LIVE: Sullivan Fortner Quartet @ Zankel Music Center, Skidmore College

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There’s a good reason to attend Skidmore Jazz Institute’s Friday afternoon Participant Concerts, and it’s not because they’re free – it’s that there’s a decent chance you’ll see players that might impact your musical life somewhere down the road. The list of prominent SJI alumni gets longer all the time and includes monsters like Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Jonathan Batiste, and Ryan Cohan. More often than not, SJI attendees get to see alums in action, either onstage at Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival or in Master Classes at the Institute. Pianist Sullivan Fortner (SJI Class of 2001) took the Master Class route this year, and last Tuesday night the New Orleans native gave us all a Master Class in jazz as it stands in the 21st century.

“I wore my good clothes for y’all,” Fortner informed us with a grin while his quartet got situated in front of an almost packed Ladd Concert Hall, and then Fortner told us we’d be hearing “some old stuff and some new stuff.” This otherwise-innocent comment actually filled me with dread: While introducing Fortner, new SJI Executive Director Mark Beaubriand stressed that Fortner “really knows his history!” As such, I worried that the night would be filled with the kind of dust-covered “traditional jazz” that is a specialty of another NOLA pianist, Marcus Roberts. Then Fortner dove headlong into his original composition “Aria”, and my fears flew right out the door.

Fortner started out in the clear, playing figures that might have sounded scattered to the uninformed ear, but you could see the matrix Fortner was building if you knew where to look.  Then his band kicked in and we were off on an uptempo run that would blow everyone’s hair back. Fortner’s attack had muscles upon muscles, but he was a dancer, too, with fingers flying and landing hard and sprinting away as he took chance after chance. The bell of Mason Guerin’s tenor sax was a little too far from the mic, so his opening notes seemed far away; however, when he finally found the range, we discovered the 20-year old saxman was just as much of a risk-taker as Fortner. They would make a death-defying combination for an electric 75-minute set that ended with a long, deserved standing ovation.

I’ve heard more than a few old soldiers complain that the current generation of jazzers has no sense of melody – that all they do is pound, relying on mathematical figures and scales played at the speed of sound. However, it’s my position that this generation DOES have a sense of melody, but it’s THEIR sense of melody, honed while being exposed to hip-hop and R&B and rock as well as the many flavors of jazz. Fortner’s melodies do have jazz history at their base, with plenty of Thelonious Monk discord throughout: Fortner’s dynamic original “Barbara’s Strut” treated us to his vision of Monk and his mother living in New Orleans, her cooking up gumbo while Monk sat at a window and listened to the Soul Rebels playing out in the street. That said, there’s a steely-eyed fearlessness in Fortner’s playing & composing that’s firmly in the present day. Is it Bill Evans, or Marcus Roberts? No… but that’s the POINT!

I shouldn’t diss Roberts too hard, because back in the day, Fortner saw Morgan’s dad Roland Guerin play with Roberts in concert. “This is jazz royalty here,” Fortner said of Morgan, an unassuming bespectacled young man who could have passed for one of the SJI students filling the first four rows of the Ladd. There’s nothing unassuming about Morgan Guerin’s playing, which features the kind of razor-sharp edges and angles you get from another Institute alum, the phenomenal reed wizard Myron Walden. Guerin demonstrated his own sense of history with a spot-on reading of Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes”, but while the piece stayed within the original recording’s boundaries, Guerin’s solos all came from his heart and soul, as they did on Fortner’s breakneck take on Jackie McLean’s “Little Melanie.”

A car this fast needs a top-notch engine, and that’s what Fortner had in drummer Kush Abadey. Kush has backed superheroes like David Weiss and David Gibson, so he was totally in his element at Skidmore, dropping bombs here, there and everywhere, and showing his own sense of melody and nuance when the moment called for it. But the aforementioned car needs a steady surface to work with, and few bass players lay better foundations than Dezron Douglas, whose resonant double bass loved the Ladd’s singularly sensational acoustics.  Douglas always knows what his leader needs, and he gave Fortner the stellar support Dezron has brought to many a bandstand.

Fortner ended the night by imploring the audience to keep supporting live jazz and “not just the dead musicians, but the live one!” He also gave big love to both the faculty and the experience Skidmore Jazz Institute provides. (“This is family,” he enthused.) Most importantly, though, Fortner gave the students one more tip: “Do (this music) because you love it. If you love it, it will always take care of you!” It’s clear that Sullivan Fortner plays jazz because he loves it. But he also plays it his way, and that’s something to love, as well, because it means that trip down the road will be full of surprises.

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