John Coltrane hovered in the air at Chris' Jazz Cafe on Saturday, and not just because Sonny Fortune led off with Coltrane's midtempo "Blues Minor."
"Entire careers have drafted in [Coltrane's] tailwind," writes critic Ben Ratliff. Fortune, the Philly-born, New York-based alto saxophonist, is a fitting example. He knew Coltrane and, in the post-Coltrane era, worked with the signal members of Coltrane's classic quartet, pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones.
When Fortune played "You and the Night and the Music" - the title track from his newest CD - he framed the Dietz/Schwartz standard with a vamp reminiscent of Coltrane's "Liberia." This is Fortune's native tongue: extended, hard-charging modal improvisation in the Coltrane vein, favoring minor keys, with a swing- and Latin-derived rhythmic foundation.
On the CD, we hear Fortune with bassist Chip Jackson, drummer Steve Johns, and the renowned pianist George Cables. Johns was at Chris' Jazz Cafe, along with two capable Philly-area hands, pianist Bob Butta and bassist Lee Smith.
As an alto player doubling on flute, Fortune is arguably closer to Eric Dolphy than to Coltrane, who played tenor. (Dolphy briefly augmented Coltrane's group in the early '60s.) Fortune's aesthetic is tamer than Dolphy's, however. Often he will worry a two-note motif chromatically up and down, or repeat and subtly modify a riff over changing chords, then leap into a sustained, cathartic, high-pitched wail.
Of the flute pieces, Fortune's original "Awakening," from 1975, was the more compelling. Bronislaw Kaper's "Invitation," with its elongated form and static harmony, bogged down at a too-slow tempo.
Thelonious Monk's "Epistrophy" began the second set with a quick pulse and broke up the prevailing minor mood. Another spirited original, "From Now On" - the title cut of a 1996 Blue Note album - sent Butta into a Tyner-like tear as Fortune beat a cow bell.
Coltrane's take on jazz once met a lot of resistance. Now it's a classical template. Fortune remains one of its most authentic practitioners.