Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Sonny Fortune feels roots here

At 68, Sonny Fortune has spent well over half his life living in New York. But even after four decades away, the Philly-born saxophonist admitted that some part of him remains rooted here.

At 68,

Sonny Fortune

has spent well over half his life living in New York. But even after four decades away, the Philly-born saxophonist admitted that some part of him remains rooted here.

Fortune cited his mentor and fellow Philadelphian on the subject: "I remember John Coltrane mentioning to me, a year before he passed, that in his travels people often asked where he was from, and when he told them Philadelphia, they would step back and say things like, 'I should have known.' And 40 years later, I can make the same statement."

Still, Fortune conceded, "New York is my home now. Philly is a place that I know and remember - probably remember more than know."

That people find the same echo of his hometown in Fortune's playing that they do in Coltrane's is certainly no accident. Fortune has never been shy about proclaiming his status as a Trane disciple, even to the detriment of his own reputation as an individual artist.

But make no mistake: Fortune has his own sound as a player and composer. As complementary to his forebears' sound as they may be - so much so that he's found a place in lineups led by Coltrane's former bandmates McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones and, for a time in the 1970s, Miles Davis - his trenchant tone and vigorous attack are indisputably his own.

Perhaps Fortune's worst enemy is his modesty. Asked to assess his current place in the music, he referred to himself as "just one of the many spokes in a wheel, I would imagine . . . I guess I'm somewhere in there amongst the few through seniority or reputation."

In recent visits to Philadelphia, however, Fortune has stood level with most of his peers when his music speaks for him.

Whether playing a mix of originals and standards at Chris' Jazz Cafe with longtime drummer Steve Johns and his regular local rhythm section of bassist Lee Smith and pianist Bob Buda, or tearing off on a long-form improvisation with another former Coltrane sparring partner, drummer Rashied Ali, Fortune has invariably burned the house down.

He's not an innovator, content as he is to explore within well-defined parameters, but he boils over with melodic invention and irrepressible vitality.

Fortune's latest CD, "You and the Night and the Music" (18th and Vine), is unusual in that his original tunes take a back seat to standards, with only one piece of his own and one by pianist George Cables. The choice was was dictated by a brief preparation period before recording.

"I never sit down to write for the sake of writing," Fortune explained. "I've got a thousand starts, but only 40-some compositions. I usually write because of a deadline - in other words, I'm getting ready to record and want some material. I work real hard to get it and it usually comes to me in some form or fashion. I actually tried to write a couple of things for this CD, but I didn't like any of what I had written, so I decided not to even deal with it."

Instead, he turned to compositions he's admired but never recorded, some kept stashed away for years or decades, waiting for the opportunity to commit them to tape.

The end result has renditions of "Sweet Georgia Brown," "Besame Mucho" and the title track next to " 'Round Midnight" (Thelonious Monk is a constant source of material for Fortune's recordings) and Henry Mancini's theme from "Charade."

The overriding purpose for this album, Fortune said, was to focus attention on the New York-based quartet he's employed for more than a decade: Johns, Cables and bassist Chip Jackson. Not usually able to afford to travel with the group, Fortune often finds himself in working with local musicians.

In a place like Philadelphia, where he has ongoing musical relationships, that can work out. In other cities he may end up working with strangers.

"A lot of times," he said, "I never know what the music is going to sound like. The end result of working with these rhythm sections that I don't know can be the music not sounding that good, and because I'm the band leader, that's put on me. And I don't function too well when the music doesn't sound good to me. So this recording was an attempt to put more emphasis on my quartet." *

Send e-mail to

Chris' Jazz Cafe, 1421 Sansom St., 8 and 10 tonight ($15) and tomorrow ($20), 215-568-3131,