It takes a uniquely jazz-bred humility to take a back seat in one’s own band — especially when one is part of the Kennedy Center’s “Discovery Artist” series. But on Saturday night, pianist Sullivan Fortner was more than willing to give the spotlight to the other members of his quartet (saxophonist Tivon Pennicott, bassist Ameen Saleem and drummer Jeremy “Bean” Clemons). Expert though he is on the piano, Fortner at this concert was more focused on cementing his ensemble together and, when needed, spurring it on.
Not to say that Fortner, a young New Orleanian who plays in trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s quintet (among others), was a nonentity at the KC Jazz Club. For one thing, he was a lively and often funny master of ceremonies.
“Y’all still with us?” he asked about halfway through the set, to joyous applause. “Good, then we’re headed in the right direction? Because we can change things up if y’all want.”
He also did crucial work on his instrument, especially in laying the foundations for tunes. He opened Saleem’s “For Tanisha” with a lithe figure that managed to be both playful and introspective, then moved into an exquisite accompanying line on the keyboard’s high register. He did similarly on Fred (i.e., Mister) Rogers’s “You Are My Friend.”
On his own “Aria,” a duet for himself and Pennicott, Fortner worked a light, Latin groove that he underlined by stomping one foot. (During Fortner’s solo, which was still mainly about the groove, Pennicott added to the pulse by clacking along on his sax keys.)
Still, Fortner kept a light touch all throughout the set and often served as a back line to Pennicott and the rhythm section. This may have been inevitable: Pennicott is an intense saxophonist, Saleem has a huge bass sound that only gets bigger as he gets more relaxed and Clemons is a true virtuoso for whom “powerhouse” is an understatement. (On his and Saleem’s co-written “Beans and Cornbread” he emitted a monstrous, pounding solo, grunting along in a voice like blues singer Howlin’ Wolf; on “For Tanisha” he inverted that power, so sensitive that he could make his sticks sound like mallets on the ride cymbal.)
But the pianist, wisely, didn’t compete. His solo on Horace Silver’s “Pretty Eyes” served less as a showcase — Fortner played a spidery, vamp-filled line — than as momentum and connective tissue between Pennicott’s and Clemons’s solos. His “Beans and Cornbread” improv was more like an obbligato, a thin but often “out” line that functioned independent of Saleem and Clemons’s rhythm. (True to this form, Fortner lay out for Pennicott’s solo.) And on Pennicott’s closing “Come Get Me,” Fortner stabbed a single chord behind Pennicott, a minimalist gesture but one that spurred the saxophonist to new heights with every repetition. Fortner, in short, approached his “Discovery” showcase not as a pianist but as a bandleader.
West is a freelance writer.