Sullivan Fortner: Before & After

The pianist finds meaning and solace in the “isms” of jazz past and present as the world convulses

Ashley Kahn and Sullivan Fortner
Ashley Kahn (top) and Sullivan Fortner during their Zoom session (photo courtesy of Ashley Kahn)

5. Yes! Trio
“Muhammad’s Market” (Groove du Jour, jazz&people). Aaron Goldberg, piano; Omer Avital, bass; Ali Jackson, drums. Recorded in 2019.

BEFORE: I’m definitely hearing a younger piano player. I don’t think it’s anybody over 40. I feel like an older person would have probably left a little more space. It wouldn’t have been one idea flowing to the other. There would have been a bit more attention to phrases. And the Michael Jackson quote in the beginning [from the Jacksons’ “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)”]. There’s just something about it that doesn’t ring out like Eric Reed or Benny Green or Cyrus [Chestnut] or people like that. I could tell the rhythm section is … maybe not younger, but with that younger mindset. The trio playing is very interactive, almost to a point where I would’ve liked to have heard the piano a bit more in certain spots. The piano doesn’t seem as seasoned as they are. I’m probably going to get shot for saying that. I could tell it was a blues with an extended form—a few bars extra. 

AFTER: Ooooohhhh! I am getting an F. I am getting a straight-up zero. Forgive me, Aaron Goldberg! This is a recent recording too. I know him pretty well. The last time I saw him was on a tour—me and Cécile [McLorin Salvant] were playing opposite him with [Joshua] Redman’s quartet.

Ali [Jackson] really threw me for a loop because you don’t hear him play like this with Wynton [Marsalis]. First of all, it’s a different set of cymbals, and it’s also a completely different approach. He really sounds like Elvin with Trane. That’s why I wouldn’t think it was anybody younger, like in my generation. I was thinking like a 30-year-old, or 32, or 38. Also, you hear Aaron in so many different contexts. I don’t think I’ve heard him with this kind of playing behind him. Maybe I should go back and listen to more Aaron.

The language of jazz piano trios has changed so much that now anything goes, you know what I mean? It’s still at the heart of the music. You can trace how the music evolved just by tracing the piano.

6. Oscar Peterson Trio
“Hymn to Freedom” (Live in Denmark, YouTube video). Peterson, piano; Ray Brown, bass; Ed Thigpen, drums. Recorded in 1964.

This is the video track, so … Sullivan, do you have a blindfold?

BEFORE: I can’t see without my glasses, so we’re good. I hope I don’t put my foot in my mouth this time! [Closes eyes; track opens with audience clapping in a steady, enthusiastic beat] Definitely Europe. [Music begins; immediately] This is Oscar—“Hymn to Freedom.” [Opens eyes]

Some people you can tell by the first note they play. [Watches video] Look how close they are together. It’s almost like, if Oscar leans back, he’s right on the hi-hat! All of Oscar’s cues are coming from his [left] hand. I subbed a couple years ago with the Clayton Brothers Quintet and that’s how they set up—with the rhythm [section] behind the piano player—and then I started messing around with that with my trio. It’s amazing how much you can hear [in that configuration].

A lot of folks have opinions about Oscar Peterson. There are a few things about him that are undeniable to me. First, there’s nobody that looks more built for the piano than he does. Some people just look like they’re supposed to play a certain instrument. You look at Sam Jones and it’s like, “Okay, you’re supposed to play the bass.” If he picked up a trombone, he would look really awkward. For me, Oscar Peterson looks like he was made to play the piano.

Then, the type of energy he was able to get from the bass player and the drummer and the audience was one of those rarities. He knew how to put on a show. There’s a lot of folks that play really well but they don’t know how to carry an audience, or the musicians that they’re playing with. Oscar, and Earl Hines and Erroll Garner, were able to carry their band just with the piano sound. He was truly a conductor, and the audience just ate it up. Some people like to say it’s a little cookie-cutter or it’s cheese pizza, you know what I mean? But no matter how cookie-cutter it is, it’s almost impossible to maintain that energy. Oscar was able to maintain that every time he played. He never short-changed you—there never was an off night.

