in performance: chris potter

Chris Potter. Photo by Tamas Talaber.

There are fewer artistic triumphs greater for a contemporary musician than to successfully mold and recast and a tradition into something original. There was a striking moment – one of many, really – in tonight’s performance by Chris Potter at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center where that occurred with seemingly accessible ease.

It came went an unaccompanied Potter skirmish on tenor sax eased into “Togo,” a decades old work by the late drummer Ed Blackwell with roots that reached back to melodic traditions from Ghana. Potter, though, presented the tune as a conversation piece with a largely hypnotic sax solo that spread itself patiently over the slight, steadfast support of guitarist Adam Rogers, bassist Fima Ephron and drummer Dan Weiss. At times, shades of the tune’s West African heritage were revealed (Togo is the country that borders Ghana on the east). But by the composition’s conclusion, the modest drive of Potter’s tenor lead and his group’s subtle, sustained groove sounded almost Eastern.

The reverence with which Potter addressed the tune with was indicative of the entire 95 minute performance, the most significant booking in the debut season of the locally produced Origins Jazz Series. The quartet was largely structured after Potter’s long running Underground band, although it wasn’t officially billed as such. That meant the prominence of two electric players (Rogers and Ephron) along with modest electronic embellishments on Potter’s part that provided loops and echo effects to brief runs on clarinet and flute that created an attractive orchestral ambience at times.

While the bulk of the show flirted with notions of funk and fusion, the music never fully surrendered to either. The funk rolls in the concert-closing “The Wheel,” for instance, embraced groove even though the tune’s restless nature continually shifted rhythmic gears. The same held true for the opening “Train,” which juggled moments of funk and boppish glee, and “Pop Tune # 1,” which tastefully suggested elements of Southern style soul more than any overt pop strains.

As a footnote, it was enormously encouraging to see such a hearty turnout for this performance. Jazz – serious, adventurous, sit-down-and-listen jazz – is a hard sell outside of major metropolitan markets. While the Lyric was well short of capacity, the attendance was generous enough to suggest the Origin Jazz Series may well be on its way to establishing a following in Lexington for such original and invigorating music. Let’s hope so.

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