Blindfold Test: Sullivan Fortner

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​“He was the coolest,” Fortner says of Nat “King” Cole. “Didn’t break a sweat.”

(Photo: Mark Sheldon)

Before taking a live Blindfold Test in Indianapolis during the American Pianists Association Awards last April, pianist Sullivan Fortner was asked to tell the audience about a deal he struck with his father. His father wanted the young pianist to go into medicine. Fortner said no. With tears in his eyes, Fortner’s dad relented, but asked his son to do one thing. “He said, ‘The only thing I ask is that you go and you get a master’s degree,” Fortner said. “At least when all else fails, you could teach. So I went to Oberlin and Manhattan School and got a master’s degree.” The rest is history. Fortner is one of the bright stars on the scene today who happened to win the American Pianists Association Award in 2015. This is his first Blindfold Test. He gave 1,000 stars to every artist because, “If you play a jazz or anything closely remotely to this thing that we call jazz or African-American classical music or American classical music, everybody deserves a thousand stars.”


Tommy Flanagan

“Beat’s Up” (Overseas, Prestige, 1958) Flanagan, piano; Wilbur Little, bass; Elvin Jones, drums.

That’s Tommy. This is very early, Tommy, though. It’s the way those cats orchestrated, the way they orchestrated the piano and how they used, you know, the blues inflections and registration. [vocalizes it] And something about the beat, and the way that the beat felt, really signaled Detroit to me. Hank Jones. Barry Harris. Sir Roland Hannah. Something in their beat and how it felt. Even Johnny, Johnny O’Neil. Something in the way their rhythm felt — that buoyancy and the looping of the quarter notes.


Geri Allen

“Soul Heir” (The Gathering, Verve, 1998) Allen, piano; Buster Williams, bass; Lenny White, drums.

That’s Geri. What a sweet lady, man, oh, man. I do have a story, an intimate story. The week that Geri passed, Joan Belgrave, Marcus Belgrave’s wife, called me. She said, “I need you to make a playlist for Geri, she’s definitely going to transition.” And, you know, they wanted me to come up with a playlist for her. So I made a playlist of like Muhal Richard Abrams and Randy Weston and Alice Coltrane, you know, things that I know about Geri and the people that influenced her. … A couple of days after she passed, Joan called me. She said, “She was listening to your playlist when she passed.” So it was kind of my gift to her as she was leaving in transition.


Duke Ellington

“Take The ‘A’ Train” (Uptown, Columbia, 1953) Ellington, piano; The Duke Ellington Orchestra.

Ruffin: It’s too easy.

Fortner: It was Duke Ellington. I really can’t stress this enough. This dude literally was the greatest. Can we actually start it from the top?

Ruffin: This is one of the best piano solos ever to me.

Fortner: Just love it. The greatest. Yes, the absolute greatest. And what was interesting about him is that this particular solo — you can kind of trace from the very first time he played it until the very last time with a few minor adjustments. He pretty much takes the same solo. Like there are certain sections that remain.


Nat “King” Cole

“Caravan” (Blues, Jazz At The Philharmonic, Featuring Nat King Cole and Les Paul) Cole, piano; Les Paul, guitar.

That’s Nat “King” Cole. Ha! Whoops! How about that? It’s just baffling to me. You know, somebody like the man, “King” Cole, who pretty much changed the way jazz piano is played, period, is more known for his singing voice, which is great. There’s nothing wrong with his singing. I’ve learned a lot from his singing. But the piano playing was something pretty spectacular. Pretty spectacular. Pretty perfect.

That was “Caravan.” And what’s funny about it is that it is very rare that you hear him stride. That’s what threw me off. You don’t hear him do that much. Everybody came from Nat — Teddy Wilson and Ahmad Jamal. Oscar Peterson.

He was the coolest. Didn’t break a sweat.


Ahmad Jamal

“Autumn In New York” (Live At Bubba’s, Who’s Who in Jazz, 1980) Jamal, piano; Sabu Adeyola, bass; Payton Crossley, drums.

It’s Ahmad. There it is. I met him a couple times. He told me two things. I asked him once, I said, “How do you come up with those timeless arrangements that last forever?” And he said, “I don’t eat pork, and I pray every day.” The other thing he told me, he said, “Don’t do drugs and don’t get anybody pregnant.” That’s my Ahmad Jamal story. [laughs]


Herbie Hancock

“Mimosa” (Inventions & Dimensions, Blue Note, 1964) Hancock, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Willie Bobo, drums/timbales; Osvaldo “Chihuahua” Martinez, percussion.

I’m gonna hate myself. Any guesses? [to the audience] Herbie. That’s Herbie. Now I hear it. Now it’s there. There it is. What record is this?

Ruffin: This album is Inventions

Fortner: Inventions & Dimensions. Gahd doggit! Sure is! Sure is. What do you say about Herbie Hancock? Pretty much every piano player who ever played with Miles Davis post-Ahmad was influenced by Ahmad Jamal. So much so that they would pretty much steal Ahmad’s arrangements and play them on their records. “Billy Boy” was a perfect example. Miles made Red Garland play it exactly like Ahmad Jamal on the Milestones album [Columbia, 1958].


Gerald Clayton

“Scrimmage” (Two-Shade, Emarcy, 2009) Clayton, piano; Joe Sanders, bass; Justin Brown, drums.

My generation? I’m down to five, but wait until the solo.

Ruffin: Want more clues? He got it through osmosis.

Fortner: Gerald. That’s Gerald Clayton. He was in the three that I was narrowing it down to. At first, there was something he did that almost made me say Christian [Sands]. But then he did something in the beginning, and I said, “Naw, that’s probably Gerald,” but it’s early Gerald because Gerald don’t play like that now. DB


The “Blindfold Test” is a listening test that challenges the featured artist to discuss and identify the music and musicians who performed on selected recordings. The artist is then asked to rate each tune using a 5-star system. No information is given to the artist prior to the test.



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