Chris Potter’s Underground Orchestra ‘Imaginary Cities’ (ECM) 3/5

chris-potterAs a saxophonist Chris Potter’s got it all; multi reed player with tremendous skill, power and versatility. Whether it be his incredible performances as part of Pat Metheny’s Unity Band, his sublime, thoughtful side as heard on, among others, Paul Motian’s wonderful “Lost in a dream”, or on his own dazzling Underground Quartet featuring Nate Smith on drums, Adam Rogers, guitar and Craig Taborn, keys. Indeed, the quartet’s album “Follow The Thin Red Line; Live at the Village Vanguard” is well inside this listener’s imaginary list of top ten albums. The Underground Orchestra is underpinned by Potter’s aforementioned quartet, but that’s where any similarities end for this ambitious recording.
Potter made his debut for ECM with the 2013 release “The Sirens”, an acoustic quintet album that covered new ground for Potter, seeing him leave behind his fire-brand style of previous outings for a more thoughtful, introspective recording, very much in the expected ECM mould. “Imaginary Cities” utilises an eleven piece band, consisting of his aforementioned quartet with the addition of vibes/marimba, two bassists and string quartet led by Mark Feldman. The inclusion of strings allows for Potter’s writing throughout this release to be both daring and expansive. “With strings” is a debatable subject within jazz, my thoughts on this being that it’s rare we hear an album that successfully integrates strings into a composition, rather than them sounding like a “because I can” add-on. There are obvious exceptions where it does work to wonderful effect – just two of these being Michael Brecker’s “Wide Angles” and closer to home, Chris Bowden’s “Slightly Askew”. And so the question is, does Potter pull it off here? Well, yes and no. “Imaginary Cities” has at its core a suite of four pieces; “Compassion”, “Dualities”, “Disintegration” and “Rebuilding”. Somewhat oddly, it is for me on the tracks either side of the main four-part movement that Potter succeeds in integrating the strings most successfully here. The opening track “Lament” is a beautifully arranged piece that builds around its textural opening to a point where Potter has the freedom to improvise. This is where he’s at his spellbinding best as he constructs a wonderful solo, the first of many across the entirety of this lengthy release. (71 minutes). The three tracks that follow the “Imaginary Cities” suite; “Firefly”, “Shadow Self” and “Sky” all allow Potter to experiment with the classical/jazz crossover that this release at times personifies. Of these three compositions I particularly enjoyed the closing piece “Sky”. Not only are the strings wonderfully incorporated into the feel of the tune, but it also features some of Potter’s best writing and performing on the album. An uplifting and alluring piece of music in its own right. On to the main suite then. Part One: “Compassion” begins in a dream-like nature, the piano and strings gradually combining to lead us into the melody provided by Potter’s warm tones. The tune builds to a high point with some incredible soloing from both Potter on tenor sax and Adam Rogers on guitar. There is a dance-like Pizzicato start to Part Two: “Dualities”. Bassist Scott Colley and drummer Nate Smith then drive the tune into new territory, even allowing Caribbean flavours to touch our palette. Chief soloist again is Potter along with a wonderful marimba solo from Steve Nelson. Part Three: “Disintegration” sees Potter take to the soprano, blowing freely over some far more abstract orchestration. Craig Taborn provides excellent support and we are then led into Part Four: “Rebuilding”, which kicks off with the awesome power of drummer Nate Smith. The original theme becomes evident once more, with Potter once again providing us with an awesome Brecker-like solo. Rogers also gets in on the act as the rhythm section shows its class as the track first develops into a hard groove before twisting and turning its way through a series of complex arrangements to its final conclusion.

On the upside, throughout the four piece suite and the other four tunes, there are undoubtedly passages of brilliance. The highlights are, for me, provided by the exceptional musicianship of the key performers, rather than the compositional nature of the tracks. I can’t imagine hearing a better soloist than Potter anywhere.
On the downside, it is heavy going in places and the use of strings does at times sound somewhat superfluous and overworked. Personally, I am both a huge Chris Potter fan, and a huge ECM fan. I’m just slightly unsure at this point in time whether the two parties sit that well together. Time will tell I guess. Whilst I am sure “Imaginary Cities” is an exciting challenge that Potter quite rightly wanted to write and record, I do wonder, rightly or wrongly, if the ECM ethos has helped or hindered Potter in his music making here. One could perhaps argue either way; has he been constrained a little or has he actually been able to be more adventurous? Whatever your view, and in the end it’s all down to personal preference, Chris Potter remains one of the jazz world’s leading lights and I look forward with great anticipation to hearing his next musical adventure.

Mike Gates