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Sonny Fortune: In Pursuit Of Music

By Published: September 19, 2006

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]

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