Mar 21, 2013
It’s been a week since I saw Chris Potter play with his quartet (David Virelles (p), Larry Grenadier (b), Nate Smith (d)) and two weeks since I saw Kurt Rosenwinkel with his (Aaron Parks (p), Eric Revis (b), Justin Faulkner (d)) and I’ve been wrestling with how best to describe what made these shows so different and, not to put too fine a point on it, why the Chris Potter show was so much better.
Top of Their Game
The most obvious reason, I guess, is that Potter’s band is just better. Larry Grenadier (picture above) is a “best of his generation” bass player, David Virelles is as rhythmically inventive and harmonically adventurous as they come, and Nate Smith plays drums in a way that is commandingly funky as well as surprisingly understated (he played a solo that built so slowly and massively that he was halfway into it before you knew what was happening).
To top it all off, of course, is Chris Potter himself. Combining a pop sensibility (that reminds me of Stan Getz, though Potter sounds nothing like him) with a protean mastery of the instrument, Potter can be at turns lyrical and wild, brainy and melodic. And whether it’s a question of his acumen as a leader or the collective intelligence of the ensemble, the group moved effortlessly with him and around him into realms that seemed both uncharted and sublimely familiar, as if we had been transported to a 80s era Brecker Brothers New York funk throw-down infused with an unheard of at the time nuanced modernism.
Long story short, Potter’s set was energetic, energizing and everything I want when I go see live jazz: amazing musicians playing astonishing, improvised music.
Which is not to say that Rosenwinkel’s quartet is not comprised of talented musicians. They are solid players all (and, frankly, when Justin Faulkner let loose towards the end of the set I saw, it entirely elevated the proceedings). For his part, Rosenwinkel, too, is a “best of his generation” player (to the extent that, a few years back, John Kelman lamented his “almost too pervasive influence on younger guitarists”). Indeed, Rosenwinkel’s first solo, delivered with his space-age, “hornlike” tone and deft phrasing, was captivating. Listening to it I thought to myself, “This is why I’m here.”
Unfortunately, this thought was not sustained or, perhaps, even sustainable. At fault, in part, was the sound mix. Parks’ piano was at intervals difficult to hear, Revis’ bass perpetually muddy. At fault in part as well was the instrumentation. Having much enjoyed the Weather Report-esque, prog-jazz turn of Rosenwinkel’s most recent album, I was hoping that at least we would get to hear some electric piano. Instead, we had Rosenwinkel’s Holdsworthian guitar competing (and winning, I suppose) with a conventionally acoustic rhythm section.
But perhaps the biggest issue is the basic concept of the band. It is, without a doubt, Rosenwinkel’s, and I would say everyone (including myself, truth be told) was there to see him, not them. On this front, at least, he did not disappoint. His playing was fairly inspired throughout and, at times, “shreddy” enough to drop the jaws of the many guitar-hero-worshippers in attendance.
It’s just the experience would have been that much better if the whole had sounded as good as this one part.
As someone who has struggled for years to become a competent musician, I’ve tended to look with a jaundiced eye upon much music criticism. If a critic finds fault with the work of a musician or performer, and said critic is not a musician or a performer, my stock response is the old standby, “If you think you could do better, go do it!”
Still, I am disappointed, at times, when I go to see music and I believe that this disappointment has something that the musicians or performers could learn from (though I have also learned that musicians and performers, generally speaking, are not entirely open to the recommendations of total strangers).
So what could Kurt Rosenwinkel learn from my disappointment, or, alternately, my enjoyment of Chris Potter’s performance? The only thing I can think of is this, which is more or less the advice I would give anyone: Surround yourself with musicians who are as talented or more talented than you are.
That being said, I know it ain’t easy, especially because, let’s be real, it might just be a question of money. Chris Potter has been both a successful sideman and a successful group leader and, for whatever reason, was able to hire (I assume that’s how it worked) great sidemen who are recognized masters in their own right.
If Kurt Rosenwinkel can’t do the same (not to diss the guy’s he’s currently playing with), I understand.
If he can, then I encourage him to do so.