NUVO emailed with Fortner while he's on the road performing coast to coast.
NUVO: What is special about returning to Jazz Kitchen for Indy Jazz Fest 2016 for you personally and professionally?
Sullivan Fortner: It’s always [special] to come back to Indianapolis. Even though some of my memories here are stressful (because of the pressure surrounding the competition), Indianapolis has sort of become a home away from home for me. I met so many wonderful people who have been nothing but gracious and kind to me. The Jazz Kitchen in particular is such a wonderful pace to play. The food is good, the people are hospitable, and I always have a blast playing with Kenny Phelps [on drums] and Nick Tucker [on bass].
NUVO: “Remembering Wes Montgomery” is the special theme of 2016 Indy Jazz Fest. How is this shaping your program on Sept. 23 at the Jazz Kitchen?
Sullivan Fortner: Well, I definitely will play some of his music in our program. Not sure what the tunes will be yet though [as of Sept. 16].
NUVO: In the year and a half since being named the 2015 Cole Porter fellow in Jazz of the American Pianist Association you have been on a whirlwind of concertizing. Are there surprises both positive and challenging?
Sullivan Fortner: The best part is having the ability to go all over the world and perform both in a solo context as well as leading a trio. Also, to be able to collaborate with world famous musicians, and gain their respect because of the weight of “The Prize.” This can both be rewarding and challenging because it forces me out of my box, not only as a sideman but as a shy and timid musician. I have to be a lot more communicative with the audience and my band members.
NUVO: Nate Chinen in a glowing Nov. 11, 2015 review of your album Aria, closes with a bit of a lament: “Still, the album feels buttoned-up, which may be a byproduct of the three veteran producers who helped in its creation. Mr. Fortner could do a lot worse than to make an album that evokes predecessors like Rodney Kendrick and Eric Reed. But there’s evidence here of an artist with his own distinct style.”
What’s your reaction to Chinen’s lament in the New York Times? How is Sullivan Fortune live distinctive in style from Sullivan Fortner on Aria?
Sullivan Fortner: To be quite honest, I’m not entirely sure what he was trying to say. If I am following in the footstep of the people who have had a real hands-on effect on me (i.e. Rodney Kendrick and Eric Reed), then I guess I’m doing a pretty good job. Either way, I try not to get too stressed over what people’s opinions are. I just try to make music, and let other people stress over labeling, categorizing or critiquing it.
“Sullivan live” like “Sullivan on Aria” was being true to what he heard at that given time. “Sullivan present,” however, has a bit more knowledge of the history, and is a little more (not completely though) comfortable in his own skin.
NUVO: What can you reveal about a new album surrounding a collaboration with the music of Paul Simon? [Note: Here, I’m referencing a recent conversation with Steve Lyman in Indianapolis.]
Sullivan Fortner: I can’t really reveal anything about it. I’m not even sure if the final product will be a tangible recording. I can say that right after I leave Indianapolis, I will be meeting with him again.
NUVO: What else would you like NUVO readers to know about your life and career since March 2015?
Sullivan Fortner: I have a few new projects coming up with different world-class artists, including John Scofield and Cecile McLorin Savant. I’m also performing with Roy Hargrove’s band. So I’m definitely keeping busy.
Personally, not much has changed in my life; I’m not married, no kids, but lots of bills. Fortunately, APA has helped with that. I’m really appreciative of everything that has happened thus far. God is good!!
NUVO also reached out to Dr. Joel M. Harrison, President/CEO and Artistic Director of the American Pianists Association
NUVO: What do you want people who attend Sullivan Fortner’s Sept. 23 Jazz Kitchen program especially to notice after a year and half as APA Cole Porter Fellow in Jazz?
Joel Harrison: Sullivan is a marvelous pianist, with much personal style and a mature sound. That style and “sound,” already in evidence during the competition, has simply become stronger, more compelling. Sullivan is more confident as a player, especially in solo and trio.
NUVO: As you have followed Sullivan Fortner over the past year and a half, what most has impressed you?
Joel Harrison: Sullivan is a real artist, an “authentic” musician- absolutely free and clear of any kind of pretense, or trying to be something he is not. I love that about him- and in fact, that is just exactly what we look for in our pianists.
NUVO: Developing an audience for Jazz is one of the thrusts of the APA. What have you discerned about Sullivan that is fulfilling that special mission?
Joel Harrison: Sullivan is very much in the traditional jazz idiom, notable since he is from New Orleans. So when audiences hear him, they are hearing someone whose roots are well-grounded in jazz soil, so to speak. I think that makes it easy for people to hear him, to appreciate the art form, and to relate to it in an enjoyable way.
NUVO: As soon as a new winner is named, the APA moves into developing the next competition. This momentum can be as exhausting as it is exhilarating— what’s the public’s part in all this activity?
Harrison: One of the unique aspects of our competition is that all performances are fully produced public concerts — emphasis on “public” — so the public needs to do its part and show up!
At the Indy Jazz Fest opening event at Indiana Landmarks Center on Sept 15, NUVO caught up with Stephen Lyman, APA Board Chairman, freshly returned from New York City where APA introduced the five new Classical finalists. The first of the Classical programs takes place Sept. 25, at 3 p.m. at the Glick Indiana History Center, a day after Indy Jazz Fest closes.
When I commented on the hectic schedule of anyone connected with APA, Lyman heartily agreed it’s all about being out there, and in the case of Sullivan Fortner it’s being on the road worldwide, including Europe, Asia and South America along with the U.S.A.
“Sullivan is the jazz of the future,” responded Lyman, noting the importance of introducing jazz to people everywhere in all sorts of venues.
“My experience has been that being exposed to even one quality program opens people of all ages and cultures to recognizing jazz is worthy of more observation and enjoyment.”