New Orleans-based pianist Sullivan Fortner talks jazz ahead of American Spring Music Festival

Sullivan Fortner, photo: archive of American Spring Festival

Sullivan Fortner is an immensely talented pianist who has been getting plenty of attention on the jazz scene with numerous live performances and with his successful debut Aria on Impulse. This summer he will be performing at the Newport Jazz Festival; but this week he is in the Czech Republic as part of the American Spring Music Festival.

Sullivan Fortner,  photo: archive of American Spring Festival
When we met at Czech radio this week, I first asked Sullivan about his background, growing up in New Orleans.

“I come from a family of singers, not really a whole lot of instrumentalists, but singers, especially in church. Church is really where I got my start. My mum was in a choir, she was the choir director, my sisters sing, you know, and as a little boy I had a crush on the church organist. When I was about three, I tapped out some of the stuff she was playing and at home I was always tapping stuff out on the TV or on the bannister. My mum got tired of me doing that, so she bought me a little Fischer-Price piano. And one of the first things I played was the theme tune for the US game show Jeopardy from one hearing.”

‘I’ll take famous jazz standards for 500, Alex’…

“Exactly: all on the little keyboard. That was how I got ‘started’.”

You have a formal education in piano, won numerous jazz summer scholarships, completed a Master’s in Jazz Performance at the Manhattan School of Music: I know you have talked about the importance of studying musicians who came before, understanding their music and the instrument in the context of the time period… What were some of the lessons important for you?

“Well I think that ANY student of music (but really any of the performing arts) has to understand what came before, for several reasons. If you have a good understanding you can avoid some of the mistakes which were made before, and you create a certain type of awareness and second it gives you more things to draw from in the creative process.”

Which performers for example were influential when you began studying jazz?

“Maybe the first thing I heard in jazz was Duke Ellington at the age of 12. Then I was recommended some Herbie Hancock, the theme from the Antonioni film Blow-Up. But I wasn’t enthusiastic yet. Then John Coltrane but that was hieroglyphics to me, I didn’t understand it then. Then I was recommended Erroll Garner and that was when it clicked, when the light bulb hit. 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.”

“I started jazz and classical at the same time; I love classical music and listen to it at all the time but I knew it wasn’t for me because of the gospel background and the limits on improvisation. So I didn’t take to it as much as a performer. But classical and jazz are closely connected, the same language.”

Sullivan Fortner,  photo: official website of Sullivan Fortner
If we stay with the studies for just a bit longer, is it the case as a performer that many of the professional relationships you have are built up when you are still at school? I know that you have performed with a number of great bands…

“It’s funny because when you’re in school you’ll be playing with a bunch of guys but also just hanging out, getting food, sometimes cutting class, you never think that these are relationships you are going to have for the rest of your life. The first gig that I ever got was through the well-known trumpet player Christian Scott and Troy ‘Trombone Shorty’ Andrews who toured with Lenny Kravitz and has his own thing going which is really great. One of my high school buddies who later went on to Julliard, Jonathan Batiste, is the musical director for the Stephen Colbert Show. We used to practice Oscar Peterson together and all that.

“Then, you go through college and graduate school – many of those relationships I maintained and were really important for the beginning of my career.” (laughs)

As mentioned, you played in many different groups including with Roy Hargrove… what is it like to play in an ensemble where there is a single band leader? Is it different playing for different bandleaders in terms of styles or demands?

“Absolutely. I would say that the majority of bandleaders I have had not ‘demanded’ much other than just what I bring to the table. As far as how material is presented, though, that is different. If you take Roy Hargrove, there is no sheet music, everything is by ear. As opposed to other musicians I have worked with where we have sheet music and rehearsals. So it is a little bit different. Technically, it comes down to here’s the tune, go and do what you do with it.”

I guess that is part of the thrill, going off on your own tangent or thread when it is your turn, so-to-speak… it is about communication between yourself and the others in the group isn’t it?

“Yes. It’s mostly listening. I think that the key to playing jazz is really listening and being interactive.”

In a recent interview you did for Voice of America, you said that you didn’t play solo all that often: has that changed?

“I have a couple solo gigs in the Czech Republic, including Thursday’s performance at the residence of the US ambassador; otherwise I will be performing with a trio of musicians, not my usual trio from back home but from here. I am looking forward to it.”

Your debut album, Aria on Impulse, is a mix of standards as well as original compositions, because you are also a composer… what standards are part of your repertoire?

“There are a lot of songs which I have accumulated over the years through various gigs and jam sessions and performing with different bands, playing with singers… I really love jazz standards. It’s hard to say which I will draw from, especially in solo concerts. But I’d say you will definitely hear some Thelonious Monk, some Cole Porter, George Gershwin; you may hear some Richard Rodgers, Frank Loesser, Kurt Weill, there are so many great composers to draw upon.”

I wanted to ask about some of the venues or cities you enjoy playing in or coming back to…

Sullivan Fortner,  photo: official website of Sullivan Fortner
“Once place, I was just there is the Village Vanguard in New York. For a jazz musician, if you haven’t played, definitely highly recommend to get something going for you over there. The Village Vanguard is beautiful, it has such a rich history, everybody’s played on that stage and the sound is incredible, you can hear everything so clearly. That is a really great place to play.

“As far as other cities or places abroad, I enjoy playing in Japan, Tokyo in particular. South Korean audiences are great, they are enthusiastic, they yell, they really get into it! Paris, France, is really cool and some cities in Germany, I really like the A-Trane jazz club, really nice place. I like the Czech Republic! I have been here three or four times and it has always been really great to play here.”

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