Friday, October 21, 2011

Chris Potter's Solo on "Ducks in a Row"

In 2009 my brother John and I recorded our debut album, Uncertain Living, and asked Chris Potter to guest on a couple tracks. We were floored when he agreed to do it, and when it came time to record we were doubly floored by his playing. So much, in fact, that we transcribed his solos. I personally transcribed his solo on my composition "Ducks in a Row." Following are a link to an mp3 clip of the solo (I'm only sharing because I own the copyright to the music), links to the transcription for Bb, concert, and Eb instruments, and a fairly thorough analysis of Potter's solo.

MP3 ClipChris Potter's Solo on Ducks in a Row.mp3
Transcription PDFsTranscription in BbTranscription in CTranscription in Eb


Note: I'll be referring to the Bb Tenor transcription in the analysis.

Harmonic Approaches

There are three main harmonic approaches found in this solo. One is Potter’s use of both chord tones and upper extensions of the chord to form basic musical building blocks with a different tonal center than the original root of the chord. Another is the anticipation and delayed resolution of certain chords. The last is his ability to create chord progressions that coast over the top of the original underlying chord. He uses this approach to melodically and logically arrive at destinations far away from the original chord and then to get himself back again.

The first two approaches are used primarily in the solo’s first section, which happens over a moving chord progression. Following are examples of the first approach in which chord tones and upper extensions become other musical sounds. Potter extracts a number of different sounds from these chords, and one of the most prominent is the pentatonic scale and its variations. In measure 1, Potter plays notes forming an F minor pentatonic scale (F Ab Bb C Eb) over an original F#Major7(#11)/F chord. The F minor pentatonic scale is formed using the 7th, 9th, 3rd, 11th, and 6th of the F#Major7. Because this is a slash chord the bass is playing an F and the F minor pentatonic sounds strong and natural. Potter uses a filled out F minor sound in measures 5 and 7 over the same F#Major7 chord. On the F#Major7 in measure 3 Potter uses a Bb minor pentatonic scale (Bb Db Eb F Ab), which uses the 3rd, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 9th of the F#Major7. In measure 15, on the same chord, he uses a simplified Bb minor sound. In measure 9 on beat 3, during the same chord, he outlines an Eb minor arpeggio (Eb Gb Bb Db), which uses the 6th, root, 3rd, and 5th of the original chord. These same type of formations are used over the other major chords that occur throughout the solo up until the vamp, which starts in measure 25.

Dominant chords receive a necessarily different treatment. A D713(#9) in measure 12 has both a B minor triad (B D F#) and an Ab Triad (Ab C Eb), which use the 6th, root, and 3rd, and the #11th, 7th, and b9th of the D7. Potter plays an A major pentatonic b6 scale (A B C# E F) over the G7(#11) in bar 18 using the 9th, 3rd, #11th, 13th, and 7th of the chord. In the first half of both measures 23 and 24, Ab13#11 and Bb13#11 respectively, there are augmented major 7 arpeggios based on the 7th, 9th, #11th, and 13th of each chord. Potter plays a major arpeggio off the 9th, #11th, and 13th on the second half of measure 23, and on the second half of measure 24 he plays a variation using an augmented triad instead off the 9th, #11th, and 7th. Generally there are a lot of triadic colors of all types as well as a few extended colors.

The delayed resolutions and anticipations happen consistently in the first section of the solo. The first anticipation occurs in measure 4 which is a D13(#9). The last half of beat 4 includes the note Db which does not relate to the D13(#9), but it is the 5th of the chord that follows in measure 5. In measure 6, which is DbMaj7#5, there is an Ab on beat 4. Ab, technically dissonant to DbMaj7#5, works as an anticipation being the 9th of the F#Maj7#11 that comes in the following bar. In bar 7, an anticipation on the last half of beat four includes the two notes of E triad, B and G#. The B only works in context of the chord that follows in bar 8, an F#min7 chord. In bar 8 (F#min7), the 4th includes an A# as a resolution, which is an anticipation to the F#Maj7#11 in bar 9. Beat 4 of bar 9 (F#Maj7#11) includes the notes G and A as part of a clear DbMaj7#5 sound in anticipation of that chord in bar 10. There is a possible anticipation using an Ab major triad (Ab C Eb) on beat 4 of measure 12, which also works as an altered sound over the measure’s chord D13(#9), but the Ab triad could also be seen as an anticipation of the F#Maj7#11 in the following bar. Another anticipation occurs on the second half of beat 4 of bar 15, where a D is played foreshadowing the E713(b9) that follows in the next bar. These are all the significant anticipations in the solo.

Delayed resolutions happen less often, but they are another way Potter varies harmonic rhythm. The first delayed resolution happens on the first beat of bar 3 (F#Maj7#11) where he continues to play the same DbMaj7(b6) sound that he played in bar 2 (DbMaj7#5). The other delayed resolution happens in bar 21 (EbMaj7b5) on the first beat where Potter plays an Ab minor triad (Ab B Eb), which is a continuation of the Dbmin11 sound that happens in the preceding bar. There is also one instance in bar 10 where not only is the chord from the preceding bar (F#Maj7#11) continued over the DbMaj7, but the resolution could be argued to not come until beat 3 or 4 or even not at all. Delayed resolutions, though few, do play a part in creating the malleable harmonic canvas of the solo.

