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Interviews

Sonny Fortune: In Pursuit Of Music

By Published: September 19, 2006
Sonny FortuneSonny Fortune is one of the most exciting saxophonists in jazz today, with a searing sound that is all his own. Fortune served as a sideman with a variety of leaders, including Elvin Jones, Mongo Santamaria, Buddy Rich, McCoy Tyner, Miles Davis and Nat Adderley, but it as a leader that he has truly made his mark in music. He currently leads a quartet, is co-leader with Gary Bartz and Vincent Herring of the cooperative group The Three Altos, and has an incendiary duo with Rashied Ali. Fortune also runs his own record label, Sound Reason, which releases his original music.

All About Jazz: So how does it feel to have your own record label?

Sonny Fortune: It has its moments. It's a lot of work. There's a lot to learn, but I'll tell you, on the other side of the coin, which I think, is a much more meaningful position, certainly for me, I think it's great. It's one of the things that I have always kind of felt some kind of awareness of and that is, trying to have some say-so about what is yours. And to have the Blue Note record label to make a situation where that ultimately became possible for me—to have a say so these particular CDs—man, is pretty heavy, in terms of how I feel about it, in terms of how I am and what's important to me.

AAJ: You started your label, Sound Reason, before you reissued the Blue Note dates, when you released your Continuum (Sound Reason, 2003) album. What prompted you to do that?

SF: That came from just kind of seeing the industry, or part of the industry, the jazz area of the business, kind of moving in a direction where jazz musicians—and it's not clear if there is a bad guy or a good guy here—where jazz musicians and record labels are trying to sell records. And as obvious as that objective should always be—for a musician and a record company to try to sell records—what makes it somewhat complicated is [the question], "What do you do to sell records? So that whole pursuit sometimes kind of get of gets away, a lot of times, from artistry, from creative music, away from the ingredient that identifies itself with this expression called jazz.

AAJ: This is kind of coming full circle for you. You release your first record on the cooperative Strata East label, which was almost like having your own record company. That record, Long Before Our Mothers Cried (Strata East, 1974), was self produced, was it not?

SF: That's correct.

AAJ: You were lucky enough after that, or unlucky enough, depending how you look at it, to make albums for a succession of major labels. This afforded an opportunity to record, but they didn't keep your music available for posterity. So, when a Sonny Fortune fan went to a record store, he or she would think that you'd never made a record.

SF: You're right. That's the absolute truth. Well, you know, I don't' know. I don't know how to answer why that has been, other than to say that—and I must concede that in the early eighties I made an attempt to sell records, too. [laughs]

AAJ: By that you mean that when you were recording for Atlantic, you attempted to commercialize your music somewhat.

SF: Yeah. And it was a process that would have gone on and on, because then you say, "Okay well we're selling, but we can do better and better. I just felt that for where my head was at I was ignoring what I identified to be right and so as it progressed to be more in the name of selling records, I just felt like, no, I don't want to, because I'm still in pursuit of music, man; that's one of the things that gives me the rejuvenation that I keep getting. I'm in pursuit of music. I'm trying to get better at what it is that I'm doing; I'm trying to understand more about what it is that I'm doing. And I think that having my label, having access to what's happening, is a lot of work, but it's something that I can accept and identify with, because it's part of the whole framework that I'm about.

AAJ: You've produced your own records, yet they don't simply duplicate what you do when playing live. You seem to approach the two endeavors differently, understanding the dissimilarity be the two situations. Is it because you feel that the energy and length of your live improvisations might be too much for a recording?

SF: Well I've heard that many, many times, but my response has pretty much been the same, with very little change—and that is, believe it or not most cats record, in my estimation, with somewhat a (different approach than they take when playing live). Certainly my heroes did. And when I say that, I'm talking about people like John Coltrane and Charlie Parker.

