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Sonny Fortune: Thank God For That Day Job

Chuck Koton By

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During his years with Tyner (1972-74), Fortune established himself as one of the most dynamic sax players on the scene. His playing on several of Tyner's recordings, including Sahara and Song For My Lady, both released in 1972 on Milestone, already displayed his signature intense, urgent modal sound. After this productive association it was time to move on and up. In two years, Fortune would be touring and recording with the legendary Miles Davis during the trumpeter's electric fusion years. From his experience with Davis, Fortune "learned the importance of the rhythm section," a lesson that would serve him well throughout his career.

These high profile gigs led to an Atlantic Records recording contract and Fortune's most financially lucrative years. Unfortunately for Fortune, the contract would come with a high price. One day, one of the company's producers came to him with the "brilliant" idea of adding strings to make one of the recordings more commercial. "That was that," says Fortune. The saxophonist would have to go his own way and follow his muse rather than surrender to the venal interests of the music business.

align=center>Sonny Fortune / Rashied Ali> Sonny Fortune (l) and Rashied Ali (r) </p> <P><br /><br />Since those early years, Fortune has continued to play at the very peak of the jazz world. He rejoined the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine in the early 1990s and went on to make a succession of excellent recordings as a leader. In particular, three Blue Note recordings which, thanks to a sweet deal, his own Sound Reason label now controls, display Fortune's passionate blowing style on a mix of standards, Thelonious Monk compositions and his own originals.<br /><br /><P><br /><br />More recently, Fortune has performed in a variety of settings from Coltrane tributes, to the Three Altos Project, where he toured at different times with the late, great bebopper, Frank Morgan, as well as Charles McPherson and Gary Bartz. In 2006 he performed a series of mind blowing duets with Coltrane's final drummer and fellow Philly native, Rashied Ali. Perhaps most importantly, Fortune has tried to work as much as possible with a regular band in order to generate and maintain the intimate connection that only hours and hours of rehearsal and performance can create.<br /><br /><P><br /><br /><div class=ADVERTISEMENT

Fortune's last two recordings—Continuum (2003), on his own Sound Reason label, and You and the Night and the Music (18th and Vine, 2007)—both feature long-time collaborators. Pianist George Cables, who thankfully has recovered from double transplant surgery and is playing again, bassist Wayne Dockery and drummer Steve Johns perform on Continuum, while Chip Jackson replaces Dockery on You and the Night. All of these musicians have played with Fortune for years. Clearly, as he learned years earlier from Miles Davis, Fortune knows the value of a tight rhythm section.

The urgency and immense depth of sincerity felt, when listening to both of these recordings, is testimony not only to the spirituality and power of Fortune's playing but also to the breadth of his ability. The self-produced Continuum includes mostly original compositions while You and the Night, which reached #2 on the jazz charts and remained in the top 50 for months, features Fortune interpreting standards and two originals. Perhaps the popularity of his recent recording will bring Fortune the recognition of a wider audience that has so far inexplicably eluded him. (Perhaps it is not so inexplicable since Fortune, thankfully, is unwilling to compromise his standards for greater "marketability"). It is certainly a sad commentary on the music industry that an artist like Fortune does not have a recording contract with a major jazz label.

Sonny Fortune

The good news is that Sonny Fortune is aging like a fine Rico reed (a #2.5 by the way). He recently celebrated his 69th birthday, yet Fortune's live performances continue to leave audiences feeling as if they were seated in the path of a hurricane. A live recording is long overdue.

Many years have passed since Fortune took control of his own destiny and embarked on a journey of musical discovery. Just think, if labor relations had been cool in that Philly box factory, Sonny Fortune might never have pulled his alto out of the closet. Thank God for that day job!

Sonny Fortune will be performing in Italy and Spain during the summer of 2008, so European jazz fans will have the opportunity to experience his intensity first-hand.


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