New Listen: Chris Potter’s ‘The Sirens’

sirens

It’s only April, but I suspect that The Sirens will be one of my favorite albums of 2013.

As mentioned here, I’ve been excited for its release for a while. The Sirens includes many wonderful ingredients: Chris Potter‘s first album as a leader on ECM (with Manfred producing, of course), supported by a heavy backing band – Craig TabornDavid VirellesLarry Grenadier, and Eric Harland – of a younger generation more akin to Chris Potter than ECM’s old guard. This lineup collectively spans a wide range of ECM’s output, from Charles Lloyd to Dave Holland to Tomasz Stanko to Evan Parker.

Personnel:
Chris Potter – soprano and tenor saxophones, bass clarinet
Craig Taborn – piano
David Virelles – prepared piano, celeste, harmonium
Larry Grenadier – bass
Eric Harland – drums

As one might guess from the album title, The Sirens is evocative of Odysseus’s journey in The Odyssey. In this New York Times interview, Potter clarifies that he wanted to capture moods and impressions rather than compose a programmatic suite à la Berlioz or Wagner. So, although the song titles make specific references, I don’t suggest scouring your copy of The Odyssey line by line with a red pen for each note’s meaning.

One of my favorite aspects of the album is how effectively the musicians paint the various moods and sonic landscapes. Integral to their success is the orchestration. Upon first glance, one could easily dismiss the inclusion of prepared piano, celeste, and harmonium as gimmicky. Virelles, however, couldn’t be more tasteful. He serves a primarily textural function throughout, appearing only when appropriate and rarely in the foreground. One piece in particular in which the orchestration stands out is the title track. Almost nine minutes long, “The Sirens” is without rhythmic pulse. Both beautiful and mournful – much as the Siren’s call and her victim’s fate – it begins with bass clarinet, piano, harmonium, cymbals, and bowed bass (played arco throughout this number). Tension builds in the middle as the bass solos over the ensemble (sans Potter), building in tension until the tenor sax emerges for the final, “Psalm”-esque calls, with Harland now incorporating his full kit. “The Sirens,” together with the following number “Penelope,” a beautiful ballad featuring Potter on soprano, are the centerpiece of the album (and my personal favorites).

All’s not slow and mellow, however. After a soulful full-group introduction, Grenadier then sets the groove for the band to plow ahead on the album’s moderate opener “Wine Dark Sea.” The rhythm section’s interplay, coupled with Potter’s funky, frenetic bursts help the album to set sail.”Wayfinder” continues to march along, featuring an engaging keyboard duet (with rhythm section) between Taborn on piano and Virelles on prepared piano and celeste. The first time I listened to this album, I knew I bought something special when I was halfway through this track. “Dawn (With Her Rosy Fingers)” is the first ballad, preparing the listener for “The Sirens” and “Penelope.” “Kalypso” is the most straight ahead tune on the album. (Though with this band, and Taborn especially, things are never that straight ahead, even in calypso-esque territory.) Back on tenor, Potter’s trademark calisthenics really shine here, as his unparalleled altissimo skills come out to play. Again, as with the rest of this release, taste governs. He’s not showing off; he’s being musical. “Nausikaa” is a lovely gem. A mostly sparse rhythm section supports soprano, piano, and celeste in evoking a starry night sky. The orchestration is dreamy. “The Stranger At The Gate” is the band’s farewell as the musicians plod along on their journey. While a standalone piece, the tempo and rhythms are reminiscent of “Wine Dark Sea,” perhaps signaling the traveler moving on to the next stage of his journey. Finally, “The Shades” – a contemplative improvisation by Taborn and Virelles only – serves as a calm yet haunting coda.

I can’t recommend this album enough. Nor can I listen to it enough! If you’re looking for some new and different jazz, then you simply must purchase this.

Album background by ECM

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