I was aware of pianist Sullivan Fortner from recorded accompaniments to vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant. The New Orleans-bred pianist and composer has a gem of a new recording that certainly should delight many. With a career that has already had him playing with Ms. Salvant, as well as Roberta Gambarini; trumpeters Roy Hargrove (in whose band he was in for 8 years), Etienne Charles, and Ambrose Akinmusire; and guitarists John Scofield and Peter Bernstein, he sparkles on this recording with a trio that includes bassist Ameen Saleem (who played with him in Hargrove's band for seven years) and drummer Jeremy "Bean" Clemons. It also includes a couple of numbers with Hargrove.
There is a range of material including standards, imaginative interpretations of themes from television shows and poignant originals, starting with the lively rendition of "Changing Keys," the theme of TV's "Wheel of Fortune." Fortner's touch, inventiveness and his articulation might suggest Barry Harris who he studied with, but he is no Harris clone. He also benefits from the splendid rhythm section. Bud Powell's influence, through Barry Harris' mentoring, is evident on Fortner's original "Pep Talk," that also places the spotlight on Saleem and Clemons. "Elegy For Clyde Kerr" is an alluring ballad that was dedicated to the late New Orleans trumpeter and educator. Fortner's thoughtful, restrained playing is complemented by the rhythm. Bassist Saleem composed and kicks off "Beans and Cornbread," with its jaunty melody, Fortner's spirited playing and Saleem's own strongly played solo.
Roy Hargrove, on flugelhorn, joins the ensemble for a hauntingly lovely rendition of Elmo Hope's ballad, "Eyes So Beautiful As Yours," followed an exquisite reading of Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood." Fortner's original "Barbara's Strut," displays echoes of Monk and Bud Powell. He follows it with a dazzling, Tatum-esque rendition of "Just in Time." Saleem and Clemons both also are featured on this breakneck performance. Then Fortner takes us to the Caribbean with the jubilantly performed calypso, New Port," followed by his solo impressionistic interpretation of Earth Wind & Fire's "Fantasy," with his mix of cascading passages and dissonance.
Other performances include a marvelous duet with Roy Hargrove "Monk Medley" which was comprised of Monk's "Ask Me Now" and "Monk's Mood." Fortner's beautiful solo rendition of a traditional gospel hymn, "The Solid Rock," also displays his taste as well as technique. It is another wonderful performance on a terrific recording.
I received a download to review from a publicist. I have made some minor stylistic edits to the review that originally appeared in the September-October 2018 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 380). Here is a performance of him at Blues Alley in Washington DC for "Beyond Category with Eric Felton."