One of our guests mentioned this was Oscar’s protest song supporting the civil rights movement.

Sixty years later and we’re doing the same stuff. It’s amazing how little things have changed. There was such a striking difference listening to how Oscar played with his trio from the other tracks. Not that the other selections you played weren’t interesting, but those two—Oscar and Barry’s tracks—seemed to me a little stronger, almost garlicky, oniony. That type of strength. You know what I mean? 

7. Cory Henry, M.D.
“What a Friend” (Gotcha Now Doc, self-released). Henry, organ; Brad Williams, electric guitar; Nat Townsley, drums. Recorded in 2011.

BEFORE: That was Cory Henry. It’s not a New Orleans person on drums but somebody who likes New Orleans. Okay, I’m going to destroy something. You can always tell a drummer or musician that’s from New Orleans playing a second-line [rhythm] as opposed to somebody who’s not. It’s like somebody who knows how to cook gumbo from New Orleans, as opposed to somebody who’s not from New Orleans. It’s a certain dirtiness in there, a grunginess. The second-line beat is street music, and unless somebody has experienced that culture it won’t never really capture. It’s like R&B musicians trying to bebop.

I love Cory Henry. He’s an amazing organist, and musician overall. I got to hang out with him on the Blue Note jazz cruise. He talked a lot of trash about basketball, but we’re not going to go into that.

8. Gerald Clayton
“Celia” (Happening: Live at the Village Vanguard, Blue Note). Clayton, piano; Joe Sanders, bass; Marcus Gilmore, drums. Recorded in 2019.

BEFORE: That’s somebody under 40. Reminds me of Gerald almost. That kind of [sings phrase] “de-de-duh.” But it’s not Gerald. [Listens] It threw me for a second—now my whole aspect has changed. Hang on. That’s “Celia”—Bud Powell. [Listens more] Sounds like the Vanguard—just the way the claps sound in that room. Something reminded me of Gerald again. Something about it also reminded me of Aaron Parks. Am I in that right range? That sounds like Marcus [Gilmore] too. 

AFTER: There were a few jams at the bottom of the piano that was Gerald—certain isms he has. Little turns and certain little bends, almost sounds like guitar. The way he plays at the bottom of the instrument and yet he never gets in the way of the bass player. Gerald went to Manhattan School of Music for a split second, and then he joined Roy Hargrove’s band. His playing has definitely shifted from those days into what it is now, and it will only grow more.

Me and Gerald went to Vail Jazz Institute together. Marcus too—we were actually roommates. There was something about it that said this was Joe Sanders. Joe is not going to walk all the way through—there’ll be some moments when Joe will just drop and not play anything. I’ve always liked Joe and Marcus together for some reason. 

This album will be released July 10. I have a question that in part comes out of the Blackout Tuesday idea from last week: Is this the right time to release new music, considering what’s been happening on the streets in the past two weeks?

I feel artists should be constantly writing and releasing things. Part of artistry is in releasing content. It doesn’t need to be like, “I got this big thing but there’s something happening in the world and maybe I shouldn’t.” No matter who listens to it, the mission is to keep music happening and to keep the creative … [snaps fingers at a steady beat] and putting out things, if not for anybody, for yourself. With any releasing of music, you always want to ask yourself what your motive is. But sometimes you don’t really have a motive. Sometimes you’re like, “I’m just hearing this, I’m going to put it out there.” I don’t see a big thing about it. Why not?

Ashley Kahn

Ashley Kahn is a Grammy-winning American music historian, journalist, producer, and professor. He teaches at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music, and has written books on two legendary recordings—Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and A Love Supreme by John Coltrane—as well as one book on a legendary record label: The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. He also co-authored the Carlos Santana autobiography The Universal Tone, and edited Rolling Stone: The Seventies, a 70-essay overview of that pivotal decade.