Sonny Fortune

It Ain't What It Was

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Recorded in 1991, this Sonny Fortune Quartet date features Fortune with mainstay drummer Billy Hart, bassist Santi DeBriano, and youngish piano giant Mulgrew Miller in a mixed program of originals and jazz classics. Miller is an interesting foil for Fortune, who is a boon to pianists and vice versa, in that Miller has the Oscar Peterson touch whenever he sits down at the piano -- the notes and combination chords fly effortlessly, and with sparks, forcing the rest of the band to play with great concentration just to keep up. Evidence of this comes on the title track that opens the session. Miller's out first, slipping around the middle and upper registers like rain in a drainpipe, punching odd voicings through the straight, cut time rhythm. Hart, to hold those notes in check needs to play double-time, and DeBriano half of it. It's up to Hart to charge with his edgiest tone into the middle of those chords and find the place the melody fits in all the singing. He does so with an aggressive legato honk and purloins the intervals to make them slip more easily into the band's groove. When DeBriano comes to solo, he feels confident enough to move it up a couple of notches because Miller's in check. Later, on Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life," Miller strolls over the intimate melody with an intricacy we've perhaps not heard before, accenting the eights and sixths out of meter and turning them into new chords that don't take away from the melody but do create a new harmonic architecture. Again, Fortune is in the unlikely position of bringing the tune back to the tune, carrying his own edgy melodic sense to bear on the Strayhorn lyric that opens the pace for Hart to make it swing in flow with the contradictions all firmly in the pocket. This set is full of contentious moments between Fortune and Miller, and that's why it works -- because neither man is out to cut the other. They are both looking for ways to move the music into new combinatory spaces, some that include opposition in their very lyrical frames, without stepping so far outside the box the original composition becomes something other than it is. Given the depth and precision of the rhythm section behind them, this comes off almost always without a hitch. This is one tough, swinging, and emotionally strident session. It's a real winner.

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