I use those two guys for examples because, in the case of Charlie Parker, because I never saw Bird, I only relied on what I had heard on recordings and I thought I had really saw the whole picture of Charlie Parker, from being introduced to him sometime in the late 50's. But it wasn't until around '73-'74 that I was really turned around on Charlie Parker. And what had happened was, there was a radio station here in New York (WKCR), I think they started with a 12-hour program and it ended up being two-and-a-half days, because of people in New York, New York being what it is, people had tapes in their private possession of Charlie Parker events. And I didn't listen to that much of it, but I remember distinctly when I first heard it, that the times when I would come to it periodically, it was like "Wow, man who is this cat! —knowing full well that it was Charlie Parker. Since then, a lot of those recordings have been issued, so you do have access to hearing the "other guy.

The other, other guy is John Coltrane. Because I saw Coltrane so many times that I never felt that the Trane I saw, I heard on recordings. So I concluded, in both cases, that those cats treated recording with another kind of [attitude] and yes I do, because I don't know any other way ... A lot people say, "Sonny you ought to record live. And I often say, I'd like to record live, the only thing is though, how would I kind of approach it. When I play live, I'm in the moment of trying to find music, so it's whatever we do. And if we talk about what Rashied and I do, that's completely some place else, but in both places I'm in a mode of trying to find some music.

The thing about recording, you've got to more or less wear a suit and tie, whereas on a gig, you can kind of wear an open collar or something. I'm using those kinds of metaphors to make a point. I mean on a recording you have to think clearer, you've got to be more correct in your observations, in your decisions, your intent. I mean, all of that is necessary at all times, in a sense, but recording? I mean one of the things I feel about recordings is that, in a sense, they are very unfair. It only captures a moment [laughs]. A brief moment. Jesus Christ!

AAJ: Out of all the many gigs you've played, history will be judging you by only a few records?

SF: [still laughing] I've done played a billion, probably, solos, over all the years that I've been playing. And how many recordings have I done? So, that is one of my illnesses right there. I just think that recording is somewhat unfair. But you have to treat it like what it is, and that is a moment that you kind of get a chance to wear your suit and tie.

AAJ: By that you mean you're a little bit more polite on your records.

SF: Yeah. At least, that is how I see it. You have to be more deliberate, more clear, more controlled. Those kinds of things that you should have all the time, but at a moment such as recording, because it is what it is and it is that moment, sometimes it's a moment [laughs] that you say, "Wow, I wish that moment never came about. And then sometimes, what you'd like to say, and I certainly would say about these Blue Note recordings, and the Continuum recording, is that they are moments that I feel very good about. Even though I know that they're only moments.

Sonny FortuneAAJ: Do you feel that you learned some things about the recording process making records as a sideman with Miles Davis.?

SF: Well I've learned something in all of my experiences in recording and what I've learned is pretty much what I just said a minute ago. To give more detail to that, I've learned that you've got to kind of organize that moment. Speaking for me, being responsible for the date, for the session—you've got to kind of organize that moment. Time is money; you've got to create a product that you feel good about; you've got to get the guys in the mood and feeling good about the moment. I say it's hard to come out on the gig and say, "Poof! Hey, let's play some music. It's not that kind of a setting. That is my explanation for why I haven't [recorded live yet], because I've heard that question often. I say that the recordings that I've heard of Charlie Parker that have knocked me clear off my feet are when he was in a club somewhere playing, on a gig somewhere playing and he was just playing.

AAJ: He wasn't concerned with making a record.

SF: As a matter of fact this new CD that just came out [with Bird and Diz] at Town Hall [1947]. Man, I can't believe it! And I can't believe Dizzy. I can't believe either one of those cats. I can't believe Dizzy Gillespie on that date. So, you know, this music is very difficult, it's complicated from the standpoint [phew!] that when it's all said and done, you've got to make contact. [laughs] Otherwise, it's like whistling in the wind or something. You've got to say something that you mean, that can be felt and interpreted in some kind of way and yet you're not working off of a lyric or words that someone can just grab a hold of. So, it's not easy, recording.

