Sonny Fortune’s Still a Contender


What’s in a name? In the case of saxophonist Sonny Fortune one might assume the presence of good luck. And his resume--which includes close associations with the likes of Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones--suggests that destiny has been on his side.

But Fortune, despite his creative successes and the high regard his work has generally received, still hasn’t broken through to the top level of public visibility. Part of the problem, as his show at the Jazz Bakery Thursday revealed, has been the lack of focus in his activities. Over the past year he has performed in town in a backup group with a jazz singer and in a duo with saxophonist Frank Morgan.

Working with his own quartet, however, Fortune displayed the potent improvisational energies that should have made him one of the important jazz voices of his generation. (He turned 62 in May.) Playing four lengthy pieces in his opening set, he started in high gear with a vivid rendering of Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints.”


But this was a version even the adventurous Shorter might have found somewhat beyond the pale. Ignoring the vamplike patterns of his accompanists--pianist Ronnie Matthews, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Steve Johns--Fortune launched an improvisation in which he roared across the entire scope of his instrument. Using a circular breathing technique that allowed him to produce long, extended phrases, he mixed whirring flurries of sound with exultant, wailing high notes.

Other pieces--a pair of originals, including one dedicated to Shorter--exploded with similar fury, flawed only when Fortune spent too much time repeating fragments, sacrificing spontaneity for easy emotional impact. But his performance, for the most part, was utterly compelling, enhanced by a somewhat more languorous reading, on flute, of Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady.”

Fortune was supported well by his accompanists. But Johns, like many drummers, failed to adapt his sound to the Bakery’s resistant acoustics, often overpowering the other players and making most of McBee’s soloing virtually inaudible. Still, the night belonged to Fortune, whose destiny as an artist has never deserted him.


The Sonny Fortune quartet at the Jazz Bakery, 3233 Helms Ave., Culver City. Tonight and Sunday at 8 and 9:30 p.m., $22. (310) 271-9039.