When it comes to finding narrative inspiration, saxophonist Chris Potter could hardly have tapped a source that runs closer to the human DNA than Homer's "The Odyssey."
Maybe best known for his work backing bassist-bandleader Dave Holland and even Steely Dan on the band's 2000 album "Two Against Nature," Potter has reached a new high with "The Sirens," which was released on ECM earlier this year. A sprawling, evocative record, the album was the centerpiece of Potter's Thursday night concert at the Musicians Institute in Hollywood as part of the Jazz Bakery's Moveable Feast series.
Though the album carries a richly nuanced atmosphere in a way consistent with its label, Potter has a reputation as a ferocious improviser, particularly on recent recordings such as the funk-infused "Ultrahang" and the live album, "Follow the Red Line." That Potter would open up the throttle further on the bandstand was to be expected, but what was most rewarding was the alchemy between the saxophonist and his band: drummer Eric Harland, bassist Larry Grenadier and a rising star in pianist David Virelles.
In those assured hands, Potter's songs were free to become mini-odysseys unto themselves. Harland established himself as a force to be reckoned with early, conjuring a tempest of clockwork snare hits behind Potter on show-opener "Wine Dark Sea," which spun out of a saxophone melody bright and immediate enough to be from a long lost standard.
With his 2012 album "Continuum" racing up a number of best-of lists for its deconstructed take on Afro-Cuban jazz, Virelles was an artist to watch coming into the show, and he made his presence felt on "Wavefinder," which rose out of his fluttering, off-kilter solo to a propulsive groove from the rhythm section. Switching from bass clarinet to tenor saxophone, Potter ran broad curlicues around Harland's drive as the song closed.
Opening with a stilted, almost cartoonish melody, "Kalypso" locked into a swift bounce that touched on a classic New Orleans-tilted swing, and the non-album track "Sky" found the whole band locked into a raucous, funk-infused blowing session that was highlighted by Virelles shadowing Potter with a ringing tone that at times resembled a second horn.
Later in the set, "Ask Me Why" was another study in the group's airtight interplay with Virelles showing a cosmic sort of flow that could sound quicksilver-smooth one instant, intriguingly jagged and off-centered the next. The pianist eventually locked in behind Harland as the drummer kept raising the song's temperature, which headed to a boil as Potter took the reins for an acrobatic run.
As perhaps could be expected given its source material, a song called "The Sirens" cast maybe the evening's most enduring spell. With Potter opening with a murmuring, otherworldly turn on bass clarinet, the song fell into an unsettled atmosphere that gave way to an achingly lovely bowed solo from Grenadier. As the band ebbed and flowed underneath Potter, he reached further ahead with a searching, restless melancholy, conjuring those tenor saxophonists who have taken such odysseys before, and with similarly rewarding results.