Sonny Fortune’s Continuum

There are musicians with passionate skills who are likely never to have a record date. I’ve heard a couple playing for change in the New York City subways and in the bowels of Grand Central Station. But there are others who are in jazz reference books, get gigs and are on a considerable number of recordings including some as leaders, but they have not broken into the jazz pantheon.

One of them is Sonny Fortune. On alto, tenor, flute, clarinet, baritone saxophone— and as an intriguingly personal composer—Sonny is the embodiment of the sound of surprise in this music, and he ought to be a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master.

Sonny, whose influences include John Coltrane, has been most evocatively described by jazz writer Howard Mandel: “Of all of Trane’s lasting contributions, perhaps the greatest to the future of improvised music was his example of spiritual integrity and physical drive. Sonny blows with both.”

At 65, Sonny, like other jazz musicians admired by their peers and with a solid track record, isn’t working as much as he’d like. As his booking agent, Reggie Marshall (phone 434-979-6374), said to me in July: “He’s got one gig in September and will be working every weekend in October. It’s sporadic, and the times between, he wishes he were playing.” And on many of those gigs, the bread doesn’t allow him to bring his regular band, and it’s with those musicians that he feels most complete. That frustration reminds me of Ben Webster who, when he left Ellington, often had to depend on local sideman who weren’t always able to move into his rhythm waves. One night, between sets in a Boston club, Ben, who had mostly on his own been riveting the audience, said to me: “You got to remember, when the rhythm section ain’t making it, go for yourself.”

Sonny never lets himself or his listener down. As Howard Reich of the Chicago Tribune wrote of a 1999 appearance by Sonny in that city: “Whether he was playing uptempo bop anthems or languorous ballads, Fortune produced sighs, moans and hollers evoking the sound of the human voice. It’s an approach that is as instantly identifiable as it is emotionally intense.”

With credits encompassing stays with McCoy Tyner, Miles Davis, Buddy Rich and Elvin Jones, among other headliners, Sonny has not lacked for attention in the jazz press. In JazzTimes’ June 2001 “Before & After,” Willard Jenkins introduced Fortune by characterizing Sonny’s own musical force: “You can tell instantly that this brother came to play—check the nonsense at the door.”

And in April of the previous year in JazzTimes, Jenkins speaks of Sonny’s “heroic approach” in a review of Fortune’s In the Spirit of John Coltrane (Shanachie). While In the Spirit is still in print, a good many of Sonny’s recordings are no longer available. I called Blue Note for his album of Thelonious Monk compositions, Four in One, and it’s no longer in the catalog. In 1994, that set made the best-of-the-year lists in the Village Voice, JazzTimes and Jazziz.

Maybe Four in One will be resurrected on the Blue Note reissue list, licensed to Mosaic for a Sonny Fortune set or even come out on another label. But Sonny doesn’t spend much energy looking back. He has released Continuum, the first recording on his own label, Sound Reason. In the Washington Post, Mike Joyce wrote that this venture “marks both a personal and artistic milestone” for Fortune. It’s available on Sonny’s Web site (sonnyfortune.com) as well as on cdbaby.com.

On Continuum, most of the compositions and all the arrangements are his, and he has the band he’d like to have with him on all his gigs: George Cables, Wayne Dockery, Steve Johns and Steve Berrios. “These are guys I’ve known for many years. We’ve played a lot of music together. I think that comes through,” Sonny says.

In an interview last year with Al Hunter Jr. in the Philadelphia Daily News, Sonny said: “The major labels are lessening the emphasis on jazz and the smaller labels are, in some cases, using that as an excuse to be not as proficient and responsible as they ought to be in the business of selling [jazz] records. It kind of creates an environment, especially for someone who has a certain amount of notoriety as myself that you might as well put out your own label.”

Sonny then emphasized: “What we’re doing as artists probably goes hand in hand [with what we do] as people as well. We find a way to survive. You don’t allow the reality of denial or resistance or frustration…to dominate your thinking, your way of life…. I’m still an individual that still has a lot of fight in him.”

The story of Sonny Fortune’s continuum reflects the lives of an untold number of jazz musicians who survive without medical plans and pensions—or even steady work. As Jimmy Rowles once told me, “I wait for the phone to ring.”

It takes a lot of grit and spirit to survive in this business, and it comes right through to you in the music.

Originally published in October 2004

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