Renowned and prolific saxophonist Chris Potter follows up his 2019 Circuits Trio Circuits as pianist/keyboardist James Francies and drummer Eric Harland, both bandleaders themselves, return in one of today’s high-profile trios. Last year Potter delivered a solo effort, There is a Tide, in which he played all instruments. This time out, he surrenders most of the rhythm duties to his bandmates but much of a multi-instrumental approach remains, delivering layers, textures, and colorful effects. Potter plays tenor and soprano saxes, clarinets, flutes, sampler/keyboards while Francies weaves in plenty of both acoustic piano and electronic backdrops with his multi-hued keyboard approach.
The music is deeply intense, provocative, and even in a few spots touching on some of the spirituality, we associate with Coltrane. That’s likely because some of the issues that became so universal this past year, the Black Lives Matter movement, the climate crisis, and the world in the throes of a health pandemic bear some similarities to those of Coltrane’s era. You hear this in Potter’s meditative, expansive soloing of “Sunrise and Joshua Trees” and “Peanut” with Francies creating the ethereal effects. The studio recording represents a collective release of the three from the lockdown and their energy and synergy ranges from explosively joyous to deeply reflective and profound.
On “Sunrise and Joshua Trees” Francies opens with richly haunting, ominous, oscillating keyboards for Potter’s gentle seamless entry on tenor, which co-incidentally reminds of the recent pairing of Pharoah Sanders with the UK keyboard wizard, Floating Points. In fact, Potter’s tenor does float above Francies’ sonic backdrop and the subtle Harland pattering. The intensity builds in the middle section, but they exit ever so smoothly. “Southbound” finds Potter again on tenor on an inventive, elongated solo that at times features both vigorous and restrained support from Harland and Francies through the first five minutes before he yields to Francies who takes his signature rapid keyboard runs in his own meandering statement before Potter rejoins among a flurry of Harland drum rolls.
”Serpentine” employs tricky staccato rhythm patterns as Harland steers the trio into some of the disc’s wildest, engaging interplay as Potter blows clusters of notes backed by Francies’ powerful chording before the leader steps out an aggressive, exploratory tenor solo that continues and peaks in intensely until his abrupt yield to the adventurous Francies, again on keyboards at the midway point, pushed by Harland’s forceful patterns and shimmering cymbal work. Potter then returns echoing his tenor statements with soprano on the theme while his bandmates maintain the furious pace, eventually creating space for Harland to step forward. When Potter re-enters near the end, he begins calmly and confidently before bringing this wonderful joyride to a fiery climax. The well-placed downward shift in tempo comes in the ballad “Peanut,” with the leader exhibiting a gorgeous, spiritually tinged tone as Francies offers both piano and keyboards in support along with Harland on brushes.
That piece serves as an enticing lead-in to the 24 plus minute “Nowhere Now Here/Sunrise Reprise” which has elements of everything preceding it and more. Potter begins on flute and before the piece is over, has likely employed all the woodwinds in his considerable arsenal as skittering drums and forceful Rhodes comping keeps pushing him to the outer reaches of his tenor. Given room, Francies then dances all over his keyboards before Potter restates the theme and gives way to Harland while the sampler introduces the sound of heavy bass for the first time in the album. The electronic sonics increase a bit behind the leader’s statement, later evolving into a more exploratory, searching mode as the trio seems to be treading water, finding their footing in a mysterious abyss in this Weather Report-like sequence. The sampler bass and Harland then go into a steady groove mode, creating some drama as to what will follow. Francies creates lush swirling effects before the leader enters with a burst of notes, riding above Francies atmospherics and Harland’s ever insistent beats. Then the piece enters yet another phase, eerily electronic around the 20-minute mark, as both Francies and Potter are likely both engaged in keyboards, peppered with Harland beats before fading and evaporating.
This is an amazingly creative band with Potter revealing yet again why he is one of the strongest contemporary improvisational saxophonists. This work has the elements we associate with the spiritually leaning saxophonists of the ‘60s era – Coltrane, Sanders, Shepp, and Lloyd; along with the electronic backing that can evoke Weather Report or some of Michael Brecker’s best work. So, its scope is wide, its moods are expansive and exploratory, all adding to a sonically rich and riveting listen.