So much of jazz is based around improvisation, and much of jazz saxophonist Chris Potter’s musical career has been made up as he goes along.
“I don’t even remember deciding to be a musician,” Potter said during a recent telephone interview. “By the time I was finished with high school, that’s just obviously what I wanted to do.”
Potter will be in town this weekend for a Saturday show with the Whitworth University Jazz Ensemble, a group that has performed with numerous jazz notables, including Arturo Sandoval, Joshua Redman and Kenny Barron.
“The chance to hear Chris Potter in Spokane is a very rare opportunity for Whitworth students and people from the greater Spokane area,” Dan Keberle, Whitworth music professor and director of jazz studies, said in a news release. “Among international jazz critics and professional jazz musicians throughout the world, he is regarded as one of the top saxophonists alive and performing today – he is truly an unbelievable talent. It will be a thrilling concert for anyone who attends.”
Potter grew up in Columbia, S.C., and started playing the saxophone when he was 10. Because his parents had a lot of jazz records around the house, Potter listened to Paul Desmond, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane from an early age, and he knew that jazz would be his music of choice.
He moved to New York when he was 18, eventually graduating from the Manhattan School of Music. When he was still in his teens, Potter started playing gigs with other local jazz musicians, most notably bebop trumpeter Red Rodney, who had played alongside sax legend Charlie Parker.
“When you’re living in New York, you’re living in this huge city,” Potter said. “But you’re dealing with this community of musicians, and it’s kind of like this small town within this big city.”
Potter has since become one of the most renowned and recognized modern saxophonists, and in 2000 he became the youngest musician to be awarded Denmark’s esteemed Jazzpar Prize for excellence in the field of jazz.
As a recording artist, Potter has been steadily releasing solo records since 1992 – his latest album, “The Sirens,” was released last year – and has worked as a session musician for the likes of Pat Metheny, Ray Brown and Steely Dan.
But despite the acclaim and experience, Potter says he’s always feeling out what directions his music will take him.
“For me, it feels new every day,” he said. “Whenever I take the horn out, there’s something I find that’s interesting to work on and a sound I’m looking for.”
Since Potter was in his early 20s when he started his career, he frequently finds himself offering advice to young, aspiring musicians. His most useful pearl of wisdom: You have to be familiar with the legends before you can become one.
“Listening is as important as practicing, just getting the sound of the music in your head so that you understand it as a language,” he said. “But like a first language, where you’re not thinking about the nouns and the verbs and the conjugation, you just know what sounds right.”