Blue Notes: Chris Potter's 'Odyssey' album

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 April, 2013, 4:08pm

Homer's Odyssey might not appear to have much to do with jazz or the blues, but it has inspired compositions in those areas.

Irish guitarist Louis Stewart, channelling Homer via James Joyce, composed a six-part extended work called Joycenotes which interweaves jazz with passages from the Irish author's Odyssey-inspired 1922 novel, Ulysses.

Steely Dan's Donald Fagen describes Home at Last - from their jazziest album, 1977's Aja - as "a little blues about Ulysses", and Eric Clapton collaborated with Australian poet and artist Martin Sharp on the psychedelic blues song Tales of Brave Ulysses from Cream's classic 1967 album, Disraeli Gears.

Now saxophonist and composer Chris Potter has had a crack at the theme: The Sirens, his latest album and his first as a leader for the ECM label, is based on The Odyssey, and each of the nine tracks takes its title from a character or episode in Homer's epic poem.

"This is an unusual record for me - I came up with all the music in about two weeks, writing with a theme in mind," Potter says.

"I had re-read The Odyssey after many years, and was inspired to write music with that epic, mythic mood in mind. The Odyssey is all about the big themes set in bold relief - romantic adventure and a return to home, temptation and identity, life and death.

"The stories are ancient, but human emotions never change. That's why the book still feels real to us. So I aimed for the music to have a lyricism that stemmed from that timeless human mood - and there's nothing more human than melody."

Potter has featured on several ECM albums by bassist Dave Holland, as well as collaborating with drummer Paul Motian and pianist Jason Moran on 2010's Lost in a Dream for the label.

He first emerged as a young prodigy, playing with trumpeter Red Rodney, and has since performed with a long list of jazz greats as well as playing on the three Steely Dan albums released since 1993 when Walter Becker and Fagen resumed their musical partnership.

Here Potter leads a band comprising Craig Taborn on piano, David Virelles on prepared piano, celeste and harmonium, Larry Grenadier on double bass, and Eric Harland on drums. Potter plays tenor and soprano saxophones and bass clarinet. The Sirens is an ambitious album with a strong line-up of players in an unusual dual-keyboard configuration.

Potter associate Paul Motian died in 2011 but recordings of the drummer are still coming out. The latest is a trio set recorded in 2010 with Marc Johnson on bass and Enrico Pieranunzi on piano. Issued under Pieranunzi's name on CAM Jazz, it is entitled Live at the Village Vanguard - as, or something like it, are many other albums in which Motian, who practically lived in the place, participated.

He was the drummer in the first great Bill Evans Trio which made the landmark Sunday at the Village Vanguard live album in 1961.

Pieranunzi is heavily influenced by Evans, and has written an authoritative critical study, entitled Bill Evans - The Pianist as An Artist, and his choice of personnel here makes comparisons inevitable.

There are resemblances in the styles of the two pianists, but the Italian long ago found his own voice. Pieranunzi's occasional vocal interjections can be distracting, but this is a warts-and-all recording of the remarkable musical empathy between three great players.

Meanwhile, the jazz gig of the week is The New Guitars Unlimited Duo of father and son Ulf and Eric Wakenius at Youth Square Y-Theatre in Chai Wan tomorrow at 8.15pm. For an idea of what to expect, search for those names on YouTube.

Take Three

Another trio of fine jazz albums inspired by literature.

  • Such Sweet Thunder (1957, Columbia): Duke Ellington and his Orchestra pay tribute to William Shakespeare with musical portraits of some of his major characters, several of them renamed in the hip vernacular of the era. Highlights include Lady Mac, Sonnet to Hank Cinq, and The Star-Crossed Lovers.
  • Under Milk Wood (1965, Jazzit): pianist Stan Tracey's jazz suite of the same name was inspired by the famous BBC radio production, featuring Richard Burton, of Dylan Thomas' poetic drama. It includes some of Tracey's finest tunes for a small group, and one of tenor saxophonist Bobby Wellins' finest solos on Starless and Bible Black.
  • Glad Day (1999, Enja): pianist, composer and arranger Mike Westbrook's brass band settings of the poetry of William Blake - some of which date back to Tyger, a 1971 production for Britain's National Theatre on which he collaborated with poet Adrian Mitchell - are among his finest.