Sometimes is seems that artists like Sonny Fortune get lost. Not lost in his creative mission. But lost in the public eye. Fortune has that problem of being caught in between. He’s middle aged. Not young enough to be among the darling “young lion” musicians so in vogue with jazz critics these days. And he’s too young to be considered one of the old masters like, say, Clark Terry. At the VanDyck nightclub in Schenectady, N.Y., on Feb. 5, however, Fortune showed he is a potent force. Fronting a quartet, he was impressive, playing a hot alto sax that was aggressive and enlightening. His flute playing - and there was a lot of it - was also exquisite. And he’s a capable composer. Fortune came upstate fresh from gigs in New York City. He’s on a tour that comes on the heels of his new CD “In the Spirit of John Coltrane.” The tour will take the group to Spain and Greece as well as U.S. cities. Coltrane is a huge influence on Fortune. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Fortune’s association with Elvin Jones dates back as far as Fortune’s early days in New York City, out of his native Philadelphia, and extend to today. (Fortune appeared at the VanDyck in the fall in Jones’ quintet).
Fortune said the new CD, as the title suggests, was done “with a Trane influence, in sound and intent.”.
A version of “Trane and Things” off the new disc clearly showed that goal. It had an intensity derived from Trane’s ’60s bands, but rather than playing a reed, Fortune chose flute. It proved a good decision, his playing fast and furious at times, other segments were more rhythmic, his smooth tone riding along with the propulsion from the rest of the band.
And a nice band it was.
It was a special treat to find the venerable George Cables at the piano. His playing is always tasteful and his technique prodigious. On “Trane and Things” he started off with two-handed block chords calling to the ear the young McCoy Tyner on his early solos with Coltrane. But his hands eventually flew everywhere, quick and exhilarating, but fresh with ideas. Throughout the night his rhythmic sense was notable, as was his feeling.
George Mitchell is a solid bassist. His solos were articulate, and his notes strong and clean, even when played at fast speed. Drummer Steve Johns was polyrhythmic and polished.
The set started with a hot version of “Hackensack,” which seemed to play at times off the melody of “Well You Needn’t”, and the band smoked throughout the evening. Fortune’s alto is searing and exploring, his sound burning, yet not harsh.
The original composition “From Now On” showed his liking for African-style rhythms. The band blew a wall of complex beats and both Fortune and Cables sailed through and over them. “This Side of Infinity” was also Coltranesque, but Fortune’s sax showed hints of another great influence - Charlie Parker. He alternated boppish runs with long, deep notes from the horn’s low tones. Duke’s “Sophisticated Lady” was a delight, with Fortune using his flute to caress and accentuate the classic melody. His tone and touch on the sweet ballad were just right.
It’s good to see Sonny fronting a band. While he may not get the ink of some of today’s young guns, most of them would do well not to call him out of the saloon and into the street for a fight.