Sullivan Fortner has made his name as a frequent collaborator with some of jazz’s most eloquent improvisers. In recent months, he’s reimagined the concept of Caribbean jazz with Trinidadian trumpeter Etienne Charles. He’s been even more visible accompanying sensational vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, with whom he earned a Grammy Award in February for their album The Window. They kick off the Stanford Jazz Festival together on June 22.
But Fortner is ready to step out as a bandleader in his own right. At his Kuumbwa show on Monday, April 8, Fortner will present his trio for the first time in California. Comprised of bassist Ameen Saleem and drummer Jeremy “Bean” Clemmons, it’s the same group that’s featured on his consistently engaging 2018 album Moments Preserved. The late trumpet star Roy Hargrove, Fortner’s employer for eight formative years, plays on two tracks.
Fortner met Saleem on his second gig with Hargrove. Looking to launch a new combo a few years ago, Fortner asked Saleem for a drum recommendation, working on the theory that, “If you want to make a bass player happy, get the drummer they run with,” Fortner says.
The pianist had already played with Clemmens several times, and what stood out most was “his massive sound,” Fortner recalls. “It was like the first time I heard Justin Brown or Marcus Gilmore, these modern guys who imply a whole lot of rhythms on top. When the time would fluctuate, it was hard to understand what they were doing, but when you play with them it’s very clear and easy.”
Growing up in New Orleans, Fortner heard a lot of the great piano lore “in the air,” catching strains of James Booker, Allen Toussaint and Professor Longhair. “It was stuff you’d hear on the street, but I didn’t really absorb it,” he says. “I was more attracted to the modern jazz scene—what Nicholas Payton was doing, and the older masters like Kid Jordan and Alvin Batiste.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree from Oberlin and a master’s from the Manhattan School of Music, Fortner first started gaining attention in 2009 with vibraphonist Stefon Harris. Landing the gig with Hargrove the following year gave him another boost of confidence, at least until he asked veteran pianist Rodney Kendrick for an honest appraisal.
“He said, ‘You got potential,’” Fortner recalled. “He said, ‘You sound alright, but you definitely sound corny. You need to learn from somebody. Take your black ass over to see Barry Harris.’”
A product of the fecund post-World War II Detroit scene, Harris has mentored generations of musicians, and is still passing on hard-won wisdom at 89. Harris introduced Sullivan to concepts he gleaned directly from modern jazz architects Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker.
“They say bebop is the gateway to everything,” Fortner says. “Going and listening to Barry Harris play, he’d drop little nuggets. He’s like a poet. Some things were easy to understand, and some things I still don’t understand. He’s not giving you the steps. It’s very much him sitting at the piano working out things.”
The time he spent with Harris clearly paid off. A panel of distinguished players didn’t think Fortner sounded corny at all when he won the American Pianists Association’s 2015 Cole Porter Fellowship in Jazz, earning a $50,000 prize and a deal with the Mack Avenue label. The formidable competition included Kris Bowers, Emmet Cohen and Christian Sands, who each performed one number with a big band and on a song accompanying NEA Jazz Master Dianne Reeves.
Looking for more experience playing with vocalists, Fortner got up the nerve to contact Cécile McLorin Salvant when he was offered a gig at the Greenwich Village piano room Mezzrow. “I was scared to call her,” he says. “I thought, she won’t play with me, but I talked to her pianist Aaron Diehl, and I wrote her a message on Facebook. Luckily, she responded, and she was really into it. From the first note it felt right. We’ve been doing a lot of things since then. We’re kind of riding high.”
As a bandleader, Fortner is just starting to soar.
Sullivan Fortner performs at 7 p.m. on Monday, April 8, at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. $26.25 adv/$31.50 door. 427-2227.