When measure 25 hits a D7 vamp begins, and Potter switches his harmonic approach and begins to create progressions that shift over top of the vamp to explore territories that have some, little, or no relationship to the original D7. The first hint is given in measure 29, which starts out with an enclosure of the 5th (A) of the chord but then shifts to an enclosure of Bb and then Eb suggesting an EbMaj7#11. The Eb tonality is resolved back to the D7 in the following measure much like a tritone substitution resolving to its I chord. The Eb material could be drawn from either the D altered scale (D Eb F F# G# A# C) or from an actual shift in the implied harmony to EbMaj7#11. In measure 34 Potter plays on Ab Major or F minor and then continues to Bbmin7 in the following measure. The Bb minor is then resolved back to the D7. Since Bb minor shares so much in common with Eb7 the resolution back to D7 is again very similar to a tritone sub resolution. In measure 36 Potter picks right back up with the Bbmin7 and resolves it to an E tonality accentuating the consonant notes E and B only. Following on beat 4 of measure 37 and continuing on into measure 38 Potter descends a minor 3rd to DbMaj7#11 foreshadowing the descending minor 3rd motion that happens in measure 39. Following the DbMaj7#11 material he moves to an Eb7 tonality. The Eb7 is resolved in the following measure but only for a moment. In measure 39 Potter moves through a progression of tonalities descending in minor 3rds spending only 2 notes on each tonality. This is the bare minimum of the 5th moving to the root. The progression moves through the tonalities D, B, F and D, but then he breaks from the pattern by defining a B minor triad on beat 4 and then moving down to Bb minor in measure 40. This entire progression is ended by a climatic ascension back into D7 in measure 41.

Coming into measure 45 Potter begins his harmonic explorations again. The last three 16th notes of measure 44 (Ab B F) define an Ab dimished triad, which is used to tonicize the augmented Eb triad which comes on beat 1 of measure 45. The Eb augmented triad is decorated with neighbor tones, and it is followed by consecutive ascending parallel sounds seen very clearly by the top note of each phrase which ascend in whole steps. Because augmented triads are symmetrical at the Major 3rd they each could be called by 3 different names, but for the sake of simplicity I will refer to them from their lowest note which also happens to be the first note of each phrase. The ascending parallel sounds consist of the original Eb augmented triad at the beginning of measure 45, followed by an A augmented tonality, and in the second half of measure 46 a B augmented triad completes the parallel ascending sounds. The first tonality could be alternately analyzed as an Abmin(Maj7) when analyzed starting from the Ab at the end of measure 44. This alternate analysis illustrates the ascending voice leading which happens with the lowest note of each consecutive phrase (Ab to A to B). Combining the augmented triads in measure 45 results in the Eb whole tone scale, which could have been the source for this progression. This Eb7#5 again suggests the tritone sub of the V chord, which is exactly what we get as the final B augmented triad resolves to an A half-diminished in measure 47 with a neighboring Ab diminished triad in the second half of the measure, which resolves through descending half step voice leading (B on beat 4, Bb on the and of 4, and A on beat 1 of) back to D7 in 48.

Potter finds another point of departure in measure 51 where he superimposes F7 which continues through measure 52. A fully diminished F#7 arpeggio is introduced in Measure 53 which becomes an Ab7#9 arpeggio. On beat 2 of measure 54 there is a quick appearance of an E major arpeggio which is followed by an F#min7 arpeggio continuing through the end of the measure. This is followed by a descending Emin7 arpeggio in measure 55 and then an Ebmin7 arpeggio. Following, in measure 56, comes Bb minor pentatonic, and from here we get our familiar resolution from Bb minor to D7.

The last significant harmonic departure comes in the second half of measure 67. On beat 3 there is a quick appearance of a B tonality (B and D# only), which shifts to Ab major going into measure 68. The Ab major is followed by Db major, which resolves back up to D7. The Db major shares all its notes with Bb minor and Eb7 and appears to be another variation of the Bb minor or Eb7 to D7 resolution.

The most common theme appears to be the exploration of the Ab Major scale including Bb minor, Db Major, and Eb7. Potter gets a lot of mileage out of a few sounds by creatively varying the way he uses them. There were also some directional progressions like the tonalities descending in minor thirds in measure 39 and the descending minor 7 arpeggios in measures 54 and 55. Potter manages to completely depart from the D7 tonality in all of his harmonic departures, and he manages to take the listener with him through his musical logic and melodic ingenuity.

