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Sullivan Fortner – Howard Assembly Room, Leeds

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Sullivan Fortner is a New Orleans-born jazz pianist just embarking on a European tour. After playing the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds, it’s London and then off to the Continent. As the first gig on his first visit to the UK, it could hardly have been more auspicious.

Fortner has built a reputation as everything but a solo pianist: playing in Roy Hargrove’s band for seven years, as Cecile McLorin Salvant’s duo partner, exploring Latin jazz with Lauren Henderson, as leader of his own trio, one of the sensations of last year’s Monterey Jazz Festival. Playing solo, he says, is a bit like getting on a horse for the first time, but, if we expected signs of nerves, we were disappointed.

He began with his own It’s a Game, duetting initially between the keyboard and plucked strings inside the piano, building ferociously to a climax, not particularly melodic, but very impressive, something of a disappointment to those who looked forward to Sullivan’s post-stride way with pre-war songs, but there was no need to worry: his love for the great American composers took no time to appear, a rollicking version of Jelly Roll Morton’s Grandpa’s Spells.

Soon Fortner’s method became obvious: to take a fine old song, begin by hinting at fragments of melody, gradually move to the full melody by the song’s end. Thus Face the Music emerged in four-bar fragments decorated with right hand flourishes and left hand power, and Body and Soul gently eased its way into our consciousness.

After the interval that mighty left hand took us the melody of From This Moment On as well as embellishing the lovely tune and later a couple of Cole Porter numbers again showed Fortner’s skill with stride piano. Before then Snakes and Ladders showed a different side to his pianistic genius, sustained attackthat reminded this reviewer of Thelonious Monk. At the end Sullivan Fortner revealed his sensitive side with a beautifully delicate Ellington/Strayhorn pairing, The Single Petal of a Rose and Star-Crossed Lovers.

Perhaps Fortner’s nerves were not as cool as appeared as he hardly spoke to the audience before the encore, though his amiability was always apparent. Here is a remarkable pianist, devoted to the greats of the past (Erroll Garner a particular favourite), but determined to find his own route to success. He is well on the way to integrating dynamic versions of old songs and his own original compositions into a seamless whole. Stand by for fireworks when his programming matches his virtuosity and originality!

Reviewed on 26th March 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

Astonishing pianistics

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The Reviews Hub - Yorkshire & North East

The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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