After gaining international acclaim for his piano playing in ensembles led by Roy Hargrove, Etienne Charles, Christian Scott, and Stefon Harris, 28-year-old New Orleans native Sullivan Fortner announces his emergence as a solo recording artist with Aria, a remarkable debut for impulse! Records. Produced by Jean-Philippe Allard and Brian Bacchus, Aria showcases Fortner’s mastery at both rendering well-chosen standards and composing memorable melodies.
On Aria, Fortner leads a splendid ensemble, comprised of drummer Joe Dyson, Jr., bassist Aidan Carroll, and tenor and soprano saxophonist Tivon Pennicott. Together they forge a warm, bracing sound that suggests an accord that has developed over several years. “I didn’t want it to sound like a leader’s record. I wanted it sound like a band’s record,” Sullivan explains.
The album begins with the title-track - a percussive original - on which Sullivan initially tickles a repetitive dance-like rhythm that hints at the music of modern classical composer Steve Reich and Latin jazz, thanks to the buoying rhythm section. After Pennicott’s soaring soprano solo, Fortner quickly displays his formidable skills as an improviser with passages that are as sophisticated harmonically as they are rhythmically. Interestingly enough, “Aria” is part of a six-movement suite, “Expansions: Suite in ‘B’ for Jazz Quintet,” which was commissioned by New York City’s Jazz Gallery.
Fortner, in fact, uses three other compositions from “Expansions” on the album – the capricious “Parade,” which is distinguished by a jaunty melody and a tugging rhythmic undertow, betraying his fondness for Thelonious Monk; the prancing “Passepied”, a tune inspired by Fortner’s exploration in Baroque classical music, particularly Johann Sebastian Bach’s French dance suites; and the spry “Finale”, which bounces to a lithe rhythm that implies the second-line drumming of Fortner’s Crescent City hometown.
The other original on Aria is “Ballade”, a gentle sauntering ballad, written in dedicated to the pianist’s mother, Cynthia Fortner, which affords listeners to gleam Sullivan’s crisp, impeccable touch and cogent, modest melodic sense in addition to Pennicott’s billowing tenor saxophone asides.
As for the covers, Fortner offers a glimpse into his intriguing influences. His love for Monk rears it’s head again on his take on “I Mean You,” on which the intricate rhythms and melodies are wonderfully articulated by Dyson and Carroll, which gives Fortner ample support to demonstrate inventive improvisations.
Fortner reflects on his childhood with a gleeful reading of Fred Rogers’s “You Are Special,” a song that the composer sang regularly on his acclaimed PBS children’s TV show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. “As a little kid, I grew up watching that show and being in awe with the music, especially the piano player,” Fortner recalls. The pianist got the idea to give the song a modern jazz makeover after saxophonist John Ellis brought it in at the Lafayette Summer Music Jazz Workshop at the Stanley Middle School in Lafayette, California.
Fortner’s take of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s classic, “All The Things You Are,” is a subtle tribute to the late pianist Cedar Walton. The fanciful modern arrangement with its tricky interplay and Latin feel is reminiscent of the one Walton performed with pianist Barry Harris, with whom Fortner studied, at the Lincoln Center in June 2013 – just months before Walton passed away. Similarly, Fortner’s amorous interpretation of Duke Pearson’s 1966 ballad, “You Know I Care” pays tribute to trumpeter Roy Hargrove with whom Fortner has performed with as a sideman.
When Fortner was pondering the auspicious occasion of making his debut on the legendary imprint - impulse! Records - it led to him delivering a flickering solo piano reading of J. Fred Coots and Sam M Lewis’ 1934 ballad, “For All We Know.” “I was thinking that I might not get a chance to record for impulse! again, so let me make the best of it,” Fortner explains with a robust laugh.
But based upon Fortner’s consummate musicianship as a pianist, improviser, composer and arrangement, it’s doubtful that Aria will be just a one-off. Instead, it promises to be a winning marriage between a venerable label and a gifted pianist who can surely extend its jazz legacy into the 21st century.
About Sullivan Fortner
Sullivan Fortner is a 28-year-old New Orleans-based jazz pianist, composer and arranger who’s already demonstrated prodigious talents. He began playing the piano at age seven and subsequently won the Cable Cox’s “Amazing Kid” award at age 11. Two years later, he enrolled at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, where he became Valedictorian of his high school graduating class. He continued his formal music studies at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in jazz performance, and at the Manhattan School of Music, where he earned a Master’s degree in jazz performance. Fortner complemented that experience by studying under such jazz piano masters as Peter Martin, Fred Hersch, Jason Moran, and Phil Markowitz, and playing in bands led by Stefon Harris, Etienne Charles, Roy Hargrove, and Christian Scott. Fortner is also the recipient of the 2015 American Pianists Association Jazz’s 2015 Cole Porter Fellow Award.