund something like this and get this level of players together for this amount of time to compose and play this amount of music. Usually we’re all just running around, and it’s often hard to keep a band together for any length of time, and even when you do, just finding time to rehearse is difficult. And here we have all this time to rehearse. We got here October 3rd and we rehearse for four or five hours most days, and our first concert isn’t until October 27.