Sonny Fortune, “saxophonist of urgency and grace”, died last month, at 79. By chance I picked up one of Fortune’s early albums recently, one which followed on from his debut Strata East title. Possibly almost to the day, unknown to me, Sonny passed away. Seems fitting to bring forward a posthumous review
“Sonny Fortune, a saxophonist whose incandescent improvisations made him an essential member of bands led by some of jazz’s most illustrious figures as well as a respected bandleader, died on Oct. 2, 2018 in Manhattan” (NYT Obituary)
I don’t want to become the Official Journal of the Society of Professional Music Obituary Writers. There are so many jazz musicians of a certain age dying in these times, those not already taken out by bad drugs, bad medicine, bad driving, or just bad luck. This year, Roy Hargrove, Randy Weston and Cecil Taylor. Dying of old age doesn’t fit the tragic/heroic narrative, and not every musician is a loss of genius, but all deserve respect for the good things they contributed, and Sonny Fortune earned some.
. . .
Awakening: Charles Sullivan, flugelhorn; Sonny Fortune, flute (with wah-wah pedal), shakers, small percussion; Kenny Barron, Fender Rhodes electric piano; Wayne Dockery, bass; Billy Hart, drums; Angel Allende, congas, percussion. Recorded September 8, 1975 at Sound Ideas, NYC, engineer Baker Bigsby.
Sonny Fortune was a standard bearer for the sounds of 1970s New York: straight-ahead jazz, jittery funk fusion, the pan-African avant-garde and Latinesque. After a stint with Miles Davis fusion band (recording Big Fun, Agartha, Pangaea and Get Up With It), in 1974, Sonny formed his own group and a year after his Strata East title (“Long before Our Mothers Cried“), recorded Awakening, his second title with a decidedly Strata East line up. and Waves of Dreams.
Flute Alert! The selection, title track “Awakening“, is an easy-paced latin swinger, with Sonny opening on flute, which then stretches out over ten minutes. An outstanding contribution is from trumpeter Charles Sullivan, a carry-forward from Sonny’s Strata East session, strains of Freddie Hubbard with one foot in CTI.
Fortune favoured the light-weight alto sax, graduating to the even more portable soprano sax and flute. Those upper register instruments, set over bubbling Fender Rhodes electric piano, and Fender bass with its “lumpy” sound, defines the signature sound of ’70s jazz compared with the mostly acoustic ’60s.
The mid-seventies were an especially busy crossroads, jazz moving rapidly in many directions, tough for anyone just wanting to cross the street. Awakening is perhaps too mainstream for the Fusionistas, too funky for the Hard-boppers, not sufficiently difficult for the Avant-ists, too electric for acoustic instrument purists, and too cheap for trophy hunting record collectors. No-one’s happy! Except those who come at it with an open mind, and savour Fortune, somewhat late arriving on the scene, searching to establish his own direction.
Fortune is an interesting player. A personal acquaintance and self-confessed disciple of Coltrane, he initially turned down an invitation to join Miles Davis fusion band and settled instead with McCoy Tyner and the Coltrane legacy band. However he took up Miles second invitation, replacing Dave Liebman, before striking out on his own.
After two albums for A&M Horizon, Fortune went full-on fusion funk and disco with albums for Atlantic (no, I’m not going there with him), with a return to swinging sensibilities in the ’90s, and several albums for Blue Note. In recent years, Sonny joined a tribute band featuring guitarist Mike Stern, “Four Generations of Miles”, looking back over a lifetime in jazz. After surviving the vagaries of musical fashion over many decades, Home is a good place to come back to.
Vinyl: A&M/Horizon SP-704
The A&M Records label was founded in 1962 by Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, (Alpert & Moss, A&M). In 1975 A&M launched a new jazz series, Horizon Records, planning to release one album per month, retailing for $5.98. John Snyder, who started his career under Creed Taylor at CTI Records, was appointed head the series as creative director. Billboard quoted Snyder:
“The Horizon Series concept is to present sophisticated contemporary jazz in the best production and merchandising package possible….We hope to widen the jazz market by creative merchandising and packaging at the high level of taste and quality that has been associated with A&M.“
As with CTI, “Horizon Records developed distinctive album packaging and liner notes for its recordings”. Packaging and merchandising were now the all-important ingredient of commercial success, no longer the music. As musical direction and sound quality deteriorated rapidly (LJC opinion alert!) it was probably the right decision at the time to turn attention to the packaging.
“Each of the original albums was packaged in a gatefold cover. The inside of the cover contained artist biography and/or song notes, discography, lead sheet transcription of a song on the album, photos of the artist or the recording session, and a stereo mix diagram or graphic scope that showed the channels of the instruments during the mix of a song so the listener could set his stereo system to replicate the intended sound.”
A lead sheet musical notation for all those sight-readers out there plus a bonus stereo instrument placement chart, to alert you if your left and right channels have crossed wires. I thought, if I don’t like the music, it can be repurposed as a test record for channel and phasing. Or if not, may be, a retro table mat.
(LJC soapbox alert!) Compared with the iconic artist portraiture of Blue Note’s Francis Wolff, the A&M gatefold artwork is (to me) really cheesy. Today we are surrounded by images of people smiling at us (“They like you, are happy to see you. You are their friend, you are welcome” ) No, they don’t know you, they are smiling at a camera lens, it’s “packaging”.
Wolff captured Coltrane the musician, poring over lead sheet notation at Englewood Cliffs. As a viewer, you are ease-dropping on Coltrane, not a friend. Portraiture is not packaging, an empty box.
I recall seeing that distinctive cover of Awakening, that rolling idealised green landscape, many times in the second-hand racks, but thought no more about it. Having since dabbled in Strata East, a quirky uneven early ’70s jazz offshoot genre, I thought it time to acquaint myself further with Sonny, especially as the store was virtually giving it away for small change. Single figure?
I found nothing earth-shattering or uncompromising, more a pre-cursor to easy listening jazz, but with still enough spirit to keep me listening. Fortune is an interesting player with an impressive pedigree, imbued with the spirit of Coltrane but his own voice, and good taste in sidemen.
Having strayed into the Seventies, I found a natural endpoint, beyond which I find little of interest for me, 1975. It is a useful exercise to sometimes cross your boundaries, see what is over the other side, sometimes rewarding discoveries, and other times return empty-handed but curiosity satisfied. If jazz is the “sound of surprise”, sometimes the surprise is nothing much to get excited about. The trick is not to dismiss it all, but find what good there may be.
Personally, I’m done, heading back home too, to the Sixties, 1967 to be precise, and an interesting British album that just set me back a pretty penny, but worth every one. To be continued…
Any thoughts, as always, welcome.