By Daniel Kohn
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Bop is only where Frank Potenza begins. To label the jazz guitarist strictly bop is to steal his harmonic mojo, to ignore the sundry styles he draws upon to create a sound all his own. He's one of those rare guitarists whose hands tell a story whenever they touch steel strings.
"Some of what I do is straight out of bebop, some of it straight out of swing. But I absorbed a lot of influences from people like George Benson, who are coming from more of a blues/R&B kind of thing," Potenza says, while gazing out at the crashing waves during a recent chat on the Huntington Beach Pier.
Benson, considered by many critics a god of greased guitar, called Potenza a "bad cat" when he first saw him playing at the famous Blue Note jazz club in New York, recognizing that Potenza had the right stuff as a box-slinger. A native of Providence, Rhode Island, Potenza comes from a musical family of six children. But it was his older cousin, Jimmy Gagliardi, who made guitar the instrument of choice for young Frank because he had a "slick haircut, drove a Cadillac convertible, smoked Lucky Strikes, sang like Elvis, and knew all the great R&B and rock songs on guitar."
In the early '80s, Potenza took a teaching position at Long Beach City College before eventually joining the studio/jazz guitar faculty at USC, gracing an already renowned guitar staff that included Joe "Maestro" Diorio, Pat Kelley and Richard Smith.
With an East/West Coast blend in his chops, Potenza has developed his own sound, having honed himself into a hook-meister with a seemingly bottomless trick bag. Take his new CD, In My Dreams: one tune, "Hold It," has him banging out some archetypal guitar licks before effortlessly dropping the melody into a fat bass line that climbs to the upper register with a climactic, hard-swinging groove. It's remarkable how much juice Potenza can squeeze out of a single note, and his impeccable slur-and-pull-off technique creates a horn-like attack that gives his playing an added swing feel, without the pluckiness typical of many guitarists.In My Dreams contains mostly solo-guitar arrangements, such as Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Corcovado," a sanguine bossa nova that lays out Potenza's mastery of counterpoint movement (while not letting go of the bass line) and hip harmonization. "Li'l Darlin'" is a descent into a bluesy standard that has a late-night sensuality to it, where the guitarist drops greased licks into the pocket that sound like wake-up calls for the soul. With Bob Magnusson, a monster bassist from San Diego, Potenza creates some beautiful moments. On the Latin classic "Tin Tin Deo," they hearken back to the virtuosic duo of Pass and Niels Pedersen, each stretching out with combustible solos and rhythmic cavalcades.
There's a striking sense of intimacy on In My Dreams, partially because Azica Records, Potenza's label, will only release discs that have been cut live to two-track, with no mixing after the initial sessions. There aren't too many players who have the cojones to record without any effects or post-mixing, a method some call "working without a net."
"It's as though your ear is within a foot of the sound hole of my guitar," explains Potenza. "So you get a certain warmth and beauty and nuance that you would never get through an amplifier. You also, unfortunately, get all the warts, all the fret noise and the pockmarks." Still, it's hard to find Potenza's warts on In My Dreams—there just isn't much to dislike about his playing.
Potenza is actually just beginning to glean the fruits from his illustrious career. He's currently a member of Grammy-winning pianist Gene Harris' Quartet, which has him jetting across the country to do dates with the jazz icon between his own performing and teaching gigs, so his musician paychecks have been steady. "My wife, Miki, doesn't have to work anymore," he says.
Not bad for a Rhode Island boy who used to dream about living where wave-rippers dwell, who used to look at photos of surfers and surf shops like they were from an out-of-reach land. "I'm dug-in here," Potenza says, as he watches the whitecaps break on the beach below.Frank Potenza's CD-release party with Luther Hughes, Paul Kreibich and Jeff Colella is at Steamers Cafe, 138 W. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 871-8800; www.frankpotenza.com. Thurs., Aug. 5, 8 p.m. Free. All ages.