Sonny Fortune Quartet at Sweet Rhythm

Chris Thompson By

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I closed my eyes and figured, well, I never heard the classic John Coltrane Quartet live, but this has got to be as close to that as I
Sonny Fortune Quartet
Sweet Rhythm, New York City
March 27, 2004

‘Round about midnight on March 25, 2004, WKCR in New York City, the radio station of Columbia University, concluded a continuous two-week program on John Coltrane. Yes, that’s right — John Coltrane Radio 24/7 for two weeks straight! "All Coltrane. All the time." The program finale was a live 1961 recording of the “classic” John Coltrane Quartet performing “My Favorite Things”. It’s a performance gushing with swing, groove, ideas, energy, passion, innovation, love, excitement, telepathy...the list could go on, but you get the idea.

Why begin a review of the Sonny Fortune Quartet by mentioning a marathon John Coltrane radio festival? Because it’s March 27, just two days after the festival ended, and Sonny Fortune is playing at Sweet Rhythm tonight. Still riding high on all that great Coltrane music I heard through the miracle of radio airwaves, there was just one thing to do: head downtown to hear the Sonny Fortune Quartet live. After all, Sonny Fortune’s affinity to Coltrane runs pretty deep. He has played and recorded extensively with the bands of one half of the classic John Coltrane Quartet — Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner — and in 2000 he released a CD titled In the Spirit of John Coltrane. He was also featured in a live interview during the radio festival, along with Coltrane alumni bassist Reggie Workman, drummer Rashied Ali and pianist Steve Kuhn.

Sonny Fortune plays his unique brand of modal swinging jazz with an earnest intensity and he has a sound as big as the Grand Canyon. In fact, he didn’t really need to use any amplification during his performance at Sweet Rhythm, only using a microphone to announce the songs and to introduce the musicians. There is also a highly spiritual element to Sonny Fortune’s playing –- for many, this is “Church”. There are hints of Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins and others in Sonny Fortune’s playing, but make no mistake about it: Sonny Fortune has a sound and style that is all his own.

Fortune moved to New York in 1967. He says, "Eventually, in order to find out if you really have what it takes, you have to go to the center, and that's New York...you can only do so much in your hometown." In addition to working with the bands of McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones, he has also served on the front lines with Mongo Santamaria, Dizzy Gillespie, Leon Thomas, George Benson, Oliver Nelson, Buddy Rich, Nat Adderley and Miles Davis. Pretty good company.

Along with my brothers Scott and Addison, I heard many memorable performances of the Sonny Fortune Quintet at the Village Vanguard back in the late 1970’s after he released his critically acclaimed debut recording as a leader, Awakenings , on the Horizon label. So, before heading out to Sweet Rhythm, and for old times sake, I called up my brother Addison, an alto player who worships at the altars of Charlie Parker, Phil Woods, Jackie McLean, Art Pepper, Cannonball Adderley, Kenny Garrett and... Sonny Fortune. Was he up for it? What do you think?

As we waited at the entrance for the first set crowd to filter out, I recalled this venue when it was known as Sweet Basil, the long standing jazz club located just a few doors down Seventh Avenue from the Vanguard. For more than 25 years, artists like Art Blakey, Doc Cheatham and the Gil Evans Orchestra played there until it closed in 2001. Reopened in 2003 as Sweet Rhythm (www.sweetrhythmny.com), this new incarnation continues to provide top shelf jazz artists while also showcasing an eclectic blend of world music. The club is configured the same as before, but with a fresh, light wood face lift. And the room still sounds great!

True to the Coltrane connection, the set began with the band jumping into the deep end of a ¾ time vamp a la Trane's “My Favorite Things”. The composition is a Sonny Fortune original, “Trane and Things”, which appears on his most recent CD, Continuum. The melody of the song makes some obvious but clever references to “My Favorite Things”. He was proud to announce that this 2003 release is on his own record label, Sound Reason. I closed my eyes and figured, well, I never heard the classic John Coltrane Quartet live, but this has got to be as close to that as I’m ever going to get. Sonny Fortune was on soprano sax and the rhythm section was just, well, on – I mean really on! The band worked this song, molding and grooving it, for a good twenty minutes or so.

The rhythm section was the formidable team of George Cables (piano), Ray Drummond (bass) and Steve Johns (drums). This is as good as it gets. Steve Johns has been on the jazz scene since the early 80’s, having leant his drumming talents to a diverse group of jazz musicians: John Hicks, Larry Coryell, Roy Hargrove and the Count Basie Orchestra, to name just a few. Man, does he swing — and he has one hell of a good time doing it. George Cables, the epitome of modern mainstream jazz piano, has recorded and performed as a leader and with the bands of Freddie Hubbard, Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordan, Art Pepper and countless others. Bassist Ray Drummond is one of the busiest session players around, appearing on more than 300 albums. Did someone say “veteran”? (It was nice seeing Ray Drummond’s daughter in the audience at Sweet Rhythm, right up in the front row cheering on her dad with obvious approval and robust enthusiasm.) This is some rhythm section, locking into a groove and a tempo and just making it feel really good, for a really long time (the group performed three lengthy songs during the hour long set).

For the second tune of the set, Sonny switched to alto and the pace slowed down a bit with a relaxed version of the hauntingly beautiful composition by Eden Ahbez, “Nature Boy”. After stating the melody, the group rode this minor key gem through a maze of dynamic mood shifts, breathing new life into the familiar theme. The set concluded with a catchy, hard swinging, medium up tempo rendition of another Sonny Fortune original, “This Side of Infinity,” from his 1996 release, From Now On.

Looking sharp as he approaches 65 years of age this year, Sonny Fortune is strong and vigorous. It must be the music that’s keeping this Philadelphia native young. He was certainly on top of his game at Sweet Rhythm.

Visit Sonny Fortune on the web at www.sonnyfortune.com .


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