Imaginary Cities, an album of great power and expressive range, is the recording premiere of saxophonist Chris Potter’s new Underground Orchestra. At the core of this larger ensemble is the personnel of his long-established Underground quartet – with Adam Rogers, Craig Taborn and Nate Smith – now joined by two bassists, a string quartet, and Potter’s old comrade from Dave Holland Quintet days, vibes and marimba virtuoso Steve Nelson.
The title composition is a suite, panoramic in its reach, with movements subtitled “Compassion”, “Dualities”, “Disintegration” and “Rebuilding”. The scope of the work, and its contrasting moods and thematic continuity, inspire some of very Potter’s finest playing, including some extraordinary solos. His saxes fly high above his imaginary cityscapes or launch into dialogues or group improvising with its gifted inhabitants. Four further pieces – “Lament”, “Firefly”, “Shadow Self” and “Sky” – extend the feeling of the suite, successfully combining both tightly written material and very open areas involving all members of the orchestra. References are multi-idiomatic and multicultural, and Potter, who counts Charlie Parker with Strings amongst his formative enthusiasms, had Arabic and Indian string sections in mind, as well as contemporary composition, when shaping this material. The track “Shadow Self”, meanwhile, reflects the influence of Béla Bartók.
Potter assembled the Underground Orchestra originally in response to an invitation to present music at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York. “There was an idea that it could be something that I hadn’t done before. So I started with the Underground quartet, with Craig Taborn on acoustic piano in this case [as opposed to the Fender Rhodes he usually plays in the small group] and then kept adding more and more players. No bass player in the Underground group? Well, I’ll have two this time. In my mind I was hearing a real thick rhythm section sound, also with vibraphone and piano. The way Fima [Ephron] and Scott [Colley] play together and improvise together makes a lot of things work in this music. And then the strings … eight or nine years ago I’d done an album called Song for Anyone where I’d written a little for strings. I didn’t want a classical-meets-jazz feeling. I wanted it all to be completely integrated. And, in places, the lines between the written material and the improvised material would be a little blurred, and the strings would improvise, too.” Not the least of the achievements of Imaginary Cities is the way in which Potter has extended the tremendous rhythmic drive of his Underground band into his music for the larger group.
The concept of the four movement structure of “Imaginary Cities” emerged slowly: “It really evolved from the writing. I had this idea of imaginary cities, a non-specific utopian idea of how the modern city could be better. Not that I’m writing a manifesto of what I think urban planning could be…It just seemed like a compelling way to organize my thoughts. It started out just being one tune and then I saw how one theme could migrate to another mood and continue it and be another aspect of the same thing. So it ended up being four movements with thematic development through the whole thing.” Potter says that he conceives of the whole album – the suite and the four additional songs arranged for the same musicians – as one unified sound.
Since bursting onto the New York scene in 1989 as an 18-year-old prodigy with bebop icon Red Rodney, Potter has steered a steady course of growth as an instrumentalist and composer-arranger. A potent improviser and the youngest musician ever to win Denmark's Jazzpar Prize, he has forged an impressive discography that includes 15 albums as a leader and sideman appearances on 100 more. He has performed or recorded with such leading names in jazz as Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Jim Hall, Paul Motian, Ray Brown, John Scofield and Dave Douglas, as well as with the Mingus Big Band. Potter made his ECM debut on Dave Holland’s 2000 album Prime Directive, following that with appearances on the bassist’s Not for Nothin’, Extended Play: Live at Birdland and What Goes Around. Along with featuring on Steve Swallow’s Always Pack Your Uniform on Top and Damaged in Transit, Potter collaborated with Paul Motian and Jason Moran on the 2010 ECM album Lost in a Dream. In 2013 ECM released The Sirens, Potter’s conceptual album inspired by The Odyssey of Homer, with a quintet featuring Craig Taborn, David Virelles, Larry Grenadier and Eric Harland. The album was greeted with a chorus of praise from international critics
Imaginary Cities was recorded in December 2013 in New York’s Avatar Studio and produced by Manfred Eicher.