Notes from the American Pianists Associations Jazz Fellowship Award Premiere Series: Sullivan Fortner conjures up a soft whiff of Thelonious Monk while being unabashedly himself – toying with and teasing the audience. Sullivan's is the recognizable Monk improvisational style with dissonances, melodic twists, silences, hesitations and full stops at the piano to move into a snatch of dancing while the bassist and drummer keep playing, but it's a softer approach. Essentially, Sullivan is developing his own style with restraint, introspection and imagination, inserting blues chord progressions and a distinctive start and ending for each piece. And he's fusing the music of other cultures into his sound —noticeably the raga and tala of India, basa nova of Brazil and call-and-response of Brazil and Ghana, with a touch of Ghana's high-life. In doing this, he layers onto Charlie Parker's concepts of interpolation, harmonic ideas and complex melodic lines. One detects an infusion of bebop in Sullivan's interpretations, but also the merging of classical with jazz in the ballads. Sullivan's seemingly easy-going persona belies how much the audience has to attend with careful listening to grasp the layerings and nuances.
Sullivan started with a few chords at the piano before addressing the audience —"Welcome to an evening of celebration" that included introducing bassist Nick Tucker and drummer Kenny Phelps and letting us in on television viewing's impact on his musicality. Launching into the theme song for Wheel of Fortune the piano was slow and easy against bass and drums rolling out Alan Thicke's "Big Wheels," a technique reprised later in the program with the Taxi theme song, Bob James' "Angela." The audience warmed especially to Sullivan's take on standards—Cole Porter's "All of You," Jerome Kern's "All the Things You are," Brooks Bowman's "East of the Sun..." and got caught up in Fortner's composition, "Finale," requiring audience participation. Sullivan closed as he began, addressing the audience as just another player "constantly growing to be a better musicians and more important, better people."
Sullivan, like all APA Fellows, jazz and classical, participates in the Concerto Curriculum educational and community outreach program. He's been with Warren Central High School's jazz program and will perform with the Jazz Ensemble on Nov. 12 at 7 p.m. at Warren Performing Arts Center. The program also includes Warren Central Honors Band and Symphony Orchestra.