Saturday, January 17, 2015

Chris Potter Interview and Imaginary Cities

If you haven't heard, Chris Potter's fantastic new album, Imaginary Cities, is out. The record seems to have two central focuses, writing for a unique instrumentation (includes string quartet) and improvisatory exploration. The writing is detailed and beautiful, and borderland that is explored is multifaceted and satisfying. You can hear a track from the album on the ECM site here. Here is the promo for the album:

I had the opportunity to do a short interview with Chris. There are a number of important concepts Chris presents here, which he has learned deeply through musical experience. Check it out, and grab a copy of Imaginary Cities:   Amazon -   iTunes -

Ben: The new record, Imaginary Cities, is really great. Your playing is fantastic, and the writing is joyous, deep, and interesting on lots of levels. In the video promo for the record you talked about wanting the music to create these ideal cities in the mind of the listener. Related to this idea, I remember you saying in another setting that you felt human beings communicated things in music that we couldn't with words. Could you tell us a little more about your artistic process. How did these concepts of imaginary cities influence the music? Were there any literary inspirations?

Chris: Thanks Ben, in the past few years I’ve found how helpful it can be for me to think of something extramusical when playing and composing, because it takes me out of the realm of notes only, and into the use of notes as vehicles to express feelings and ideas. With Imaginary Cities I had a vision of cityscapes in my mind, but on another level I was also thinking about the organization of cities and what ideal cities might look like, where the need of human beings for functional communities would be placed above the desire for profit and technological progress. I am interested in reading about these kinds of subjects, and while the issues are extremely complex and difficult to resolve, I think any child can see that the world of human affairs could be organized better than it currently is!

Ben: One thing I have been focusing on recently myself is improving my ears. On the recent facebook interview, you mentioned that playing the piano can work as ear training. You wrote,
"The best ear training things I've done I'd say are playing along with recordings, and playing piano. After a half hour playing the piano, my ears feel much more wide open, and I find I can sometimes technically execute things that were difficult before, because I hear them more clearly." 
Personally, I think the most helpful exercises have immediate apparent positive effects, so this last comment really caught my attention. Can you describe specifically what you are practicing on the piano in these time periods?

Chris Potter: It’s a little difficult to describe what I do at the piano, I usually take some standard I know well and kind of deconstruct it, sometimes playing traditional changes and improvising in the right hand, keeping close attention to voice leading, other times I stretch the harmony, finding new chords that fit the melody, or alter the chords and melody together, or sometimes I'll elongate certain sections to concentrate on one tonality, etc. Voice leading is such a key thing to making it all sound good, and the principles of good voice-leading can be applied to playing a single-line instrument like the saxophone as well.

Ben: I've heard you talk about what you practice on a number of occasions, including playing piano, working on overtones, sequencing ideas through challenging progressions like ascending or descending major thirds, playing drums, and lots of improvising: improvising with parameters, in different tempos, in different keys, applying concepts during improvisation, etc. Could you walk us through an ideal practice day? In this hypothetical situation you don't have gigs you have to prepare for. Instead, you just have some hours of free time for the next few days to improve your craft.

Chris: I wish that situation occurred more frequently these days! What I do these days is just get out the horn and start playing, and see where it leads me. Some days I might end up concentrating on playing free, some days I might be interested in some harmonic idea, some days I might end up focusing solely on sound (production/embouchure/breathing), some days I might be thinking primarily about rhythm, and some days I might just try and play a simple blues until I feel I’ve reached through to the “real thing”, whatever that is. Really, at this point for me it’s all about finding that “real thing”, trying to play some music that transcends the horn and the form of music, and reaches through to the essence of art. It’s a serious challenge, this essence always seems to keep moving and eluding me!

Ben: Lastly, I have a question on improvising and performing. In an interview at NYU with David Schroeder, you talked about an experience you sometimes have when performing music during which your playing isn't shaped by conscious effort but instead feels like a "stream of consciousness". The music flows so naturally that you feel almost disconnected form the experience and are listening to the music that is coming through you, similar to the experience of being in an audience. You describe this as an ideal performance state. I've also heard you say that you "surprise" yourself sometimes while playing, which I personally find is related to this experience. In the NYU interview you said that you can't force yourself into that state of mind, but you can do things to help it along. Could you expand on that?

Chris: Keeping relaxed and not forcing anything is the key. All the cliches about being “in the moment” really apply here-if there are any “should”s or “supposed to”s in my mind, it usually doesn’t work! I try to let go of the goal of even sounding good, and focus only on my own enjoyment and excitement about the creation of sounds and the feelings they elicit, and if all goes well that enjoyment and excitement will reach the listener.

A big thank you to Chris for taking the time to write and for making beautiful music!


  1. Great Interview Ben! I bought the album the day it came out and have really been enjoying it. I hope you are well and your doctoral studies are going smoothly.

    1. Thanks, Barry! Yeah, things are going really nicely. I'm getting to do some serious composition this semester.