For the last couple of weeks, I have been checking out two amazing transcription books by Jeff McGregor entitled Chris Potter-Transcriptions and Essays and Mark Turner-Transcriptions and Essays.
If you were to gather ten saxophone players around a table and have a discussion about who the cutting edge modern tenor saxophone players of this era would be, the names of Chris Potter and Mark Turner would undoubtedly be mentioned in that discussion.
These are two tenor saxophone players that have captured my attention for many decades now. ( I actually went to Berklee with Mark Turner in the late 80’s and even then, I would slow down nonchalantly, bend down and pretend to re-tie my perfectly tied shoelaces as I walked outside his practice room so I could hear what he was working on back then……)
For this review, I will be writing about the Chris Potter transcription book. Chris Potter caught my attention some years later as I didn’t hear of him until the year 2000 or 2001. I was talking to a fellow musician on a gig and he mentioned Chris Potter’s name in passing. When I told him I had never heard of him, he implored me to go home and check him out. Of course, that is what I immediately did when I got home at 2AM that night, and now years later my iTunes music folder is full of albums featuring Chris Potter!
Chris Potter is a saxophone player that seems to always be pushing the boundaries of what we think a saxophone player can do. I can’t even recount all the times I have heard Chris Potter play something on the saxophone and thought, “That’s impossible!” Whether it be playing incredibly complex lines up in the altissmo or down at the bottom end of the horn, unusual and hard to play intervallic lines, playing in odd meters, playing over a jazz standard acapella for 15 minutes straight without repeating any ideas or just his incredibly advanced harmonic and rhythmic lines that just leave you perplexed and in awe while listening to his solos.
As a transcriber myself, I know firsthand the challenge of trying to transcribe a Chris Potter saxophone solo. His sax solos might start simple enough, but Chris usually travels to what we saxophone players refer to as “insane” in short order. Between trying to figure out the flurry of notes, the rhythmic groupings of the notes, the lines up in the altissimo and then trying to figure out how to write this all down on a piece of paper is time consuming and can also be quite frustrating and infuriating!
I can’t tell you the number of times I have replayed one small section of a Chris Potter solo trying to figure these elements out while almost pulling out my hair in the process. Jeff McGregor gets much admiration and appreciation from me because of this. He picked the two most advanced tenor saxophonists of this generation to transcribe! Chris Potter and Mark Turner. That is no small feat!
The Chris Potter Transcription and Essays book is a quality product. It is spiral bound so the book can lay flat on a music stand or desk. The pages are nice and thick quality paper that doesn’t bleed through. The music staves are widely spaced with an average of eight staves to a page. The solos, although incredibly complex, are easy to look at and read as far as the spacing and font sizes. The easily read staves, spacing and fonts actually have the effect of calming the reader down and instilling a sense of confidence that you will be able to play the solo laying out in front of you. Of course, that all flies out the window when you start listening to Chris play the solo……
Here is a breakdown of the contents of the book from Jeff McGregor’s website:
This new collection of 30 transcriptions follows Chris Potter’s discography from Gratitude (2001) to Circuits (2019), including transcriptions from all of Potter’s Underground and ECM albums.
The accompanying essays are based on extended interviews with Chris Potter. They follow the history and development of Potter’s ensembles and recordings. Various aspects of Potter’s approach to improvisation are discussed and excerpts from the transcriptions are analyzed.
Transcriptions are all Bb parts. This project was edited by Jim Brenan.
This collection includes the following transcriptions.
- “The Source” from Gratitude (2001)
- “The Visitor” from Gratitude (2001)
- “Megapolis” from Traveling Mercies (2002)
- “Children Go” from Traveling Mercies (2002)
- “7.5” from Lift: Live at the Village Vanguard (2004)
- “Lift” from Lift: Live at the Village Vanguard (2004)
- “Next Best Western” from Underground (2006)
- “Nudnik” from Underground (2006)
- “Big Top” from Underground (2006)
- “Underground” from Underground (2006)
- “Train” from Follow the Red Line: Live at the Village Vanguard (2007)
- “Pop Tune #1” from Follow the Red Line: Live at the Village Vanguard (2007)
- “Togo” from Follow the Red Line: Live at the Village Vanguard (2007)
- “Ultrahang” from Ultrahang (2009)
- “Rumples” from Ultrahang (2009)
- “Time’s Arrow” from Ultrahang (2009)
- “Small Wonder” from Ultrahang (2009)
- “Boots” from Ultrahang (2009)
- “Wine Dark Sea” from The Sirens (2013)
- “Stranger at the Gate” from The Sirens (2013)
- “Lament” from Imaginary Cities (2015)
- “Sky” from Imaginary Cities (2015)
- “Heart in Hand ” from The Dreamer is the Dream (2017)
- “Ilimba ” from The Dreamer is the Dream (2017)
- “Yasodhara” from The Dreamer is the Dream (2017)
- “Sonic Anomaly” from The Dreamer is the Dream (2017)
- “Hold It” from Circuits (2019)
- “Circuits” from Circuits (2019)
- “Green Pastures” from Circuits (2019)
- “Exclamation” from Circuits (2019)
Chris Potter Transcription and Essays starts with a foreword where Jeff writes about the timeline of Chris Potters recording history starting from 1992 up until 2019. He writes about the different groups and albums that the transcriptions are from. There are many interesting quotes from Chris Potter throughout the timeline where he talks about the chemistry of the different groups and how different elements impacted the style, timbre and even compositions of each period.