One of things, to tell you the truth I was just thinking about it yesterday. One of the things that I also like about having my own label, is that I can record when I want to. Now this is really stretching way out there, but since you're talking to me, asking me the questions, it'll be me giving the answers—and that is that I just think that recording every whatever [period], because your contract says so, puts a lot of unnecessary pressure on you. I feel very good that, because that was kind of what I had with Blue Note, you know, I recorded every year. And remember that a couple of those years [I thought] "Wow! I'm not sure I know what I want to do here. Much to my surprise though, I came out with a product that I felt very good about, but it wasn't something that, you know, I just don't find it that easy to ...

AAJ: Record on demand?

SF: Yeah! Thank you, I guess that's what I was trying to find the words to say.

AAJ: A lot of what is traditional practice in the recording industry kind of goes against the grain of the creative jazz musician's regular behavior. Many musicians are used to playing from 9pm to 3am. Then they have to go and make a record from 9am to 3pm.

SF: Yeah, that's part of it, too. But you know, when you talk about the jazz musician, when you talk about the spontaneous creative musician, I mean [laughs] he's definitely walking on a different kind of platform, anyway. Late hours, you're right. Early in the morning, you're right. I mean the whole nine yards, but the music itself kind of represents this as well. The thing that I love about it is that the music itself has no boundaries; it expands itself as far as your imagination can go. I often say that it's something that could really only happen over here in an environment where, the people in the United States, well the people in New York are progressive.

AAJ: You pretty much only work as a leader these days. Although you have a good record as a sideman with Miles, McCoy [Tyner], Nat Adderley, Elvin Jones...

SF: Mongo Santamaria, Buddy Rich. Yeah, I've worked with a lot of great people.

AAJ: But now you work primarily as a leader, but you've created various situations where you've given yourself leeway to express different aspects of your artistry—between your quartet, the duo with Rashied Ali and The Three Altos, with Gary Bartz and Vincent Herring. What do you like about the different situations and how do you approach them differently?

SF: The thing that I like about all three of them is there are things that I can do. Like with The Three Altos, I know that whole band; we're all friends. Musically, we're not playing my music, we're more or less playing the music that is kind of identified with this music called jazz and we kind of feel of that we kind of qualify to take on that responsibility. We know about the music that's associated with this music called jazz. So, that's with The Altos. With my band I focus on my music, on my own compositions.

AAJ: I just want to note here, that you have a reputation as a player. As a real player, a burning improviser, but you haven't been given the credit you deserve as composer. Outside of the Monk record you did for Blue Note (1994's Four In One, reissued as part of 2005's Trilogy on Sound Reason), you've written the majority of the music on all of your records. Even on your more commercial efforts you wrote more commercial music, but it's still your music and reflects your voice. How did you start writing music?

SF: I don't really know. I just thought that that was part of what it was all about.

AAJ: You didn't go to school and study composition, so you're more of a natural composer?

SF: No I didn't go to school and study composition. I studied harmony and theory with a guy named Roland Wiggins, but that was in my earlier years, when often times he'd talk to me [laughs] and I wasn't quite sure I understood what he was saying. No, I learned more from just knowing right from wrong. Which I usually do take the responsibility for most of the time. I do know the difference [laughs]

AAJ: That's a very good answer. And now, what you do with Rashied?

SF: Well now [laughs], that's something else. But that is something that kind of lies dormant deep down inside of me [laughs], that he and I [working as a duo] brings that out. It's always been there. I didn't even know it, but when I think back, just about everybody I've worked with—Rashied and I've talked about this—at one time or another, they've all said the same thing. And that is, ([aughing] "Sonny, you're playing too long. [laughing] And it was nowhere near what Rashied an I are doing. But you know man, I enjoy playing music. For me it's an experience I can really go on a journey with. That's what I try to do. That is what I'm looking for when I'm involved in presenting music.

