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Sonny Fortune

Shepard Park, Lake George, NY
September 17, 2005

By Jeff Waggoner

The first day of the Lake George Jazz Festival, September 17 was a mini-festival on its own, covering a wide range of jazz from third wave, to straight ahead, to blues- and Latin-tinged B-3 driven groove.
While certainly not the best-known jazz festival in the nation, or even the region, the Lake George Festival – this year especially – can’t take a back seat to any festival in terms of pure jazz talent.
On top of the talent, the festival brings with it another huge bonus – it’s FREE to jazz fans, being underwritten by Lake George civic groups and the generosity of local residents, John and Marilyn Breyo (who pledged on Saturday $15,000 for next year’s festival.)
First up were Gregor Heubner, Richie Beirach & George Mraz, with their third-wave, chamber jazz take on numbers written by musical giants such as Bill Evans.
NYC-native pianist Beirach, who now lives in Leipzig, Germany, teamed up with his former student, German-born violinist Gregor Heubner and Mraz, a native of the Czech Republic, a seasoned musician who is undeniably one of the finest jazz double bassists on the planet.
The Beirach group’s subtle and reflective jazz meditations were replaced by the hard driving Sonny Fortune quintet.  Fortune – like his fellow “Sonny,” Sonny Rollins – has to be heard in person to feel the full impact of his music.
Just like you have to be standing next to the plate the appreciate a Roger Clemens pitch, you need to be in the audience to appreciate the raw, keening sound of Fortune’s alto and soprano.
But his Quartet was much more than Sonny.  On piano was the inestimable George Cables, the bassists was Cecil McBee -- another jazz legend -- and on drums was the kid of the group, the talented Steve Johns.
Fortune’s personal warmth, obvious on stage, was also reflected in his music as he paid homage to John Coltrane and the late Latin percussionist Mongo Santamaria.
Fortune’s “Trane and Things,” runs “My Favorite Things” through Fortune’s personal prism, giving it a sound that is unmistakably Coltrane’s AND Fortune’s.  Fortune is in a unique position to do that, having has performed often with both pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones, who played with Coltrane on his recording of “My Favorite Things.”
The touching, lyrical “Mongo Blues,” was Fortune’s statement in memory of his mentor Santamaria.
More than once, Fortune brought the audience to its feet.
Fortune’s straight ahead jazz made way for Vince Seneri’s groove-based Hammond B3 organ with Bob DeVos on guitar (who has accompanied B3 maestro Jimmy McGriff)  and Paul Wells on drums (who we hope we hear more from).
While Vince Seneri is doing his best to keep the B3 spirit of Jimmy Smith alive, it was Grammy winner/flautist/performer extraordinaire Dave Valentin and tenorist Houston Person who stole the twilight of the day.
Person’s heart-breaking tribute to Ray Charles – “Georgia” – showed once and for all there is at least one saxophonist today who can play with the huge sound and raw emotional power of a Ben Webster.

Jeff Waggoner has written book, CD and concert reviews for publications such as Metroland, Jazz Times, Blues Access and The New York Times. He lives in Nassau, is a student of jazz saxophone and guitar and can be frequently found at jazz, blues and folk concerts.