At the end of Chris Potter Transcription and Essays are more insightful notes on the transcriptions as well as some essays providing an in-depth analysis of Chris Potter’s solos on “Sky” and “Pop Tune #1”.
Each transcription has the time markers of the solo marked at the start of each solo which is helpful in finding where the solo starts in the recording.
Chris Potter-Transcriptions and Essays-Sample Page
Each solo transcription also come with the chord changes written above the solo. I find the chord symbols to be incredibly enlightening as I can look at them and imagine some things I might play over those chords and then analyze what Chris Potter chose to play over these same chords. When his note choices are different than mine (which unsurprisingly is quite often), I can try to figure out what he was thinking or what harmonic concept he was utilizing.
Here is an insightful paragraph from the notes of Chris Potter Transcription and Essays in regard to the chord changes:
“The use of chord symbols in transcriptions and lead sheets is complex. Chord symbols often simplify the actual chord voicings, voice leading, and harmonic extensions used in performance. However, they are a useful reference point for the basic harmonic progression of a composition. Chris provided lead sheets for all of the solos included in this collection, which gave an authoritative starting point for the harmony. On the recordings, the harmonic instruments are faithful to the lead sheets but interpret the prescribed chords in a variety of ways. Furthermore, Potter himself is often substituting different harmonies. It is my general position not to try to represent these substitutions by altering the original chord changes. I feel the reader should interpret the given chord changes as the musicians themselves would: as a starting point and a basic reference.”
One caution about this transcription book that you might find either a negative or a positive, is that Jeff McGregor has chosen to not use 8va notation but to write the notes played in the actual octave they are in. If you are familiar with Chris Potter’s tenor sax playing then you know there will be a ton of lines above the staff in these transcriptions, so you either have to learn the notes up there or take out a pencil and start figuring them out. Below is an example:
Chris Potter-Transcriptions and Essays-Altissimo Example
Besides the harmonic insights that Chris Potter Transcription and Essays reveals, the other huge benefit to having this book in your collection are the rhythmic insights that are revealed. A line from one of these solos that you might listen to and be perplexed by, can now be looked at and played slowly. This has personal relevance for me because Chris Potter uses triplets a lot more than I do and he uses them in such a way as to make a relatively simple eighth note line more complex and intricate. This has always fascinated me about Chris Potter’s playing. Now I can look at Chris Potter Transcription and Essays and see very quickly how he is creating these lines rhythmically and then learn from his example.
If you are a fan of Chris Potter, then this fantastic book needs to be in your collection. The book offers an inside look into the creative elements and technical tools Chris Potter uses while improvising. These insights and clues into his improvisational process are invaluable to any student of modern jazz improvisation.
Special thanks to Jeff McGregor who must have spent countless hours of his life on this project and sent me the book to review here at Neffmusic. Of course, also a special thanks and heartfelt gratitude to Chris Potter who day in and day out keeps blowing our minds with his journey through these musical landscapes that he creates. The saxophone world is very grateful!
You can purchase the Chris Potter-Transcriptions and Essays from Jeff McGregor’s site. It only comes in Bb as of the time of this review but hopefully Jeff will come out with a concert version in the near future. It comes printed for 35.00 + shipping and as a PDF download for 30.00. I personally would go with the printed version as it is only 5 dollars +shipping more and I’m not sure saving that small amount of money is worth all the time of printing and binding 230 pages but that is your decision. I know many of you will be excited by the news of this book and want to download it immediately. This will, without a doubt, keep you busy for many months in the practice room! Enjoy!