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Sonny Fortune: In Pursuit Of Music

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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!

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