Sullivan Fortner started his jazz piano solo concert at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church by making the quietest sounds possible on a giant Steinway grand. Even sitting a few feet away, it was so soft that it was hard to believe it was coming from the enormous piano. Was the piano prepared with special dampers? A few notes and a tiny fraction of decibels later, it was clear that the super soft sound was produced solely by Sullivan Fortner’s amazing pianissimo touch.
This introduction to his jazz interpretation of “Fantasy” by Earth, Wind, and Fire seemed to be entirely improvisational – a whimsical mood inspired perhaps by the hush of the crowd in the sanctuary of a church. Mr. Fortner added the tiniest increments of amplitude and then let loose in a Ravel-inspired variation and cadenza. This version has almost nothing in common with the track “Fantasy” on Fortner’s album Moments Preserved, as Fortner commands a panoply of musical permutations.
His styles are so wide-ranging that when he played “Weeping Willow” by Scott Joplin, he threw in rag, stride, and even a Brahmsian hemiola. He put such a spin on the rhythm that it seemed his right and left hands were playing independently – and yet, he kept the reins tight enough to shape the multiple styles into a cohesive whole.
Thursday’s performance featured many facets of Fortner – his extraordinary technique and finger work, his dynamic control, and his ability to sustain trills while letting several themes hover over them simultaneously. This was notable in his interpretation of Art Tatum’s version of “I’ll Get By (As Long as I Have You).” The incredibly fast downward scale passages he played with his left hand while his right hand played complex counter-themes in Vincent Youmans’ “Tea for Two” was stunning, not to mention the exciting bursts of the theme played on the bass notes.
Fortner seems to hold an infinite number of musical ideas in his head simultaneously. His effervescent interpretation of Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane’s “The Trolley Song” incorporated several other tunes without blurring the harmonic framework. Flashes of “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Dixie” appeared like meteors passing by, while Fortner played long sustained trills in the left hand and then an active bass part in the left hand that it was almost a fugue in itself.
After the audience gave him a standing ovation, Fortner accompanied his own voice in “On a Clear Day” with the left hand alone (making it a fully developed harmonic backdrop while holding the microphone in his right hand). This finale had glimmers of Fortner’s ability to play creative but unobtrusive accompaniments as a collaborator, which you can hear in his performances with trumpeter Roy Hargrove and singer Cécile McLorin Salvant.
From soft to loud, from fast to slow, from stride to samba, Mr. Fortner has mastered the ability to shift musical shapes using myriad ideas to bring new life into classic jazz tunes.
Fred Hersch selected the pianists in this series to show the direction that jazz piano will take in the next few years. With artists like Sullivan Fortner, it seems jazz piano has a very bright future indeed.
[St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church presents The Future of Jazz Piano with Sullivan Fortner, Thursday, February 7, 2019 at 7:00 p.m. at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, 19 S. 10th Street, Philadelphia. Next on the series is Micah Thomas on Thursday, April 18, 2019. Tickets and information at www.ststephensphl.org.]