Chris Potter Underground Orchestra: ‘Imaginary Cities’


Saxophonist and composer Chris Potter’s triumphant, expansive, visionary and boundary-blurring new release Imaginary Cities marks his second as leader for the ECM label, following 2012’s “The Sirens.” The creative impulse here stems, in part, as Chris himself puts it, from a “non-specific utopian idea of how the modern city could be better.” This idea is the impetus behind the album’s eponymous centerpiece suite, a four-part work embedded into the album’s fabric in its programmed placement as well as being an idea reflecting a more generalized societal concern for our contemporary lives.

“Imaginary Cities” features the debut of the largest ensemble yet assembled by Chris as leader, exceeding by one member and with slight personnel adjustments 2007’s “Song For Anyone” (Sunnyside). Further embedding in the form of two distinct quartets is heard and found in the sound and workings of the eleven-member ‘Underground Orchestra’ ensemble: Chris’s long-standing ‘Underground Quartet’ – Chris on saxophones, guitarist Adam Rogers, pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Nate Smith – and a string quartet - violinists Mark Feldman and Joyce Hamman, violist Lois Martin and cellist David Eggar. Steve Nelson, vibraphone and marimba, bassist Scott Colley and Fima Ephron on bass guitar complete the orchestra’s personnel.

The album opener, “Lament,” beginning elegiacally, concludes not in dejection but rather resolve. The “Imaginary Cities” suite – Compassion-Dualities-Disintegration-Rebuilding – the crux of this release, opening with a noble expression of social concern and fellowship, proceeds through notions of societal contrast and conflict both desirous of mutual action yet prone to conflict and breakdown, ultimately ascending toward the desired revivifying of a communally renewed and restored common environ in which we all may live and relate better. “Firefly” opens in skittering fashion before quickly finding footing and forward momentum, here as elsewhere, in the supercharged funk predilections so characteristic of the Underground Quartet. “Shadow Self,” opening with an extended string quartet statement, spotlights Chris’s bass clarinet deftness. With its use of drone, Arabian and Indian-melodic strains and long-spun Western-harmonized melody, the vast, clear, polyglot “Sky” is a grand summation of the album’s conceptual core.

Chris’s tenor, bold and biting, tough and tender, is magisterial throughout, the thrusting momentum of his solos never slackening. The orchestra, brawny yet lithe, is rhythmically spot-on, with Craig, Fima, Scott and Nate commandingly coaxing the ensemble. Adam Rogers and Steve Nelson contribute mightily, the string quartet expertly woven into the ensemble. It’s an exemplary overall achievement, and an early candidate for a “Best of 2015.”

Chris Potter Underground; 'The Wheel' - LIVE in Stuttgart, 2009