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Fortune and Men's Ears

Sonny Fortune
A Better Understanding: Sonny Fortune's place in jazz history is cemented with his latest release.

Alto man Sonny Fortune reveals his 'Thoughts' on new album, 'From Now On'

By Nicky Baxter

FIVE YEARS AGO, a friend and I traveled to Emeryville to see drummer Elvin Jones' Jazz Machine. While I was and still am a Jones fan, this was my friend's first encounter with John Coltrane's former drummer. What neither one of us knew, however, was that Jones' sideman, alto player Sonny Fortune, would steal the show with some of the most vociferous saxophone this side of the late Cannonball Adderley.

Inexplicably, that fire was only occasionally captured on disc until Fortune signed with Blue Note records. In retrospect, the saxophonist's previous Blue Note efforts--Four in One, a stirring homage to Thelonious Monk, and A Better Understanding, which boasts some Fortune originals--hinted at the brilliance of the 58-year-old musician's current release, From Now On.

While the lineup on the album ranges from quartet to septet, the one constant is Fortune's vast improvisational palette. Not only can he blow with authority ("Thoughts" features some particularly explosive outbursts), but Fortune is also not afraid to play it cool.

Of the album's eight cuts, the extended pieces most command attention. That's not really a surprise; they are also the tracks that feature the larger ensembles. On the introductory "Glue Fingers," Fortune is joined by tenorman Joe Lovano and trumpeter Eddie Henderson.

Essentially an excuse for the horns to stretch out, the song's shifting tempos, ignited by Jeff Watts' drumming, keep things interesting. Pianist John Hicks, always a marvel of restraint, still makes his presence felt whether he's comping beneath a soloist or stepping up to take a turn by himself. Bassist Santi Debriano rounds out this stellar cast.

The Latin-flavored title track bumps along at a leisurely clip with the horns meshing perfectly. Debriano's bass sings sweetly here, sliding up to the instrument's higher register, then back down to earthier terrain. Lovano's surprisingly laid-back playing is a tasteful contrast to Fortune's slightly more pungent alto. The ending is a teaser; just when the musicians begin to break out simultaneously into individual statements, the tune fades to black.

At just under 17 minutes, "Thoughts" is the album's tour de force. Longtime Fortune listeners may recall his Waves of Dreams, recorded in 1976, which contains the original version of this modal epic. That rendition is somewhat akin to a term paper--long on youthful confidence, somewhat short on conception. This time around, a more mature Fortune reshapes his "Thoughts" in a manner that strongly suggests the influences of Coltrane's classic quartet as well as his quintet featuring Pharoah Sanders.

By no means does Lovano's playing approach Coltrane's, but he's a smart, highly capable substitute. More to the point, he provides excellent balance for the session leader's endlessly inventive excursions, which at times recall Coltrane's questing spirit and Sanders' vein-popping jeremiads.

If there are any remaining questions as to the permanence of Fortune's place in jazz history, "Thoughts" alone ought to settle the issue. Whether he's launching a solo or guiding his group through a round of searing collective improvisation, Fortune performs like a battle-savvy veteran.

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From the July 10-16, 1997 issue of Metro.

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