New Orleans has produced a bumper crop of notable pianists over its long and storied history—Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, Allen Toussaint, James Booker, Dr. John, Ellis Marsalis, Henry Butler, Harry Connick, Jr., Jon Batiste—and it's not done yet. Sullivan Fortner, a twenty-eight year old piano phenom who's been a hot topic since receiving the American Pianists Association's 2015 Cole Porter Fellow award, is the latest notable NOLA piano export to register on a national level. He's done his homework, having studied with piano masters like Marsalis, Fred Hersch, Peter Martin, Jason Moran, and Phil Markowitz; he's made some considerable contributions as a sideman, having worked with vibraphonist Stefon Harris, rising star clarinetist Oran Etkin, and trumpeter Theo Croker; and now, Fortner is poised to make his mark as a leader with his debut on the revived-and-thriving Impulse! imprint.
Aria, featuring a spry quartet consisting of Fortner, bassist Aidan Carroll, drummer Joe Dyson, and saxophonist Tivon Pennicott, opens on a trio of originals that highlight the leader's sophisticated yet earthy way(s) with the pen and the piano. The title track is six-and-a-half minutes of forward motion, with Fortner's piano leading the charge, Caroll's bass bouncing about, Penticott's squirrelly soprano circling around, and Dyson's dynamic drumming weaving in, out, in front of, and behind it all. "Ballade," in contrast, moves in soulful fashion, while "Parade" presents as a harmonic triptych detailing the different emotions connected to Crescent City funeral processions. Each of those numbers points to different facets of Fortner's artistry, and when taken together, they help to show how expansive his skill set really is.
As the album continues, Fortner finds his way onto more familiar ground, bringing creative flair tempered by judiciousness to standards and songbook favorites. Thelonious Monk's "I Mean You" becomes a study on walking a hip line between accord and discord, Fred Rogers' "You Are Special" is a waltz-time world of possibility that's ripe for the taking, "All The Things You Are" is stripped of its old hat swing feel and given a natty groove update, and "You Know I Care" is trio synchronicity and reverie rolled into one. And then, sitting between two more originals and holding the penultimate position in the running order, there's Fortner's solo piano performance of "For All We Know"—a fragile and slow-moving emotional catharsis that's pure perfection. Debuts don't get any better than this.
04. I Mean You
05. You Are Special
06. All The Things You Are
07. You Know I Care
09. For All We Know
Sullivan Fortner: piano
Tivon Penticott: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone
Aidan Carroll: bass
Joe Dyson: drums