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For those fortunate enough to be present for the latest concert by John Brown's Duke University Jazz Ensemble, a treat was in store, due to the participation of legendary saxophone player Chris Potter. He is a world-class soloist, accomplished composer, and formidable bandleader, and he has emerged as one of the leading lights of his generation, especially when playing tenor saxophone, his main interest. It must be noted that the current Duke ensemble has morphed into a superb musical unit that can be compared favorably to any professional big band working today.
Since arriving in New York in 1989 as an 18-year-old prodigy with be-bop icon Red Rodney (who himself had played as a young man alongside the legendary Charlie Parker), Potter has steered a steady course of growth as an instrumentalist and composer/arranger. Through the 1990s he continued to gain invaluable bandstand experience as a sideman while also making strong statements as a band leader-composer-arranger.
Born in Chicago, Potter moved with his family to Columbia, SC, when he was 3 years old. There he started playing piano and guitar before taking up the alto saxophone at age 10, playing his first gig at 13. When piano legend Marian McPartland first heard Potter at 15 years old, she told his father that Potter was ready for the road with a unit such as Woody Herman's band; however, finishing school was a priority. At age 18, Potter moved to NY to study at the New School and Manhattan School of Music, while immersing himself in NY's jazz scene and beginning his lifelong path as a professional musician and educator.
Brown divided the program into two sets, and unusually began the concert with two of his excellent vocalists appearing on "Love" (Kaempfert and Gabler) and "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" (Zawinul), Kendall Liang and Emily Dean respectively. At this juncture Potter joined the ensemble, and he played on every piece for the first set, ending with an upbeat version of Dizzy Gillespie's classic "Night in Tunisia."
The second set opened with the Rick Lawn composition "Double Agent" with a superb guitar solo by Elise Fernandez. The classic piece "Mack the Knife" (Weill) featured the third dynamic singer, Julie Williams.
It was a treat to hear the Latin Beat of the Tito Puente classic "Ran Kan Kan" featuring female soloists – on trumpet, Shefali Bijwadi, saxophonist Hannah Krall, and on trombone, Maria Henrequez.
"Ultrahang," one of Potter's compositions, showcased Potter's virtuosity of which all budding saxophonists should take note. It is the keynote song on his new album, Circuits, available this week.
In a gracious tribute to the history of the Duke Jazz Ensemble, Brown took up his instrument (bass) for the melodic and rhythmic "Autumn Leaves" featuring a great melodic guitar solo from the usually quiet Fernandez. Several moving moments in the concert were extended duets with the talented student saxophonists – kudos to all!
It was also poignant to note that this year was an anniversary of the Duke Jazz Ambassadors. It is fitting that the years of creative music originating with the Duke Ambassadors and the Les Brown Band of Renown culminates with the superb playing of this ensemble, exemplified by this performance!