The Sirens is saxophonist Chris Potter’s ECM debut as a leader, an album of mood and melody inspired by Homer’s The Odyssey – both its epic atmosphere and its timeless humanity. Potter – who has featured on several ECM albums by his mentor Dave Holland, as well as collaborated with Paul Motian and Jason Moran on the contemporary classic Lost in a Dream – has composed a cycle of irresistible songs without words. These pieces are conveyed by a subtly virtuosic, strikingly textured band: with Potter on tenor and soprano saxophones and bass clarinet, plus Craig Taborn (piano), David Virelles (prepared piano, celeste, harmonium), Larry Grenadier (double-bass) and Eric Harland (drums). Potter declaims lyrical lines over the dynamically inventive rhythm section, as the coloristic keyboards shimmer like stars in the night sky.
“This is an unusual record for me – I came up with all the music in about two weeks, writing with a theme in mind,” Potter explains. “I’d re-read The Odyssey after many years and was inspired to write music with that epic, mythic mood in mind. The Odyssey is all about the big themes set in bold relief – romantic adventure and a return to home, temptation and identity, life and death. But even though those themes take place in this archetypal space, they are things we all deal with today. The stories are ancient, but human emotions never change. That’s why the book still feels real to us. So I aimed for the music to have a lyricism that stemmed from that timeless, very human mood – and there’s nothing more human than melody.”
Potter’s voice is that of the poet – balancing light and shade, lyrical above all, whether it’s his song-like opening on tenor sax in “Wine Dark Sea” to his romantic cries on soprano in “Penelope”. As the Irish Times put it about the saxophonist’s playing: “When Potter is spare and laconic, he adds a touch of volubility; when Potter is expansive, he is a model of restraint.” The New Yorker put it this way: “A tenorist who can remind you of Joe Henderson at his craftiest, Potter employs his considerable technique in the service of the music rather than spectacle.” For The Sirens, Potter says he was “out to play the storyteller. Rather than blow through some really difficult changes, I want to set a mood, tell a tale.” The saxophonist has ideal partners for his voyage. He says: “These are some of my favorite musicians to play with – they can play anything and everything, from straight-ahead to free. And we’re all contemporaries, having watched each other grow up musically and sharing a lot of the same generational influences.”
Pianist Craig Taborn – whose ECM solo album Avenging Angel came out in 2011 to acclaim and who has played on bassist Michael Formanek’s two recent, lauded ECM quartet albums – has had a fruitful association with Potter, playing Fender Rhodes in the saxophonist’s electric band, Underground. “Underground is a very different sort of group, but Craig can do so many things well,” Potter explains. “He is extraordinarily knowledgeable about the history of the music, and he’s sensitive to each situation, always aesthetically in tune and uncompromising about playing the most beautiful thing in the moment.” Taborn’s beautifully melodic inspirations in “Dawn (with Her Rosy Fingers)” make for an especially captivating moment on The Sirens.
Potter played with bassist Larry Grenadier in Al Foster’s band in the 1990s, among other settings, and the saxophonist has long been enamored of Grenadier’s “sense of time and groove, his beautiful sound and choice of notes – his thing is distinctly his own,” he says. Potter and drummer Eric Harland have played together under Dave Holland’s direction in multiple ensembles, including the bassist’s Overtone Quartet. “Eric’s technical facility is such that he can execute a lot of things other drummers can’t,” Potter says, “but he’s really interested in creating a vibe – and I love that.”
Up-and-coming keyboardist David Virelles plays a textural role on The Sirens, adding prepared piano, celeste and harmonium. Potter says: “David has a voice that I really want to see develop – he has such tremendous ability. He really took to the coloristic role in the studio, getting creative with preparing the piano and adding that sound of ‘glistening stars’. He and Craig also improvised a musical event that we used as a shadowy coda to the record.”
Music like that of The Sirens, with the open forms and an emphasis on lyricism, presents challenges, Potter says: “You have to know when to dive in, but also when to leave space. The musicians need to have strong personalities but also a certain maturity – and that’s why this band is just what I needed. These guys are state of the art.”
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, Potter 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.