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Sax Player Mines Homer, Grabs Grammy With Metheny Group

Chris Potter
Jazz saxophonist Chris Potter with his instrument at Central Park. Potter's latest CD, "The Sirens," pays homage to Homer's epic poem, "The Odyssey." Photographer: Claire Stefani via Bloomberg

Jazz saxophonist Chris Potter was in a bookstore paging through Homer’s “Odyssey” -- a book he’d last read in high school -- when he found himself inspired.

“It resonated, with all these big themes,” said Potter, 42, during a chat over coffee at Harlem’s Cafe Amrita in his neighborhood.

The inspiration eventually led to his latest CD, “The Sirens” (ECM Records), which broke into Billboard magazine’s jazz chart at No. 14 a week after its February release.

“This project changed my writing process in a way that I liked,” said Potter, a Chicago native. “I imagined the songs simpler, and I had a core idea of people sailing around the Mediterranean.”

Last year, Potter voyaged as a sideman with Pat Metheny and his Unity Band. The group won a Grammy Award three weeks ago for Best Instrumental Jazz Album.

Potter embarked on a U.S. tour last month as leader of a band that includes Ethan Iverson on piano, Larry Grenadier on bass and drummer Eric Harland. They’re at the Terry Theater in Jacksonville, Florida, on Friday and Saturday.

“I like to be surprised night after night,” Potter said about his band’s approach to the song list. “That’s the strength of jazz music. You’re seeing something made right onstage by the people playing it. What’s enjoyable for me is that feeling of discovery.”

Steely Dan

A saxophone player since age 10, Potter’s star began to rise in his 20s as a sideman for Steely Dan and bassist Dave Holland’s projects.

His profile grew when he formed the group Underground. With the backing of power-drummer Nate Smith and keyboardist Craig Taborn on the Fender Rhodes, Potter’s fierce, narrative solos earned him comparisons to Michael Brecker, who died in 2007. Like him, Potter’s technique is studied in jazz programs by music students and his peers.

“I was always kind of in awe of him,” Potter said about Brecker. “I wished in retrospect I had asked him more questions.”

On “Sirens,” the pace is slow and introspective on songs such as “Dawn (With Her Rosy Fingers)” and “Wine Dark Sea,” named after two well-known Homeric epithets. Potter wonders how the Greek poet would react to the songs.

“What I would really want is to hear Homer sing” his epic, Potter said. “I guess they would have a string instrument like a lyre, and it would be sung. I would like to have been able to see the context in which these stories were told. How many people were sitting around listening to it and what did the melodies sound like?”

Muse highlights include Ryan Sutton on dining, David Shribman on books.

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