Jazz Pianist Sullivan Fortner

Photo by Sabrina Santiago

There's a fear out there, even among jazz cognoscenti, that the music's best years and true geniuses are all part of the past. Even in New York City, the richest magnet for live jazz on earth, it sometimes seems that experiencing generational talent, the kind that once drove the music forward, is now confined to gazing at the famous photos on the walls of the music's most revered shrine, the Village Vanguard. Yet, seeing pianist Sullivan Fortner at the Vanguard, as part of Cécile McLorin Salvant's band, convinced me that there's still jazz magic in the world. By turns playful, blindingly brilliant, and at times puppy dog goofy, Fortner was spectacular. He is clearly a star in the music's future.

Spending time in the storied Studio C at Sear Sound, with its Sear-Avalon Custom Console, to watch Fortner record a forthcoming album convinced me again that his playing ranks with that of the jazz immortals. In person, at this Hell's Kitchen studio, he's surprisingly humble. Easygoing and quick to laugh (often at himself ), his affable exterior masks a formidable intelligence and an eager passion for and knowledge of music. After he inserts a rascally passage in an organ solo he's recording, his working trio of Tyrone Allen (bass) and Kayvon Gordon (drums), as well as session engineer Jack DeBoe, crack up the control room. With a wide grin, Fortner emerges from the studio dressed in Yeezy Croc slides, a wool cap, and comfy lounge pants. Motioning me toward a side room, we sit down for a brief chat.

Fortner's latest album, the two-disc Solo Game, released on France's Artwork Records label in November 2023, features solo interpretations of tunes by Kurt Weill, Duke Ellington, and Frederic Chopin ("Minute Waltz"), among others. A duo record, with bassist Rufus Reid as leader, was released February 2 on Sunnyside. The as-yet-unnamed projects he is currently recording will become two albums, both to be released on Artwork Records sometime in 2024.

The first of the two forthcoming albums was recorded with drummer Marcus Gilmore and bassist Peter Washington in July 2023 at Sear Sound. That recording comprises standards and covers plus a single Fortner original. It includes a Bill Lee tune, "Again Never," which was featured in the film Mo' Better Blues; a Consuela Lee composition; and a take on Allen Toussaint's "Southern Nights." The second forthcoming album, the one where the solo organ piece he's thinking of naming "Hymn for Linda" will appear, contains mostly originals, some based on tunes written by other composers.

One biographical detail that may surprise some Fortner fans who associate him with his current home in New York City is that he hails from New Orleans. What proud piano traditions of that musical city are audible in his playing today?

"New Orleans piano players, when I think about it, are very blues-drenched. And very two-handed. Very, very strong and powerful left hand. And definitely very groove-oriented. New Orleans is also very eclectic. It's not just jazz and blues. There's also a classical tradition. There's a gospel tradition. There's an R&B funk tradition, so all of those things are influencing and informing everything I play. I also play some of the repertoire. Sometimes I play James Booker, sometimes I play [Professor] Longhair. I kind of jump in on occasion."

His highest-profile gig in recent years has been his creative and personal partnership with singer/composer Cécile McLorin Salvant, whose awesome creative firepower is equal to his own. Fortner, who says he's been accompanying singers since he was "a little boy playing in church," has also played with Stephanie Jordan, Dianne Reeves, Lizz Wright, and others.

"If Cécile brings anything out of me, it's a sensitivity to a lyric. Sensitivity to a story. And really trying to provide a landscape," he says. "Cécile, above being a great singer, is a great storyteller. It's one of the things that allows her to stand apart from all her peers, in my opinion. My job in her situation is to not be in the way. And she tells such great stories, you don't want to be in her way. You just kind of want to be part of it, too."

Watching the interplay between Fortner and his working trio in the control room and on the studio floor, it's also clear that he's committed to being a generous leader when his name is heading a recording date. "Every leader I've had the privilege to play with, Cécile, Peter Bernstein, Etienne Charles, John Scofield, have all been very open, very giving. I played in Roy Hargrove's band for seven years, and everybody played a lot more than he did; he shared the light with everyone.

"All the greatest leaders were the ones you didn't notice, but they were leading. They didn't say anything, there weren't words, they didn't lead by telling somebody what to play, they led by example. They were all like 'You do you, but if you listen and you watch me, you'll understand exactly what you need to do.'"

Fortner's remarkable talents allow him to cross genres, frustrate easy labels, and make music that is often unique. Though he works in the jazz world, the vision for his playing is larger than any single word.

"I don't think the term 'jazz' really works anymore," he says, referring to all that music, not just his own. "The lines have been so blurred. And the influences are so vast. I enjoy playing the music that is known as jazz. I studied it in school. But Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Anita Baker, and Stevie Wonder are just as, if not more, influential than Charlie Parker, because they're part of my upbringing. For me, music is music. I don't look at it as categories. I just say, okay, this is a tune, and this is how I play it."