CoM&L - with Sonny Fortune
Multi-instrumentalist Sonny Fortune has mastered a significant swath of the woodwinds over the course of his roughly six-decade-long career: alto, soprano, tenor, and baritone saxophones; clarinet; and flute. Nat Hentoff once called him “the embodiment of the sound of surprise in this music,” meaning jazz. Fortune himself, in an interview with the Philadelphia Daily News, said, “[Don’t] allow the reality of denial or resistance or frustration … to dominate your thinking, your way of life.” He referred then to the way jazz itself, especially as recorded and marketed by the major labels, contracted, even as his own artistry grew and diversified.
The Philadelphia native chose jazz at age 18. Fortune proved more indecisive in his choice of instrument, starting on alto sax but playing tenor for lengthy periods during which he’d “always tell people I was an alto player.” In commenting upon what he called his “immature” early sound for a 1993 Los Angeles Times story, Fortune noted that “You have to go a very long way to sound horrible on tenor sax, but you only have to go a very little way to sound terrible on alto.” From the start, though, he landed gigs with distinguished jazz makers: Elvin Jones, Mongo Santamaria, McCoy Tyner. By the mid-1970s the list included Buddy Rich and Miles Davis.
In June 1975 Fortune made his recording debut as a bandleader with the album Awakening. The next couple of years brought the stirring Waves of Dreams and the polyrhythmically impressive Serengeti Minstrel. Since those outstanding LPs, Fortune has followed an auspicious path as head of his own quartet, in performance with the Nat Adderley Quartet, and as part of the Coltrane Legacy band. His recorded work as a composer stretches back to the mid-’60s, and his take on it in an exchange with Adam Mansbach puts Fortune at the heart of jazz essence: “The composition becomes something that you carry with you. … I’m playin’ it tonight like I didn’t play last night, and tomorrow I’ll play it unlike the way I played tonight. … For me the fun is today is brand new.”
Edward Austin Hall
Host & Exec. Producer, CoM&L
Edward Austin Hall
FAS Editorial Director