The Sullivan Fortner Trio did not prepare a song list for their performance at Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall on Thursday. “I have no clue what we’ll be playing tonight,” renowned jazz pianist Sullivan Fortner said hours before the concert. “It may be 30 minutes or two hours. Hopefully an hour and 20 minutes.”
Perhaps even more surprising was that the Trio, consisting of Fortner, drummer Jeremy Clemons and bassist Ryan Berg, had never performed live together before earlier that day, when they played Charlie Parker’s “Billie’s Bounce” in a master class for students at the College.
None of the performers seemed worried, however. Before the master class, the Trio had talked to a group of students in the course “Jazz and African Cultures;” in response to the students’ surprise that the group had never played together before, Clemons nonchalantly said that the performance was going to be like any other performance – just a time for a group of musicians to play some jazz. “Music is the fellowship,” he said.
“The beautiful thing about jazz is every time you play a piece, it’s like someone takes a whiteboard and wipes it completely clean,” Fortner said to the jazz class. “You can play the exact same piece five minutes later, and it’ll be completely different. Jazz is all about exploring and being immersed in something, anything… It’s being open and accepting that you might make mistakes. But ultimately, I love forging connections between people, the potential of a special moment happening.”
As the concert began that evening, the Trio did not feel the need for an elaborate or fancy introduction. “I still have Thai food stuck in my throat,” Fortner said, coughing into the microphone as the audience laughed. “Welcome to this evening. We are playing jazz. If you’d like us to play something, let us know. If you don’t like something, let us know.”
And with that, Fortner, Clemons and Berg jumped into Phineas Newborn Jr.’s “Theme for Basie,” the first of many jazz hits the Trio would perform during their hour and 30 minute-long concert.
The concert was everything that the Trio believes a performance should be. “Play with a certain sense of urgency,” Clemons said to students in the master class. “You better play like you’d die tomorrow,” Fortner added.
Indeed, each song was played with vivacity and intentionality, but also with a seemingly effortless flow on the Trio’s part. They shared a unique interpretation of the songs, feeding off the energy in the room and creating a musical dialogue with the 90-person audience.
As Berg, Clemons and Fortner played, an intensity swept over the room. The three performers honed in on the rhythms and embellishments that each player added into the piece. They fit into each other’s sounds, with Fortner occasionally offering classical ballade-like melodies on the piano, Berg’s bass providing a constant hum and buzz and Clemons anchoring the group with the drums.
At times the Trio was explosive, jumping into powerful splashes of melodies then fading into soft rumblings, with Berg brewing up menacing and mysterious riffs on the bass. Fortner, at times pouting his lips and adjusting his glasses, looked out into the audience as he seemed to contemplate his next note, resting on certain phrases or wiggling his pinky finger in search of which piano key to hit next, playing whatever felt right at the moment. The players encouraged each other, Fortner sometimes shouting “Oh!” at Berg and Clemons.
Reflecting on the spontaneity of their first performance of “Billie’s Bounce” earlier that day, Berg said, “I thought to myself, ‘[Fortner] isn’t even playing the right form.’ He just played around with the tune. And he passed it to me, and I thought, ‘Sweet! This is great. Let’s do it.’”
With that same sense of unpremeditated genius, the concert was a time for the Trio to explore the various moods and emotions on their minds. Throughout the performance, the audience was left in a trance, completely drawn into this group’s natural chemistry as the Trio flowed in and out of each song. At the rousing ending, the crowd burst into a standing ovation. Everyone who witnessed the performance left on a high from the immersive concert that the Sullivan Fortner Trio had put on for the College.