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Return to the future with Sullivan Fortner and Joe Dyson

20th November 2017   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
Contributing Writer

It’s remarkable that of the six musicians who will take the stage at Snug Harbor this weekend, five are alumni of the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA). Notable too is that each of the leaders at the two gigs – pianist Sullivan Fortner, who heads a trio on Saturday, November 25, and drummer Joe Dyson who fronts a quintet on Sunday, November 26, is working under their own names for the first time at the Frenchmen Street jazz club. Dyson does play there regularly and will also lay down the rhythms on Fortner’s gig with bassist and NOCCA grad, Jasen Weaver. Fortner, however, rarely plays in his hometown.

“Yeah, I kinda ran out,” Fortner admits about leaving New Orleans soon after graduating from NOCCA and McDonogh 35 High School to head to Oberlin College and then go on to receive his masters degree from the Manhattan School of Music.

The hugely talented pianist and composer got busy fast working with the likes of trumpet great Roy Hargrove, an association that was ongoing until this year, and vibraphonist Stefon Harris. In 2010 he also recorded with Donald Harrison Jr. on the saxophonist’s dynamic Quantum Leap.



Because Dyson is heard on Sullivan’s 2015 tremendous debut release, Aria, on the highly-respected Impulse! label, it’s easy to imagine that these two on-the-rise, like-minded musicians have frequently teamed up though that’s not really true, They toured the album but then took off in different — though parallel — directions in the pursuit of jazz music.

“My schedule was constantly on the road,” says Fortner who confesses to sneaking back into town to visit family and friends. “Usually when I come to New Or-leans it’s really just to rest.”

Fortner primarily performs as a sideman as he did on the late great trumpeter and educator Clyde Kerr Jr.’s 2009 fine album This is Now! Kerr was an instructor at NOCCA when the pianist was a student there and, he says, played an important part in his development as an artist.



“He was the type of person who would says things and they would always be prefaced with, “I know you will not understand this now but you’re going to get it later.’ Fortner remembers one of their last conversations when he told Kerr that he was having a hard time – am I playing too much? Am I playing too far out? “Mr. Kerr said, ‘That’s because you are listening to yourself. You need to play from the bandstand and have your ear out in audience.’ I didn’t understand that until recently. That was the genius of Mr. Kerr. He was prophetic in his teaching style – he was pretty deep. I might slip in a couple of songs at the gig that I used to play with him when I was a student,” Fortner adds mentioning also performing new, original material, selections from Aria and jazz standards.

“NOCCA definitely creates a camaraderie among graduates,” says Fortner who remembers he and fellow pianist Jon Batiste holding “Oscar Peterson contests” in the school’s practice room. It was NOCCA grads Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and trumpeter Christian Scott who hired Fortner for his first jazz gig in New Orleans.

Drummer Joe Dyson wasn’t yet a student at NOCCA when Fortner and the other musicians mentioned attended, he knew some of them outside of the school and he feels that NOCCA “deepened the connections that we had and the understanding of artistry and life in a certain way. For me, NOCCA was an open garden for growth,” offers Dyson, who will be performing original material plus jazz standards with his combo that includes grads of the institution Weaver, saxophonist Stephen Gladney and pianist Andrew McGowan plus trumpeter Stephen Lands, a Louisiana native though not among the NOCCA crew. “There’s no other program that I know of in America, or in the world for that matter, that offers the level of instruction and coaching that NOCCA does,” Dyson offers mentioning its insightful and knowledgeable teachers like Ellis Marsalis, Alvin Batiste, Clyde Kerr Jr. and Nicholas Payton.

Fortner began performing in church and that soulfulness can be realized in his playing even at its most progressive. “Coming out of the church, the whole idea is musical sensitivity and music with a reason and a purpose,” the pianist explains. “It’s about the deeper meaning behind the music or lyrics of the songs and understanding who wrote it, why it was written, what message it is bringing across to people and how it leaves people feeling.”

He credits his local influences on his teachers like Kerr, pianists Ellis Marsalis and Michael Pellera and contemporaries such as Davell Crawford, Jesse McBride and others. He didn’t really dig into New Orleans piano legends like James Booker, Professor Longhair, Fats Domino and Allen Toussaint until further on down the road.

“I was a little too far removed because I was a part of the church,” Fortner explains. “My family wasn’t strict about who I was listening to but that wasn’t music that was played in the house. When I first saw (the James Booker video) “Bayou Maha-rajah” I had a deeper respect for his genius and all that he could do. He was just from another planet.”

“Sullivan is a genius of our generation not just in New Orleans but on the music scene of today,” Dyson declares. “It’s an honor to be on stage and have recorded with him. I’m really excited to be a part of this performance at Snug Harbor. Whenever I play with him the music is always evolving.”

“The pressure is on,” Fortner says of his upcoming, hometown gig. “When you’re from New Orleans and you are a pianist it automatically comes with a certain type of baggage because New Orleans is, kind of secretly, a piano town.”

This article originally published in the November 20, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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