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Sonny Fortune at Blues Alley

Franz A. Matzner By

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We were witnessing a different sort of phenomena, although perhaps an equally moving and stunning one, namely the expression of a devotee
Blue Alley, Washington D.C.
Saturday, June 21, 2003

His whole face contorting with sustained effort, his body bent and eyes closed, Sonny Fortune seemed intent on transforming D.C.’s Blues Alley into a séance for John Coltrane. At one point during Saturday night’s last set, with Fortune’s body arched, his nostrils flaring as he blasted another insanely high, impossibly long note, it almost felt like he had succeeded. The sounds emanating from Fortune’s alto were so eerily similar to Coltrane’s inimitable excursions, the interplay between Fortune, George Cables(piano) Wayne Dockree(elec.bass) and Steve Johns(drums), so intuitive, so reminiscent of the famous Coltrane Quartet, that with eyes closed, it was almost possible to believe that Fortune, through sheer force of will, technical mastery, and musicianship, had in fact begun channeling Coltrane.

But then the moment broke. With attention returning to the bodies on stage, it became clear that John Coltrane was still gone, and had not taken possession of Fortune’s body. We were witnessing a different sort of phenomena, although perhaps an equally moving and stunning one, namely the expression of a devotee’s life of dedication.

In fact, it was clear from the opening moments of the Sonny Fortune Group’s first piece of the night, Coltrane’s “Blues Minor” that Fortune has not only mastered Coltrane’s licks, harmonic devices, and signature methods, but that he has gathered together musicians equally in tune with Coltrane’s idiom. George Cables’ long, cascading lines matched Fortune’s swirling explorations, both spurred on by Johns’ crackling snare and Dockaree’s systematically driving bass work. If any doubt persisted, Fortune’s next piece, the original composition, “’Trane and Things”, confirmed the depth of Fortune’s commitment to the sound and path of Coltrane. Performed on soprano sax, “’Trane and Things” incorporates a direct reference to “My Favorite Things” in its melody, upon which all four musicians improvised, building long, transportive solos. Johns in particular leapt into this piece full throttle, providing a terrific display of propulsive drumming.

Changing instruments again, this time to flute, Fortune applied his estimable talents to “Sophisticated Lady,” creating a gentle, slow tempo ballad. Revealing great adaptability, Johns’ brushwork established a firm, mellow rhythm, while Dockaree elaborated a sensual base accompaniment. This may have been the most inspired piece of the evening, Fortune’s flute work delicately dynamic, and Cables’ piano lines full of intricate harmonies. Oddly, it was here, and not on the Coltrane compositions themselves, that Fortune’s evocation of the ‘Trane sound seemed most alive and personal. When working on the sax, particularly the soprano, the material tended to feel too close to Coltrane’s playing, as if Fortune has so closely bonded with the intonations and spiritual drive of Coltrane that his own voice has become obscured. On flute, however, Fortune’s own interpretive voice shone through, and the intensity of his playing was enough to overwhelm.

Concluding with the Larry Willis composition, “Come In Out of the Rain,” Fortune and cast reversed gears, countering the previous piece’s mood with an up-tempo, Latin- inflected gambol. Full of energy, Fortune returned to alto and to a fully Coltraneesque take on the material. Johns’ pedal work was noticeably strong on this piece, his bass thumping loudly while he maintained a thick, raucous beat on cymbal, toms, and snare. With each member soloing, and trading fours enthusiastically, everyone dug into Willis’ material to the utmost, creating out of the piece a mood elevating denouement. In fact, the song so energized the crowd that Fortune was urged on for an encore by the audience’s pleading shouts and applause, an uncommon occurrence at Blues Alley. Assenting to the crowd, despite the coming long ride back to N.Y., Fortune finished the night with a rousing rendition of “Impressions” that left everyone clapping and smiling.

After the music stopped and I sat watching the musicians breakdown their instruments, I found a sense of dissatisfaction descending, the source of which I couldn’t quite locate until later, ascribing the whole thing to the late hour and the intensity of the music just experienced. But the feeling persisted, and I eventually located its source. There was something disturbing in Fortune’s devotional display, in the way he has, over the years, so closely associated himself with every aspect of Coltrane’s work. Well, much of it, since he seems to have abandoned Coltrane’s later experiments for the more structured Quartet and “sheets-of-sound” period. Perhaps that was it. At times, it felt like watching someone deliberately lose themselves in Central Park in order to use scoutsmanship to find their way back to 6th Avenue. After all, it wasn’t the extended solos in and of themselves that defined Coltrane, it was the intent behind them, the desire to access the next level, the next breakthrough, a semi-mystical musical discovery that imbued Coltrane’s improvisational flights with force and power. Despite the absolute brilliance of Fortune’s playing, I left wishing to hear him embark further down the path.

Or perhaps, I just wanted what it seems Fortune wants; for Coltrane to still be playing; for the music to still hold itself gleaming and bright before an enchanted audience; for that period of time to return when jazz seemed to embody the spirit of change, or progress—of enlightened minds seeking something beyond corporeal limits and venal concerns.

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