In his solo piano concert opening the Portland Jazz Festival last night, Sullivan Fortner surveyed a wide territory of styles and wrapped them into his own. At the Bösendorfer grand in the recital hall of Classic Pianos, Fortner’s program ranged from a spiky treatment of Bronislaw Kaper’s “Invitation” through an encore saluting Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.
Fresh from winning the American Pianists Association’s Cole Porter Fellowship in Jazz, Fortner incorporated influences both subtle and obvious. He used the blues to work his way into “Making Whoopee and invested the performance with a rollicking quote from “Surrey With The Fringe on Top” and a sly borrowing from Willie The Lion Smith’s “Echoes of Spring.” Fortner seems anything but calculated in his improvisations. In “Someone to Watch Over Me,” he led himself briefly into what might have been a blind harmonic alley and with a daring octave leap found a way out. He made a transition from Bill Evans’s “Very Early” to his own composition “Ballade,” which included a lovely cycle-of-5ths section. Although he can be dazzling in his use of technique, nothing Fortner plays seems intended purely for effect. He made clever paraphrases of the melody in “Just One of Those Things,” worked in a few seconds of waltz time, hinted at James P. Johnson’s swing feeling, then went into the full stride piano style of which Johnson was the master. Introducing his melding of Ellington’s “Single Petal of a Rose” and Strayhorn’s “Star Crossed Lovers,” he described their storied partnership as a “love story” inspired by the Divinity, then reflected on his own love of the piano and of music.
Fortner dedicated “My Favorite Things” to John Coltrane. He created an introduction that may have had its inspiration in Coltrane’s free period, slid into a liberal interpretation of the famous melody, made a tag ending that flirted with ¾ time, then used a series of key changes to bring the piece home. The festival—dedicated to Coltrane—was off to a good start.
(Photo by Mark Sheldon)