Chris Potter, a titanic saxophonist still searching for the ceiling of his prime, has engaged in magnificent horn-blowing showcases (try Lift: Live at the Village Vanguard) and been a member of some memorably strong and cohesive ensembles (with Dave Holland, Dave Douglas, in trio with Paul Motian and Jason Moran, and most recently with Pat Metheny). But Potter has never relied on his compositions with the thematic rigor and imagination displayed on The Sirens, his ECM debut and 19th disc as a leader overall.
The Sirens was conceived in a burst of creativity that mirrors the fluid complexity of Potter’s solos. He had just re-read Homer’s ancient classic, The Odyssey, and erupted with eight songs, all related to his impressions of the epic poem, within a two-week period. He assembled an enormously talented quintet who could exercise rugged discipline and free-wheeling spontaneity. Suffice to say, his bandmates give the compositions full justice.
A key choice was enlisting Eric Harland on drums — a dynamic time-keeper well-suited for grandeur, who proves here, as he does in Charles Lloyd’s quartet, that his carpet-bombing style raises the intensity without driving the band into a frenzy. There are a pair of keyboardists, first among them Potter’s longtime cohort Craig Taborn, who can expertly preserve the natural shape of a fragile ballad like “Dawn (With Her Rosy Fingers), capably ride astride the odd-metered canter of “Kalypso,” and engage Potter’s robust tenor solo with classic jolt of chordal thunder and single-note passages. The other keyboardist is David Virelles on prepared piano, harmonium and celeste, on board primarily for minor but crucial twinkling (and a wonderfully busy interaction with Taborn on “Wayfinder”).
Potter the composer is lucky to have Potter the reedman at his disposal. When his tenor solos stretch the moody opener, “Wine Dark Sea,” near the breaking point, you revel in his well-established gifts. But when his bass clarinet marinates with the bowed bass of Larry Grenadier on the title track, you realize Potter is stretching his compositions too. I particularly enjoy the side tributes to two of his saxophone heroes. “Penelope” is a voluptuous ballad that strays into blues, reminiscent of Wayne Shorter’s composition of the same name, and Potter plays it on soprano, an instrument long associated with Shorter. On the next track, “Kalypso,” Potter gambols on tenor with a modified calypso that veers in and out of avant garde territory but still recalls the scintillating calypsos of Sonny Rollins. There is a delicious confluence at play here: Penelope is the mother of Odysseus, while Kalypso keeping Odysseus hostage on an island for seven years. The same sort of resonant, overlapping details are brimming through the music of The Sirens.