Tchicai’s original opener, “To Wibke and Peedoh,” took off from a beboppish unison ensemble line into overlapping lines by Tchicai’s tenor and Kohlhase’s alto while Fewell played a walking bass line. Fewell’s “Tribal Ghost” was a free-tempo lullaby duet between the guitarist and Kohlhase’s baritone. On Kohlhase’s “Doom Is Mine,” another beboppish line with stop-time rests, guitar danced behind two tenors, Kohlhase holding a low foghorn note while Tchicai took off into increasingly forceful rhythmic phrases, and then Kohlhase playing a quizzical a cappella response. One piece was laid over an abstract calypso figure from Fewell; another began with Tchicai reciting an A.R. Ammons poem. The last tune was based on a bluesy descending figure that turned out to be based on Monk’s “Friday the 13th.” It was a quiet, unassuming concert, animated by the band’s intimate musical conversation, and it was over in about 50 minutes when Tchicai — tall and dignified in a button-down shirt — announced, “That’s the end of the concert. Thank you for coming.”
WHO’S GOT THA FUNK?: Chris Potter’s quartet didn’t need a bass player.
At the Regattabar on Tuesday and Wednesday the 6th and 7th, meanwhile, saxophonist Chris Potter combined outer-edge explorations with funky accessibility. A veteran of the Dave Douglas and Dave Holland bands, Potter was touring with his Underground quartet, which he named for his 2006 Sunnyside release. Now, a year out, the album sounds too tidy by comparison with the early-Wednesday set I saw. Working without a bass player, Potter, Fender Rhodes pianist Craig Taborn, guitarist Adam Rogers, and the indispensable drummer Nate Smith built their pieces from subtly shifting grooves.
The masterful Potter has speed and articulation in all registers and a vivid imagination in his solos — muscular arpeggiated runs punctuated by honking shouts, melodic detours, muscular blues licks. But the details of his playing were secondary to the head of steam this band built on every tune. Smith would lay down a funky pattern on kick and top drums, with only a splash of cymbal here and there, while Taborn and Rogers worked spare, syncopated riffs. For such a funk-oriented group, there were open, misterioso spaces everywhere, Rogers punctuating a groove with, say, just one odd, perfect chord played on the first beat of each measure, Taborn tugging in the other direction with his bass-clef patterns, Potter building pieces from the motivic cells of his tunes.
The ever-busy Smith, meanwhile, cued turn-arounds and climaxes with cannon-fire rolls and cymbal crashes. The downbeat was never where you expected it to be, and neither were the turn-arounds in Potter’s deceptively simple forms — verse-chorus structures that went this way and that in their odd phrase lengths, rhythmic patterns, and harmonies. It was what the late critic Whitney Balliett would have called “the sound of surprise” — but over and over, leaving you to wonder how this crew could fool you yet again, and make you laugh. And when they wanted to, they could space out, with Taborn wandering in modal patterns across his keyboard against a single repeated chord — a sustained, dreamlike tension. Potter even played a beautiful version of Radiohead’s “Morning Bell” on bass clarinet.