Melodic Structures

Potter uses many of the normal melodic elements you would expect to find in a jazz solo including modes of the major scale, melodic minor scale, and diminished scale, arpeggiation of major, minor, augmented, and diminished sounds, and blues and pentatonic sounds. Potter decorates these sounds approaching and surrounding goal notes using both neighbor tones from the original scale and chromatic neighbor tones. As discussed above these sounds appear in consonant settings as well as in very dissonant setting. When used dissonantly the natural strength of these melodic structures give the ear something to hold on to. One device that he uses, less easily explained by traditional jazz theory, is his intervalic structures or lines which are formed primarily by a common interval or set of intervals.

The first appearance of an intervalic line is in a consonant setting starting in measure 31 continuing to the down beat of measure 33. The main interval used is a tritone and is the naturally occurring tritone in D7, C to F#. These notes are decorated by chromatic lower neighbors B and F, which are twice played consecutively giving the line a second tritone. At the beginning of the line the C and F# tritone takes aural precedence, but as the line progresses the B and F tritone becomes an important part of the line.

A progression in measure 39, mentioned earlier in the harmonic analysis, also has a very strong intervalic component. This line consists of ascending perfect fourths descending in minor thirds. After the line breaks its sequence the perfect fourth remains an integral part of the phrase. The opening sequence of perfect fourths does imply harmonic movement but also stands by itself without the harmonic implications due to its intervalic integrity.

Other than these two examples the melodic sounds in this solo are generally easily defined, and Potter mostly uses conventional melodic techniques here. It is his unconventional harmonic setting and rhythmic setting of the common material that keeps it fresh and personal.

Use of Rhythm

There are a wide variety of rhythmic techniques used throughout this solo. Hemiolas, diminution, poly-rhythmic phrases, as well as the idiomatic techniques of triplets and alternating accents are all found in the solo. Potter tends to intermix all of these techniques freely giving the rhythm an element of unpredictability.

The opening pre-vamp section of the solo is characterized by shifting in between 16th note based rhythms, 32nd notes, 16th note triplets, and even the occasional quintuplet or septuplet. Hemiolas also help create rhythmic interest in the prevamp section. The first hemiola begins on beat 4 of measure 7 and is formed from four 16th note triplet beats. Three of the triplet beats are given the pitches of a descending triad and the fourth is a rest. The hemiola continues until beat three of the following measure where it shifts into a snaking descending pattern. The phrase is ended by two consecutive occurrences of the original hemiola pattern displaced by the inserted descending pattern. A diminution forming a hemiola is found in measures 15 and 16. The original rhythmic pattern is made up of two sixteenth notes of an unvarying pedal pitch on the upbeat followed by an 8th note of a varying higher pitch on the down beat. The pattern is introduced on the second half of beat 1 in measure 15. The diminution is found on the second half of beat 4 in the same measure when the pattern is shortened to a hemiola group of three 16th notes. The first 16th note receives the original pedal pitch and the second 16th receives the varying higher pitch. The third 16th of the group is simply a rest. This diminution of a duple pattern forming a hemiola gives the phrase a strong forward energy.

Once the vamp starts there is a stronger emphasis on the16th note subdivision. Though the subdivision becomes more stable there is still a wide variety of rhythmic techniques present. In the first measure of the vamp, measure 25, Potter starts a short phrase on the second half of beat one. The first note of the phrase is then used to start a variation of the same phrase only this time its played starting on the beat. This is a rhythmic displacement of a similar phrase, and it strengthens the groove. There is a diminution in measure 29 when a pattern of four 16th notes played on beats 2 and 3 is shortened to a group of 3 16th notes on beat 4. Potter also shifts the accent from on the beat on beats 2 and 3 to off the beat on the second half of beat 4. More rhythmic displacements can be found in measures 37-38 and 39-40. One last example of Potter’s use of rhythm is a poly- rhythmic phrase starting in measure 61. Its starts with a quintuplet spanning beats 2 and 3 moving into a triplet. The phrase continues shifting between triplets and groups of 4 over three 8th notes on the last three 8th notes of the 7/8 measures. Though the subdivision switches back to duple in measure 66 the 4 over 3 continues to be found in the next 7 bars until the end of the solo. These examples were the more prominent examples of rhythmic variations found in the solo, but, as mentioned in the introduction to this section, there are other techniques and examples found throughout the solo.


Potter is extremely creative both in harmonic movement and in rhythmic variation. He manages to take the same melodic material traditional jazz musicians have been working with for nearly a hundred years and make it sound fresh and appealing. Similar to Charlie Parker, Potter drives his lines forward rhythmically giving the solo a continuous forward momentum building lots of energy on the way. It is also important to note that even in his most climactic moments there is a strong rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic accuracy. The strength of this solo is shown in these climactic moments where Potter continues to creatively improvise despite the velocity and intensity of his playing. His creativity, sometimes unconventional, and clearly expressed ideas make this a truly great solo.


  1. Hello Ben,
    I am huge fan of Chris Potter and thanks for posting this.Today I was trying it out and found quote: bars 33-35 "Scrapple from the Apple". Very nice indeed, he starts in key of F and concludes half step above.Very clever!