The Empathy and Interplay of Sullivan Fortner

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Sullivan Fortner draws on the history of pianism—from Chopin to Tatum and beyond—while still retaining his own unique voice.

(Photo: Courtesy of the Artist)

In the waning days of June 2017, Sullivan Fortner found himself holed up in Sear Sound, the Manhattan studio, facing down Earth, Wind & Fire’s 1978 hit “Fantasy.”

The occasion was a recording session for Moments Preserved, the pianist’s sophomore album on Impulse!, and, as the engineer was adjusting the microphones for the take—a solo turn—he was trying out a rendition that mirrored the rhythmic punch of the original.

But he was getting nowhere—until Ameen Saleem, his bass player and a kindred soul, piped up. “He said, ‘That ain’t it—for this, you need to completely be Sullivan,’” Fortner recalled over breakfast at his Manhattan home in April.

Saleem, for his part, remembered the moment with clarity: “I told him, ‘Play it like an orchestra. Make it epic and dark.’”

And that’s what Fortner did. Inspired by the connotations of lost love in the lyrics—“Every man has a place, in his heart there’s a space”—Fortner transformed the piece from an ode to late-’70s funk into a moody fantasia with lush chords and lithe lines that draw on the history of pianism, from Chopin to Tatum and beyond, even as it retains the spirit of the groove-laden original. Along the way, he conjured a narrative that provided catharsis for his own romantic woes.

“I just made up a storyline and played,” Fortner said.

For all his smarts (he was high school valedictorian, holds a bachelor’s from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and a master’s from the Manhattan School of Music); for all the praise heaped on him (he topped the categories Rising Star–Jazz Artist and Rising Star–Piano in this year’s Critics Poll and won the 2015 American Pianists Association’s Cole Porter Jazz Fellowship); and for all the experience gained in close associations with jazz luminaries (prime among them, singer Cécile McLorin Salvant), Fortner, 32, still needs a song to speak to him before he can fully realize its potential.

“For me, it kind of has to, otherwise, it won’t digest well,” he explained.

Moments Preserved is thus populated by tunes that speak to Fortner, starting with the opening track, “Changing Keys.” An animated take on the theme from the TV game show Wheel of Fortune, the piece links directly to Fortner’s childhood memories at home in the New Orleans suburbs, where, at age 4, he picked out themes from daytime TV on his toy piano. Before “Changing Keys,” he had included a theme from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, “You Are Special,” on his previous album, 2015’s Aria (Impulse!). Both tunes pay homage to his mother, who first recognized his musical gift.

On his latest album, the pianist honors a high school teacher in the poignant “Elegy For Clyde Kerr Jr.,” a New Orleans trumpeter, mentor, friend and, ultimately, bandmate who, Fortner said, taught him to “play with your ears to the audience” and hear the “grand picture,” rather than “what you think another musician would want you to play.” For that, he added, “Mr. Kerr had a very deep impact on me.”

The album also nods to a more recent teacher, pianist Barry Harris, who, in group classes, imparted ideas about harmonic movement, structure and storytelling. In “Pep Talk,” a boppish original based on “Rhythm” changes, Fortner’s elegant turns of phrase evoke, without imitating, Harris. “It’s probably not something he would write,” Fortner said of the tune, “but something he would appreciate.”

Other pianists’ voices echo on the album, too: Thelonious Monk is represented in an exquisitely restrained medley of “Monk’s Mood” and “Ask Me Now,” and Duke Ellington is summoned in a version of “In A Sentimental Mood” featuring fleeting licks filtered through Fortner’s 21st-century sensibility.

Fortner’s ability to simultaneously project his own voice and reflect those of others reveals an empathy displayed throughout Moments Preserved in the agile interplay with both his trio—Saleem and drummer Jeremy “Bean” Clemons join him on most tracks—and trumpeter Roy Hargrove (1969–2018), who appears on three cuts, including the Monk tune.

But Fortner’s empathy might be most clearly expressed elsewhere in his musical life, most vividly in his relationship with Salvant. The level of communication between the two—amply documented in the duo collaboration The Window (Mack Avenue)—has been so deep that, on at least one occasion, it brought the singer to tears.

“It felt like he was almost saying the words with me and making them ring or sparkle,” Salvant recalled. “It felt wonderful.” DB



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