Got the Keys to the Kingdom -
Live at the Village Vanguard (2023)
By Dave Lisik | Published September 2023
1. You Gotta Move (14:01)
2. Nozani (10:53)
3. Bloodcount (9:01)
4. Klactoveedsedstene (7:26)
5. Olha Maria (6:22)
6. Got the Keys to the Kingdom (13:37)
A college music major friend of mine introduced me to some early Chris Potter recordings in 1993. His description of Chris’s saxophone playing at the time, when Potter was only about 21 years old, was, “Music just pours out of this guy.” I’ve never forgotten that phrase and it’s almost a constant in my head as I’ve listened to Chris’ music for more than thirty years. I still agree with that assessment of his musicality as much as ever.
Now, in his early fifties, Potter is one of the premiere living jazz musicians. While attempting to rank any of his work, especially his individual saxophone playing, from a quality perspective, poses a particularly daunting challenge, Chris’s multiple “Live at the Village Vanguard” recordings have a unique appeal as special live events captured in time.
“You Gotta Move,” the spiritual brought to prominence by Mississippi Fred McDowell and The Rolling Stones, opens with a short, bluesy fanfare of a cadenza and, if we’ve spent any time at all with his previous recordings or live performances, Potter clearly identifies himself in an instant. He wastes no time ushering the band into the groove and immediately has us settled in to appreciate the gorgeous nature of his impeccable time. The new bridge sounds even more like Potter’s signature work and, if we use a touch of imagination, we’re transported to a seat in the front row of the famed Village Vanguard and couldn’t be happier to be there.
Chris Potter develops lines and motives on a level that is difficult to believe, almost constantly. His sense of timing and the variety within his repetition always goes further and is even more unexpected than you needed to be amazed, and those moments are a near-perpetual reaffirmation of why you’re still listening.
After a brilliant piano solo by Craig Taborn, and then a return to the melody, the simple bass ostinato continues for too many repetitions to count while Marcus Gilmore thunders away, beautifully, on the drums. Some hypnotic motivic repetition by Potter molds a coda for the tune. The unique resonance and texture of his tenor sound itself could sustain interest through countless repetitions of any motive.
“Nozani Na,” a Brazilian folk tune is next. Composer Heitor Villa-Lobos has a number of works in the classical saxophone repertoire that stood out as especially interesting to me as a young composition student. The choice of this tunes raises several questions that would be interesting to discuss with Potter about his history of playing any of Villa-Lobos’s work but my most prominent thought listening to Potter throughout the opening and melody is that he transforms this piece and imprints his unique and indistinguishable stamp on this tune as effectively as any of his originals on other projects. And as I say that, close to the end of the tune there are some clear glimpses of Coltrane’s sound, a constant reminder that with Chris, there is, at all times, all of jazz and tenor saxophone history on display, hidden within this extraordinary and cohesive musical personality.
One of the most beautiful tunes performed by Johnny Hodges in the Duke Ellington Orchestra was Billy Strayhorn’s “Bloodcount,” made particularly poignant if you understand that Strayhorn composed the work as he was dying of cancer and finished the work in the hospital. Taborn opens with a dramatic, modern, and virtuosic solo piano cadenza. Potter joins in a lengthy duet with Taborn and plays a lot of frantic and searching notes, before starting in with the main melody. Potter’s intimate familiarity with Johnny Hodges’ original version seems a given although he keeps us in two parallel worlds where we simultaneously seem aware of the 1967 recording and also hear everything we expect from Potter’s modern amalgamation of everything that’s ever been played on the saxophone.
Charlie Parker’s “Klactoveedsedstene” reminds us of Potter’s early bebop virtuosity, time with Red Rodney’s band, and that his abilities to weave a seemingly endless variety of lengthy and enthralling musical stories is better than ever. Again, Marcus Gilmore is stunning and inventive while trading with Potter on this track and then during his extended solo.
“Olha Maria,” by Antonia Carlos Jobim, begins with a Scott Colley bass cadenza more reserved than the end of the previous tune. He and Potter play together beautifully as a duo for a considerable stretch. Colley's playing throughout this live set deserves a few additional paragraphs, or pages, complimenting his time, sound, and the level of interest in his playing behind solos. With players on this level, pointing out that their sense of time is impeccable, seems too obvious to be worth mentioning. But regardless of the content of what’s being played, complex or simple at the extreme edges, time is the most fundamental and beautiful aspect of this music and you have to marvel at the consistency and imagination with which these players execute their ideas.
The gospel, “[I’ve] Got the Keys to the Kingdom” is only a touch shorter than the opening track. The counterpoint throughout the melody is satisfying and executed brilliantly by this incredible band. Potter’s solo is as acrobatic and muscular as anything he’s done. The final drums solo, again over an ostinato, is fantastic.
Potter isn’t as young a man as he was when I was introduced to his music, more than three decades ago. But he has many more decades of potential of music making ahead of him and a seemingly insatiable and youthful desire to keep exploring. It’s a privilege to be around to hear Chris Potter’s music be created, evolve, and be released into the world almost as quickly it happens.
Chris Potter: tenor saxophone
Craig Taborn: piano
Scott Colley: Bass
Marcus Gilmore: drums
Engineering: Tyler McDiarmid and Geoff Countryman at the Village Vanguard
Mixing: Chris Allen at Sear Sound
Mastering: Nate Wood at Kerseboom Mastering
Album artwork: Oli Bentley
Executive producers: Dave Stapleton and Louise Holland
You Gotta Move (Mississippi Fred McDowell); Nozani Na (Amazonian folk tune, transcribed by Edgar Roquette-Pinto and Heitor Villa-Lobos); Blood Count (Billy Strayhorn); Klactoveedsedstene (Charlie Parker); Olha Maria (Antonio Carlos Jobim/Chico Buarque/Vinicius De Moraes); Got the Keys to the Kingdom (traditional/spiritual)
Shadows and Light
Matt Wilson Quartet