Imaginary Cities (ECM)

Chris Potter Underground Orchestra

Released January 16, 2015

DownBeat Four-and-a-Half-Star Review

AllMusic Favorite Jazz Albums 2015




Imaginary Cities, an album of great power and expressive range, is the recording premiere of saxophonist Chris Potter’s new Underground Orchestra. At the core of this larger ensemble is the personnel of his long-established Underground quartet – with Adam Rogers, Craig Taborn and Nate Smith – now joined by two bassists, a string quartet, and Potter’s old comrade from Dave Holland Quintet days, vibes and marimba virtuoso Steve Nelson.

The title composition is a suite, panoramic in its reach, with movements subtitled “Compassion”, “Dualities”, “Disintegration” and “Rebuilding”. The scope of the work, and its contrasting moods and thematic continuity, inspire some of very Potter’s finest playing, including some extraordinary solos. His saxes fly high above his imaginary cityscapes or launch into dialogues or group improvising with its gifted inhabitants. Four further pieces – “Lament”, “Firefly”, “Shadow Self” and “Sky” – extend the feeling of the suite, successfully combining both tightly written material and very open areas involving all members of the orchestra. References are multi-idiomatic and multicultural, and Potter, who counts Charlie Parker with Strings amongst his formative enthusiasms, had Arabic and Indian string sections in mind, as well as contemporary composition, when shaping this material. The track “Shadow Self”, meanwhile, reflects the influence of Béla Bartók.

Potter assembled the Underground Orchestra originally in response to an invitation to present music at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York. “There was an idea that it could be something that I hadn’t done before. So I started with the Underground quartet, with Craig Taborn on acoustic piano in this case [as opposed to the Fender Rhodes he usually plays in the small group] and then kept adding more and more players. No bass player in the Underground group? Well, I’ll have two this time. In my mind I was hearing a real thick rhythm section sound, also with vibraphone and piano. The way Fima [Ephron] and Scott [Colley] play together and improvise together makes a lot of things work in this music. And then the strings … eight or nine years ago I’d done an album called Song for Anyone where I’d written a little for strings. I didn’t want a classical-meets-jazz feeling. I wanted it all to be completely integrated. And, in places, the lines between the written material and the improvised material would be a little blurred, and the strings would improvise, too.” Not the least of the achievements of Imaginary Cities is the way in which Potter has extended the tremendous rhythmic drive of his Underground band into his music for the larger group.

The concept of the four movement structure of “Imaginary Cities” emerged slowly: “It really evolved from the writing. I had this idea of imaginary cities, a non-specific utopian idea of how the modern city could be better. Not that I’m writing a manifesto of what I think urban planning could be…It just seemed like a compelling way to organize my thoughts. It started out just being one tune and then I saw how one theme could migrate to another mood and continue it and be another aspect of the same thing. So it ended up being four movements with thematic development through the whole thing.” Potter says that he conceives of the whole album – the suite and the four additional songs arranged for the same musicians – as one unified sound.

Track Listing:

1. Lament (Chris Potter) 08:07

2. Imaginary Cities 1: Compassion (Chris Potter) 08:34

3. Imaginary Cities 2: Dualities (Chris Potter) 08:44

4. Imaginary Cities 3: Disintegration (Chris Potter) 07:23

5. Imaginary Cities 4: Rebuilding (Chris Potter) 11:33

6. Firefly (Chris Potter) 08:37

7. Shadow Self (Chris Potter) 06:09

8. Sky (Chris Potter) 12:02


Chris Potter: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, bass clarinet

Adam Rogers: guitars

Craig Taborn: piano

Steve Nelson: vibraphone, marimba

Fima Ephron: bass guitar

Scott Colley: double bass

Nate Smith: drums

Mark Feldman: violin

Joyce Hammann: violin

Lois Martin: viola

David Eggar: cello

Recorded in December 2013, at Avatar Studios, New York

Produced by Manfred Eicher

Recorded and Mixed by James A. Farber

Assistant Engineer: Timothy Marchiafava

Cover Photo: Morten Delbæk

Design: Sascha Kleis


Just as on The Sirens, the 2013 album that found him considering Homer, Imaginary Cities sees saxophonist Chris Potter thinking big and conceptually, conjuring utopian population centers. Here, he stretches his compositional palette to encompass a string quartet and an expanded version of his Underground quartet. The result is a triumphant integration of diverse elements that alternately soars and dances. A big component of Potter’s success was his decision to add two bassists to his expanded lineup—Scott Colley on double bass and Fima Ephron on electric. Together, they generate the momentum that gives Imaginary Cities much of its graceful motion, particularly on “Compassion,” the first part of the suite for which the recording is named. Layered with David Eggar’s cello, the twin bassists also create a rich, woody bottom to contrast with Adam Rogers’ bright, chiming guitar, Steve Nelson’s vibes and Potter’s occasional foray on soprano. Melding a jazz combo with a string quartet does not always yield good results. But with the superlative Mark Feldman on violin, Potter has a strong starting point, and he follows that up with writing that is imaginative and highly varied. On the final movement of the suite and on “Sky,” the strings convey Middle Eastern and Indian moods, while on “Shadow Self” Potter taps into the Magyar folk harmonies that influenced Béla Bartók. Finally, what stands out is the way that Potter fits his brawny tenor into this crowded field without making it sound forced. When he surges out of the ensemble on “Dualities” or suddenly dominates on “Shadow Self,” he creates a palpable frisson in what is already exciting music. What has distinguished Potter in recent recordings is his ability to shift gears and introduce new thematic ideas to a line. That ability, combined with his burgeoning compositional ambitions, shows that his career has moved to a new level.

James Hale (DownBeat)