Listening is key to all-star Monterey Quartet's success

It's a slight exaggeration to say that the Monterey Quartet is a pickup band. As saxophonist Chris Potter explains by phone from his New York City home, the all-star foursome did have a couple of rehearsals before making its debut at the fabled Monterey Jazz Festival in 2007.

But for Potter—as well as for bassist Dave Holland, pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and drummer Eric Harland—a big part of this unit's appeal is that its members don't get the chance to play together on a regular basis.

“There's a certain kind of high energy that happens when you're in exactly that kind of situation,” he says. “And it's also a thing I think we've all experienced in the studio, when you go in to record an album: very, very often the first take is the best take. Even if you don't feel good about it at the time, when you listen to it afterwards you realize that it has a certain freshness to it that the later takes, even if they're technically perfect, don't have.”

Potter and company didn't quite stick to that program when assembling their debut CD, scheduled for an August release on the Concord label. After comparing tapes of their first show against their second, they agreed that the music improved after they'd settled down a little bit. But it's not like they're going to be overrehearsed when they come to the TD Canada Trust Vancouver International Jazz Festival. Since their debut, they've only done a handful of similarly high-profile jazz-festival shows—not that this worries the saxophonist.

“The thing that made it work is that everyone is on such a high level, and such a good listener,” he notes. “Our frames of reference—the way that we think about music, the things that we're trying to get to—are similar enough that it just seemed to work out surprisingly well. Sometimes these all-star situations don't jell quite as well.”

Potter has nothing but praise for virtuosos Rubalcaba and Harland, but unsurprisingly he saves his kindest words for Holland. Not only has the veteran bassist appeared on dozens of classic records, including Miles Davis's electric masterpiece Bitches Brew, he was the saxophonist's employer for almost a decade, beginning in 1997.

“He's a rock, both musically and as a person,” Potter asserts. “You know he's going to stand firm where he is, and he's going to support what's going on. I feel that's definitely his role. And that's a big reason why this band can go in so many directions, because it's coming from so much strength down there in the low end, where it all kinds of starts. It gives the rest of us a lot of freedom.”

The Monterey Quartet plays the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts on Sunday (June 28).