Sunday Jazz: Imaginary Cities, Chris Potter and Underground Orchestra

The Jazz world and the classical world are not strangers to each other. New Orleans brass bands and early jazz had its roots in the marches of composers like John Phillip Sousa, Italian Jazz musicians in the 30s studied at conservatories in Europe, and, of course, Wynton Marsalis bridges the gap between the two worlds often. However, what separates Chris Potter from Mr. Marsalis is that where Mr. Marsalis fuses the classical and jazz worlds in his technique, Mr. Potter fuses the two by his imaginative integration of symphonic architecture into jazz. With the help of his newly fleshed out Underground Orchestra, Potter does not just build interesting jazz tunes: he orchestrates and constructs some of the most imaginative music today.

The center of the Imaginary Cities LP is the title four part suite—though symphony is almost as applicable—“Imaginary Cities.” The suite calls to mind some of the most imaginative and challenging works of the last several decades of popular music, invoking works from Coltrane’s A Love Supreme (itself a four part jazz masterpiece) to Dream Theater’s “The Count of Tuscany” and Rush’s “2112.” What ties the works together, and why they act as a kind of spiritual foundation to Potter’s work, is in their ability to accomplish one of the most difficult tasks in all of art: world building. While Rush had the aid of Neil Peart’s Randian lyrics to build their dystopic epic, Potter accomplishes similar through instrumental passages alone. As Potter’s melancholic yet easy saxophone drifts over the bright, popping background phrasing of the strings, piano, guitar, and drums on “Part 1: Compassion” one cannot help but picture a picturesque, noir, slow crawl through a sleepy city. Similarly, the mix of ascending and descending structures, and overall geometric and highly shaped feel of “Part 2: Dualities” creates a true sense of the urban sprawl of these “imaginary cities” that Potter wants us to conjure. As a small note of the cheeky brilliance of Potter’s arrangement, the melodic figures of “Dualities” all feature, unsurprisingly, a pairing of two instruments: sax with strings, guitar with vibraphone, and bass with drums. It’s a small detail, but one that reinforces the sense of how specific and defined Potter’s vision is.

There is even further subtlety and genius in Potter’s orchestrations. The most profound of these moments comes in “Part 4: Rebuilding.” Through a dynamic utilization of push and pull and volume control, Potter and the Orchestra actually give the sense of architectural construction in the music. Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and the beboppers may have captured the mechanized, modernized sounds of the city, but they never captured or recreated the sound of city being constructed. This is one of many things that Potter and his masterful orchestra are able to accomplish. Push and pull, contrast, and dynamics are three of the most potent tools in Potter’s arsenal. Potter, as does the rest of the underground orchestra, understands what few do in jazz, or most popular music today, and that is the need for sonic separation and distinction in a composition (let alone a whole LP). To this end, and again evoking A Love Supreme, Potter’s clear influence in his soloing is Trane himself. Across the four parts of “Imaginary Cities,” but especially in “Part 3: Disintegration,” Potter lets the spirit of Saint Coltrane possess him and move him to the ecstatic fury of the latter’s sheets of sound and, more potently, the kind of existential wailing found in Trane’s free period. While Potter nails the nuances of Trane’s signature tones, he manages to accomplish this without sounding derivative. The trick here is in the presentation. By juxtaposing a style of soling very reminiscent of John Coltrane against a very non-typical arrangement for a Trane solo—the highly orchestrated, jazz/classical fusion provided by the Underground Orchestra—Potter makes the sax come off as his own, most personal voice.

Unfortunately, Imaginary Cities suffers in the same way that 2112 does: there is other material on the record. While Rush’s other five songs on their LP are quaint next to their magnum opus, what Potter and the Underground Orchestra play is nowhere near as disappointing. In another context, say on another record, all of the material would just be more engaging, but falls flat of “Imaginary Cities” imagination and scope. While Potter leads the group in Albert Ayler levels of free jazz mixed with Schonberg darkness on “Shadow Self,” “Firefly” and the 12-minute closer “Sky” can veer close to smooth jazz syrup-y, blandness. “Sky,” even with this problem, comes out with “Lament” as excellent cornerstones to the LP. “Lament,” the eight minute opener, does well as a subtle, building invitation to Potter’s fantasy land, and an easing in of the orchestral strings to the jazz idiom. “Sky” lets the rest of the group finally take flight as Potter does in solo across the record’s eight tracks. Pianist Craig Taborn takes a dizzying Tyner/Melhdau inflected glide before the leading instruments (sax, piano, guitar, vibes, strings) come together in unison for a soaring, bombastic midway melodic break. This gives way to the only true strings solo; a heroic piece played in unison by violinists Mark Feldman and Joyce Hammann and violist Lois Martin.

If Chris Potter did what John Coltrane did for A Love Supreme—keep the LP to the title track alone—he would have an airtight, grade “A” masterpiece of an album. He does not, for better or for worse, as listeners still get some beautiful and challenging music from the LP’s other half. Regardless of extra content, Chris Potter and the Underground Orchestra have created one of the most dynamic, atmospheric, and imaginative works not only in jazz, but in the field of modern popular music. Imaginary Cities proves that Chris Potter is not just a composer of interesting jazz; he is an architect of powerful, imaginative music.

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