Jazz pianist, composer, and arranger Sullivan Fortner is known for his virtuosic technique and captivating performances, having worked in bands led by vibraphonist Stefon Harris, and trumpeters Roy Hargrove and Etienne Charles. ArkivJazz spoke with Fortner about both of his 2018 projects - his solo release Moments Preserved, and his new album with Cécile McLorin Salvant, The Window.
ArkivJazz: When I heard your new disc, I was completely blown away. Both that, and the “Window” release are astonishing. Cécile is a fantastic vocalist, but the variety in everything you add to those selections is just jaw-dropping.
Sullivan Fortner: Well, thank you. I appreciate that.
AJ: So, who did you listen to when you were younger? It sounds like you have a ton of stuff at your fingertips.
SF: You know, I wasn’t really introduced to jazz until high school. My upbringing was mostly gospel and old-school R&B. My family is all heavily involved in church. My mom’s the choir director, my dad was a deacon who taught Sunday school, and the whole family sings. So, the church background is really heavy, and also my dad was a real fan of old school R&B - you know, 60s and 70s, on up through the 80s. I was exposed to Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder, the Stylistics, the O-Jays, and all that music very early.
AJ: Yes, back when it was on the radio.
SF: Oh yeah, I remember driving over to my Dad’s mother’s house to cut grass during the summer, and that hour-long drive was always filled with music. My background was gospel and R&B, but there was also a guy who came to our church one time whose name was Ronald Markham. I’ll never forget it. Ronald just got on the organ one day and went through a bunch of different styles. He would play something, and I would ask what it was. He’d say “Oh, that’s classical music, and this is bebop…” It was amazing. He went through all these different styles, and I asked him how he learned all of them. We were talking, and he suggested I look into the New Orleans School for the Creative Arts because of all the musical styles I would be able to explore there. So I applied and went in to audition, got in, and that was it.
AJ: Then you took off from there…
SF: Yeah. I was introduced to European classical music and had my first classical piano lesson there. Before that, it was all ear. I would just pick up songs off the radio, or off the CD. They would tell me that I needed to play a certain song in church Sunday, and I’d learn it by ear. But, I really didn’t know to move around the instrument, so my classical lessons with Dean Curtis really helped. Actually, going back, my first piano teacher was Peter Martin, who introduced me to people like Herbie Hancock, Duke Ellington, and Erroll Garner, who is my favorite piano player of all time. Peter also introduced me to Art Tatum, who is the king of kings…[laughs]
AJ: Ah, yes. I remember buying my first Art Tatum record while in high school, and it was almost like a holy event.
SF: Every time I hear Art Tatum it’s a holy event. [laughs]
AJ: You stop in your tracks, your jaw drops, and you just shake your head…
SF: Absolutely! Yeah, I remember waking up one morning out of my sleep crying over something I heard from Art Tatum. I would sleep with my radio on, and one morning he came on the radio, and I woke up and started crying from the music.
AJ: Tears of joy or tears of fear, one or the other…
SF: Yeah, one or the other for sure.
AJ: Well, moving on to the Moments Preserved release, I must say that I never thought I would hear the “Wheel of Fortune” theme as a leadoff to a CD, but it really works. Your covers are brilliant. I mean, “Just in Time”? Nobody plays that anymore….and your Monk medley is absolutely spot-on.
SF: Thank you.
AJ: That’s pretty brave for pianists to take on, but you have to make it your own.
SF: Well, I try...
AJ: …and you succeed. Also, the second I saw your album cover, I thought, that’s a Carol (Friedman) photograph.
SF: Yes, it is.
AJ: It stopped me in my tracks. It looks like you’re holding the camera, but it definitely looks like one of Carol’s photos. It’s a great shot.
SF: Yeah, Carol’s such a great photographer. We shot that in her place in downtown Manhattan.
AJ: She’s a huge jazz fan.
SF: Yeah, she’s a sweetheart. My favorite photo of hers is the one with Eubie Blake’s hand…I just love that photo.
AJ: I'd like to touch on a few of your originals and choices for covers. You have “Changing Keys” (theme from Wheel of Fortune), and “Eyes So Beautiful As Yours”, which aren’t your typical covers, but they go to show that anything can be a springboard to creativity.
SF: Yeah. Particularly “Eyes So Beautiful As Yours” and “Monk’s Medley”…those are songs I played when I was with Roy Hargrove, and he’s actually the one who introduced me to those songs.
AJ: So, what dates do you have coming up?
SF: I’m jumping around with different people, playing different styles. Right now I’m getting ready to go on the road to Europe with Ben Wendel for two weeks, then I have a few things with Peter Bernstein coming up this fall, then some dates lined up with Cécile on in the year.
AJ: So, how did your recording with Cécile (The Window) come about? It’s just the two of you, and it’s really a jaw-dropping lesson in piano.
SF: Wow, thank you.
AJ: It really is. You have 17 tunes on there and each one is really different, where you create your own atmosphere. The tune selection is wonderful, but your accompaniment is just from another planet….it’s so spot on, and gives each tune its own personality. Had you played these songs live before you hit the studio?
SF: We had done some of those songs live and at different gigs, but for the most part everything we played was improvised. I really didn’t come in with an arrangement….I’d play an introduction to set it up, and she'd just go. You know what I mean?
AJ: I know what you mean, but I find it hard to believe because it’s such a wonderfully composed album. That just goes to show you what kind of level you two are working on.
SF: It’s just a lot of love, a lot of trust, and a lot of mutual respect for each other. There’s a French song (“J’ai L’ Cafard”) that I literally learned just before we recorded it. We were talking the night before, and she said there was a song she really wanted to do. She told me it was on YouTube and asked me to learn it before tomorrow. [laughs] So, I learned it that night, and we did it in one take. It was just that loose and open.
AJ: Well, it really, really worked. When you have trust like that and great tunes, it’s a thrilling ride, and that’s how the disc feels. I’ve listened to it four or five times now, and it sounds like a combination of being solidly grounded and the feeling of having played the tunes just once or twice, where you’re just on that wire. Do you have more dates planned with her?
SF: Yeah, we have a few things lined up. In December, we’re playing at Caramoor (Caramoor Music Room) in New York, and in Durham, North Carolina (Durham Fruit & Produce Co.), then we’ll be on the Blue Note at Sea Jazz Cruise in January. There are some other shows coming up in the spring.
AJ: You can put Nashville on that list if you don’t mind.
SF: Yeah, that would be awesome. You never know.
AJ: Sullivan, it has really been fantastic to talk to you. I’ve really quite enjoyed all three of your discs, and hope our paths cross someday.
SF: Thanks, I really appreciate it.