Sullivan Fortner, Aria (Impulse!)
In Sullivan Fortner’s debut album as a leader, the shaded subtlety of his keyboard touch is only one of the young pianist’s notable attributes. His harmonic inventiveness, grasp of the jazz piano vocabulary and rich employment of his quartet’s resources are equally impressive. Still, the listener is seduced by Fortner’s variety of tonal coloration, ranging from a nocturnal quietness in the classic ballad “For All We Know” to rambunctious clusterings of intervals of a second in Thelonious Monk’s “I Mean You.”
With the full quartet, he evokes 17th century dance music in “Passepied.” Accompanied by bass and drums, Fortner achieves the musical equivalent of a painter’s pointillism in the chattering rhythms of “All The Things You Are,” and lightheartedness in “You Are Special,” a song the late Fred Rogers wrote for his children’s television show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Fortner says that one of his childhood inspirations was Johnny Costa, the pianist who provided most of the music for the Rogers show. “Aria” and three other Fortner originals are from a six-part suite that he wrote on commission from the Jazz Gallery in New York. Fortner’s equally youthful sidemen (he is 28) are drummer Joe Dyson, bassist Aidan Carroll and saxophonist Tivon Pennicott. Pennicott plays soprano and tenor saxophones. His relaxed tenor solo on “Ballade” is a highlight of the album. Fortner’s work here, alone and with his band, further makes understandable his selection earlier this year for the Cole Porter Fellow In Jazz award of the American Pianists Association.
Cécile McLorin Salvant’s second album places her even more firmly in the top rank of 21st century singers. Her strategy is unusual among young vocalists—she simply sings, which is not to say that she sings simply. There is nothing simple about pitch-perfect intonation and absolute control from low contralto range to the voice equivalent of a saxophone altissimo. But that’s a matter of technique in use of the fine instrument that she was born with or developed.
In this collection of 12 songs, five of which peg her as a polished and adventurous composer and lyricist, she performs in the service of the songs. She employs no trace of the fashionable trend of mixing genres and superimposing, say, a hip-hop, rock, Middle Eastern or country and western ethos. She does not scat, which alone should qualify her for an award of some kind. I hope that Stephen Sondheim hears what Ms. Salvant, pianist Aaron Diehl, bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer Lawrence Leathers do with (and for) his and Leonard Bernstein’s “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story. It is a tour de force that captures, even magnifies, the anticipation and mystery of a major theatre piece, and it is a great jazz performance on all levels.
Simplicity does not rule out dramatic interpretation, as she makes clear in Spencer and Clarence Williams’ bluesy “What’s the Matter Now?”(1926) and coyly but not cloyingly in the ironic “Stepsister’s Lament” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical Cinderella. When she sings Blanche Calloway’s and Clyde Hart’s 1931 “Growlin’ Dan,” she growls. Her interpretation of “The Trolley Song” owes little to Judy Garland’s, but it is fully as charming. Of Ms. Salvant’s compositions, the waltz “Monday” and “Fog,” a lament for lost love, present opportunities and challenges for other singers, and for instrumentalists.
Jimmy Giuffre 3 & 4, New York Concerts (Elemental Music)
After the success of Jimmy Giuffre’s trios in the 1950s, he recorded the visionary Columbia album fittingly titled Free Fall in 1962. It did not sell well, Columbia dropped Giuffre, and for nearly a decade he did not make another record for a commercial label. Nor did he change his commitment to the avant garde. He continued to play clarinet and tenor saxophone and compose with commitment to free expression unrestricted by traditional guidelines of harmony, rhythm or form.
The two CDs in this set document how Giuffre was thinking about music during the sixties, and how he made it with some of the most forward-looking musicians of the time. By contractual agreement, tapes of the concerts recorded by the young engineer George Klabin were broadcast only once on the Columbia University radio station WCKR. Until the Elemental label’s Zev Feldman arranged to liberate it, the music was not heard again until now.
Giuffre and his fellow saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman took parallel paths as they developed and refined their approaches to free jazz. The trio recording in the set includes Guiffre, bassist Richard Davis and drummer Joe Chambers interpreting the Coleman composition “Crossroads.” Otherwise, Giuffre wrote all of the music heard here. For a concert earlier in 1965, Guiffre and Chambers made it a quartet with pianist Don Friedman and bassist Barre Phillips. Friedman had the technical gifts and adventurous spirit to adapt to free form playing in ways he has seldom pursued in his own albums. The May, 1965, concert attests to his ability to enhance the contrapuntal relationship that Giuffre wanted among the four instruments.
Fifty years later, this is demanding listening. Open minds will find rewards not only in Giuffre’s virtuosity and inventiveness on both of his instruments, but also in the stimulating pursuit of his goals by all of the participants. This is heady stuff.