BRATTLEBORO—There are a handful of people whose life’s work appears laid out for them in vivid detail from an early age — Sullivan Fortner is one of them.
Fortner, an American Pianists Association laureate, will be at the Vermont Jazz Center on Saturday, Feb. 9, at 8 p.m. He will perform with bassist Barry Stephenson (best known for his work with Jon Batiste), and drummer Kassa Overall (formerly of Geri Allen’s Timeline band).
In a 2016 interview with his undergraduate alma mater’s newspaper, The Oberlin Review, Fortner recalls being 3 years old and hearing the theme song for the television game show “Jeopardy!” He recalls banging out the tune’s rhythms on the side of the television set and his cousin claiming “he’s a musician!”
At age 4, Fortner’s family bought him a Fisher-Price toy piano which eventually led to lessons and precocious gigs (age 9) at the church where his mother was the director of the gospel choir.
For a youth fixated on music, Fortner’s native city of New Orleans was the perfect environment to support his development.
In high school, he studied at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts where he joins other distinguished alumni like Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Harry Connick Jr., Trombone Shorty, Nicholas Payton, and Terence Blanchard in completing a rigorous youth-jazz studies program that was initiated by Ellis Marsalis and Alvin Batiste.
Fortner was the valedictorian of his high school, holds a bachelor’s degree from Oberlin Conservatory and a master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music. He also is quick to credit his mentor, NEA Jazz Master Barry Harris, as an influence.
In an interview with Neon Jazz for the 2017 Charlie Parker Jazz Festival in Kansas City, Fortner was asked why he loved jazz so much.
He responded: “It’s the same reason why I hate jazz so much! It’s the only musical art form that forces you to bring your complete self to it in order for it to work. And while being vulnerable, you have to sacrifice for the music and for the other players; when the sacrifice level is the same [within the group] that’s when the music really explodes.”
Perhaps it’s that willingness to give freely and be open to the moment that makes Fortner one of the most in-demand pianists on the scene today. This freedom and receptivity is particularly evident in Grammy winner Cécile McLorin Salvant’s 2018 album Window, which is primarily a duo record with voice and piano.
Here Fortner sets up spontaneous interludes, intros, and endings that dazzle and challenge Salvant to engage, push, and redirect; it’s a fascinating conversation between creative virtuosos.
In a review on AllMusic.com, Matt Collar notes that “Fortner and Salvant play with such élan, but still manage to never get in each other’s way.” He observes that the music “speaks to their immense skill and creative empathy. Together, they play with an amorously creative and emotionally varied cornucopia of energies — so much so that you almost forget it’s just the two of them.”
In the interview with The Oberlin Review, Fortner sums it up: “It’s just a lot of love, a lot of trust, and a lot of mutual respect for each other.”
This feeling of self-assured creativity is clear in Fortner’s three recordings as a leader and his 30-plus recordings as a sideman.
This willingness to venture into the unknown is complemented by Fortner’s talent and hard-earned performing abilities. His grace, vast knowledge of styles, and penchant for making others sound good has been appreciated by Dianne Reeves, Wynton Marsalis, John Scofield, Cecile McLorin Salvant, Fred Hersch, Sean Jones, DeeDee Bridgewater, Roberta Gambarini, Peter Bernstein, Stefon Harris, Nicholas Peyton, Billy Hart, Dave Liebman, Gary Bartz, Etienne Charles, Christian Scott, and even Paul Simon.
In particular, the seven-year body of work created by Fortner with soulful trumpeter Roy Hargrove is a salient example of two musicians communicating on a very high level.
Their recordings are replete with spontaneous spars and musical exchanges that illustrate the “sacrifice” (to re-use Fortner’s word) of two masters yielding themselves to the moment; their use of the improvisational language calls to mind and pays homage to masters like Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, and Freddie Hubbard.
Lauded as one of the top jazz pianists of his generation, Fortner is the winner of three prestigious awards — a Leonore Annenberg Arts Fellowship, the 2015 Cole Porter Fellowship from the American Pianists Association, and the 2016 Lincoln Center Award for Emerging Artists.
The American Pianists Association Cole Porter Fellowship in Jazz provided Fortner with a $50,000 prize and the opportunity to record for Mack Avenue Records, as well as two years of professional career services and development.
When asked in a 2016 interview for Czech Radio who were the most influential jazz pianists that spurred his development, Fortner said “Errol Garner and Oscar Peterson were the first two pianists I heard where it really clicked. And then Art Tatum, that pretty much sealed the deal for me.”
These three pianists formed the foundation of Sullivan’s style — and like these three masters, Sullivan is always grooving, creative and appreciative of the tradition. Come hear for yourself why this remarkable yet humble musician has been the recipient of such prestigious awards: his concerts are always enjoyable, pushing creative boundaries while teaching us about the living history of our music.