A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Rolf Freiberger

Writing in The New York Times on October 24th, 2009, Ben Ratliff took note of Stefon Harris‘ young new pianist, Sullivan Fortner, “a name unknown around New York, though maybe not for long.”

A native of New Orleans, Sullivan completed his undergraduate studies at Oberlin College, and subsequently moved to New York to attend the Manhattan School of Music. Shortly thereafter, he found himself apprenticing in bands led by acclaimed bandleaders such as Harris and trumpeter Roy Hargrove (who has played an important role in The Jazz Gallery since it’s inception).

It wasn’t long after Ratliff’s article that we first presented Sullivan’s band; he appeared here twice in 2010. This Friday, Sullivan will take the stage at The Gallery to do something he’s never done before: perform solo piano.

Without further ado, Sullivan speaks:


Although your previous appearances at The Gallery have always featured larger groups, you’ll be performing solo on Friday (February 3rd). What is your relationship to performing solo, and what inspired you to choose this context?

Well, this is my first attempt at playing solo piano in public. All of the playing that I do – with the exception of practicing and piano lessons – is with bands, ranging from big bands to trios and occasionally duos. I decided to play solo mainly because I thought it could be a fun and enjoyable learning experience for me.

You’ll be performing both original music and music by other composers on Friday. Describe your approach to writing and arranging music for the solo piano setting.

One thing that will hopefully be cool about this show is that I will finally get to perform my tunes in their original context. Most, if not all, of my tunes were written at the piano, and were based on certain experiences in my life: the death of a family member or teacher, a break-up, or even a painting. In writing for/with the piano, I try to think of textures and colors that I can draw from the instrument, since the piano is such a colorful instrument.

The challenge of playing solo versions of other composers’ music will be to orchestrate these tunes in way so that the rhythm section won’t be missed. Another challenge will be playing in contrasting styles – stride, contrapuntally, or even chorally – and playing them in way that is interesting and fun. This creates both freedom and restrictions at the same time.

How does the physical interface of the piano – the idiosyncrasies of the instrument itself – inform your approach to composing for the instrument?

Larry Willis once told me that the piano is a very strange instrument because the odds are always 88 to 10. So, because I only have ten fingers, I have to approach it as an orchestral instrument, making each tune I play, whether it is a cover or an original, tell a story. Most importantly though, my job is to be as musical honest as I can, presenting something that hopefully everyone can enjoy.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about what we can expect on Friday?

It should be fun! I’m a bit nervous about it, but hopefully the anxiety will go away by show time.

And, I’ve been asked to do some singing. I think I may do some of that as well.