The ongoing Future of Jazz Piano series at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church makes bold claims for itself. Curated by renowned jazz pianist Fred Hersch, the series presents Glenn Zalesky, Sullivan Fortner, and Micah Thomas, three New York-based jazz pianists who, in Mr. Hersch’s words, are “more than up to the task” of solo jazz performance.
The real mistake
While one might question the paternalist undertone to the introduction, it makes sense in context: given Hersch’s formidable reputation and the (relative) youth of the series headliners, there’s a subtle anxiety about how “the future” will be received by older audiences. This anxiety, along with concern about establishing the ethos of contemporary jazz piano, was also pronounced at Sullivan Fortner’s February 7 performance, where he was introduced as a “bright young light” of the contemporary jazz scene — though the audience was admonished to make no mistake: there is depth behind the cheerfulness of Fortner’s music.
The real mistake, however, is failing to appreciate beautiful music just because it’s new. Neither this introduction nor Hersch's does credit to Fortner’s masterful Philly performance.
Putting down the program
The structure of the performance itself was loose and informal, and Fortner segued easily from once piece to the next. In its house-of-worship setting, the concert’s laissez-faire progression appeared in particularly sharp relief compared to a church service’s typically well-defined sequence. Initially, this tension felt disorienting, but after the first few bars of an Earth, Wind, and Fire number evoking memories of Ravel’s Miroirs, members of the audience stopped flicking nervously through the empty program.
Other numbers included standards such as “Blue Skies,” clearly recognizable and paired with the soaring range of Fortner’s unselfconscious, earnest warble. Others, however, were more difficult to make out. After a mashup of “Reflections” and “Memories of You,” Fortner extemporized, “I hope that was recognizable, I don’t really know why I did that.” He may have been right about the recognizability for many, but his spoken insights were enchanting.
The contrast between Fortner’s nimble melodies and the depth belying them became most evident in Fortner’s penultimate piece, an original composition inspired by “Meet Me in Saint Louis” and the trolley of Mr. Rogers’s Land of Make Believe. The piece carried memories of bustling New York streetcars and SEPTA trolleys clacking busily through downtown Philadelphia. Playfully referencing the fictional American city of the 1950s, the song held diegetic overtones of “modern life” cheekily complicated by childhood nostalgia. (Fortner also added a nod to Fred Rogers, himself a jazz pianist.) Fortner’s fingers easily flicked the clacking, chiming melodies from finger to finger, all the while juggling a chugging counterpoint between registers.
This was Fortner’s only appearance in this series, but the Future of Jazz series will present its final 2019 performance on April 18 with Micah Thomas, a performer at the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival and sideman for musicians such as Etienne Charles, Immanuel Wilkins, Joel Ross, Gabe Schnider, and Stacy Dillard.
As Fortner demonstrated, however, further introduction would seem reductive; clearly the future of jazz is better left to the future’s hands than to the present’s words.
What, When, Where
Pianist Sullivan Fortner. The Future of Jazz Piano, curated by Fred Hersch. February 7, 2019, at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, 19 S. 10th Street, Philadelphia. Ststephensphl.org or (215) 922-3807.