Sullivan Fortner to perform free concert

Sullivan Fortner sets his goals in real time

WILLIAMSTOWN — Sullivan Fortner doesn't crave the spotlight.

"I enjoy being the sideman," the 31-year-old jazz pianist told The Eagle during a recent telephone interview.

But after winning the American Pianists Association's Cole Porter Fellowship in Jazz competition in 2015, Fortner can't shake the eyes and ears following his career now. The award established him as one of the best young pianists in the world.

"It's given me a different kind of a platform with a different amount of weight behind my name," the New Orleans native said.

Once a member of trumpeter Roy Hargrove's quintet, Fortner now leads a trio that will play at Williams College's Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall on Thursday night. Bassist Ryan Berg and drummer Jeremy Clemons will accompany Fortner; Berg is making his debut, which will present a natural challenge for the group. Fortner usually manufactures obstacles during shows, such as changing the way he communicates with his bandmates or focusing on certain notes, to expand his repertoire. It's real-time goal-setting.

"It gives me an opportunity to practice while performing," he said.

Fortner plans to release his sophomore album in 2018. His debut, "Aria" (2015), earned acclaim from The New York Times.

"What's missing are the swelling rock dynamics and hip-hop beat-geekery that have become their own form of orthodoxy among heralded young musicians in the modern jazz mainstream. That isn't a bad thing," wrote Nate Chinen before adding that the record still felt "buttoned-up."

The new record won't be responding to that critique, as its sounds aren't as modern as the ones on "Aria," Fortner said.

"Musically speaking, it's not as complex. There's a lot more subtlety in this record than the last one. To the listener, it's going to sound a lot more straight ahead," he said, noting that the record has a mix of originals and covers.

Hargrove will appear on the album, a "thank you" of sorts from Fortner for their time working together in the quintet, according to Fortner.

Fortner also holds an appreciation for his liberal arts education. He graduated with a bachelor of music in jazz studies from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. The small Ohio school was a change of pace from Fortner's youth in New Orleans.

"There wasn't really a whole lot of distraction. Oberlin really afforded me the time to develop my own path in music," said Fortner, who now lives in New York City.

When he left for New York City to work toward a master's from Manhattan School of Music, he said he realized the importance of a well-rounded liberal arts education.

As Fortner arrives on the campus of another elite liberal arts institution, he is still learning how to take the lead in a band, a duty that the Porter award heaped on him. But the honor has also boosted his self-assurance.

"It's definitely given me a little bit more confidence in what I'm doing," Fortner said.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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