That is the reason I love this particular music, the spontaneous improvisational music, because it can expand. It's limited just to what you understand. With Rashied and I, it's the ultimate of that, for me, because I do all of that in a way that, well, I never had a problem working with a rhythm section, but I never have a problem working without a rhythm section either. So, Rashied and I, he's keeping time and I'm keeping form and we do what we do.

AAJ: I guess some of that must come from Trane being one of your primary influences, so you must have seen him playing hour long solos.

SF: Well, I never saw him play an hour long solo, and I never saw him play an hour long duo, and I never saw him play an hour long duo structured form. I'd like to believe that what I've always tried to identify through John Coltrane was not to necessarily sound like him, but to embrace the spirit of him, because that was the thing even in my beginning stages—I could feel the spirit. I mean I was completely blown away, because at first I didn't like Coltrane, but when I did change my mind, it was like I could hear the musician, but it was the spirit.


Sonny Fortune with Rashied Ali

So, playing the alto as opposed to the tenor; playing the way we play a duo, as opposed to the way that he played a duo; at the end of the day—and Rashied and I talk about this often—we owe it all to the spirit of John Coltrane. I mean, John was in pursuit of music, that is what I saw him as then, when I didn't know; when I understood a little more I saw and people who knew him much better than me, 20, 30, 40 years later, have confirmed that notion. He was in pursuit of music. It would have been interesting to see him live on, to see how he would have handled where its center was, but he didn't. But in the short time he was with us, at an early age, he became a very serious man in the pursuit of music. He created some great music, as we can all attest to. And so even though we may be doing it differently and even though whatever, whatever, whatever, I would say that I'm moving off of that sense of delivering the spirit.

AAJ: Where do you see yourself moving towards these days?

SF: I'm just trying to get better at that. I'm just trying to make it so obvious that no one wrestles with it and so obvious that I don't have a hard time getting to it. [laughs]

AAJ: I enjoyed reading in the liner notes to Trilogy, your expression of disappointment in yourself when listening to a tape from 30 years ago and hearing you playing some things that you still play. I would think that you might have been proud of yourself because some things you played 30 years ago are still worth playing.

SF: Well that may be one way of looking at it and I can hear that. I think unfortunately what I see in this music, because I remember a group of us saying this in the '60s was that at the rate that this music is moving by the '90s it's going to be unbelievable.! Well here we are, we've past the '90s and I hope, I certainly want, I would like to be able to feel like I'm doing something way far and above what I was doing in the '60s, even if the music itself isn't. Because as crazy as I was then, I actually believed that; I thought that had some worth., so I get a lot of compliments and I appreciate them all, but one that I really appreciate is when someone says to me, "I every time I hear you man, you sound like you're getting better and better —because that's the one I'm working on.

AAJ: Anything in closing?

SF: Just that I'm gassed at what's happening with this label that I'm starting here. It's still got some growing pains and some room to go, but I'm excited about the whole idea, really. I mean it is something and to have these (Blue Note) CDs available again is something. That and that the band with the same personnel (Xavier Davis, Chip Jackson, and Steve John) is going to be back at Sweet Rhythm.


Selected Discography

Sonny Fortune, Trilogy Collection (Four in One/A Better Understanding/From Now On) (Sound Reason, 2005)
Sonny Fortune, Continuum (Sound Reason, 2004)
Elvin Jones, In Europe (Enja, 1991)

Stanley Cowell/Reggie Workman, Great Friends (Black & Blue/Evidence, 1986)

Sonny Fortune, Laying It Down (Konnex, 1984)

Miles Davis, Agharta (Columbia/Legacy, 1975)

McCoy Tyner, Sahara (Milestone/OJC, 1972)

Photo Credits
Top Photo and Photo of Fortune/Ali: John Kelman
Center Photo: Brian Nation



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