Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Fortune, Sonny (Cornelius)
Sonny Fortune’s round and robust timbre on the alto saxophone and warm, precise attack on the flute have made him the perfect foil for trumpeter Miles Davis, pianist McCoy Tyner, and many others. His distinct voice on both instruments has helped shape the melodic sensibilities of modern jazz.
Cornelius Fortune was born on May 19, 1939 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Fortune decided at the age of eighteen to pursue a career in jazz and began to perform throughout the Philadelphia area with several rhythm and blues bands. The early exposure served to help Sonny grow as a musician and build his confidence as a performer.
During this time, Fortune performed with singer Carolyn Harris, performing with her until 1967 when he decided to leave his hometown and move to New York City. Upon arriving in New York, Sonny replaced saxophonist Frank Foster in drummer Elvin Jones’s group. He performed with Jones for four months before briefly returning to Philadelphia. Soon after, he left Philadelphia once and for all and moved back to New York.
In 1968, Fortune began to perform with percussionist Mongo Santamaria. The following year, Sonny appeared on Santamaria’s album Afro-American Latin as well as making an appearance on tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders’ album Izipho Zam alongside drummer Billy Hart, bassist Sirone and guitarist Sonny Sharrock.
1969 also saw Sonny performing with guitarist George Benson on his album The Other Side of Abbey Road with bassist Ron Carter, pianist Herbie Hancock, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, amongst others. In 1970, he left Mongo Santamaria and moved to Los Angeles. After spending seven months in California, he decided to move back east to New York City.
Upon arriving back in 1971, Fortune briefly performed with vocalist Leon Thomas before joining the group of McCoy Tyner. During this time, Sonny added the soprano saxophone to his arsenal of sound. The same year, he recorded with drummer Buddy Rich on his album Very Live at Buddy’s Place, recorded at the drummer’s club in New York City.
The album features contributions from tenor saxophonist Sal Nistico, guitarist Jack Wilkins, pianist Kenny Barron and bassist Anthony Jackson. Eventually released in 1974, the album reached number twenty-seven on Billboard Magazine’s Top Jazz Albums Chart.
Fortune’s talents as a flutist are best showcased on the song “Cardin Blue,” which begins with Barron, Jackson and Rich going through a complete chorus of the blues with Barron adding clever inflections to evoke the feel of the song. Upon entering the arrangement at :48, Fortune exhibits several melodic techniques to spice up the song including flat thirds, short bursts of sounds and flutter tonguing. Because of the timbral quality of the flute, hiss techniques on the instrument give the sometimes too apparent feel of the blues a new feel and resonance.
Beginning in 1973, Fortune began to lead his own groups while performing with Tyner. Sonny’s work as a leader brought him to the attention of pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, who hired Sonny for his big band in the same year.
In April 1973, Sonny performed on Tyner’s album Song of the New World. A highlight of the album is the title track, which is a Latin-tinged number that showcases Tyner’s talent as an arranger. The song begins with McCoy performing the introduction with his trademark percussive inflections before Fortune and fellow flutist Hubert Laws join the arrangement by playing the song’s bright melody. Sonny’s phrasing evokes the style of a trumpeter in that there is a driving, brass-like quality to it. The roundness of his tone serves to showcase the bright and playful manner of the melody.
In September 1974, Fortune performed with Miles Davis, replacing saxophonist Dave Liebman. Sonny remained with Davis until the following year when Miles decided to take a sabbatical, which turned into a five-year period of idleness. He was the first alto saxophonist to record with Davis since Cannonball Adderley on the trumpeter’s breakthrough album Kind of Blue in 1959.
Fortune’s debut with Davis was the album Big Fun followed by 1974’s Get Up With It and 1975’s Agharta and Pangaea. 1974 also saw the release of Sonny’s first album as a leader Long Before Our Mothers Cried, which featured the talents of pianist Stanley Cowell, bassist Wayne Dockery, drummer Chip Lytle and trumpeter Charles Sullivan.
In 1975, Fortune performed on drummer Michael Carvin’s album Camel. Two years later Sonny appeared on bassist Charles Mingus’s album Three Or Four Shades of Blues. Fortune spent the remaining years of the 1970s performing as a leader as well as a sideman, appearing on Kenny Barron’s 1978 album Innocence.
Beginning in 1982, Fortune toured and recorded with trumpeter Nat Adderley’s group, performing on his album Blue Autumn alongside bassist Walter Booker, drummer Jimmy Cobb and pianist Larry Willis. The following year saw Sonny performing prolifically throughout New York, including a performance at the Village Vanguard with Billy Hart, pianist Hilton Ruiz, and bassist Cecil McBee.
In 1984, Sonny performed with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie on his album Closer to the Source. In 1987, Fortune was a member of the Coltrane Legacy Band with Coltrane alumni McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones and bassist Reggie Workman. The following year, Sonny performed with composer Rabih Abou-Khali in a group that explored the juxtaposition of jazz and ethnic world music. A highlight of his time with Khali was a tour of Europe in 1989.
1988 also saw Fortune leading a quintet at the Village Gate. Included is that quintet was Hart, McBee, Stanley Cowell and trumpeter Tom Browne. In the following year, Fortune appeared on Carvin’s album Revelation. In 1990, Sonny performed with Adderley on his album Autumn Leaves: Live at Sweet Basil. 1990 also saw Sonny performing with Elvin Jones on the video Newport Jazz ’90.
1991 saw the release of his album It Ain’t What It Was, which featured Billy Hart, pianist Mulgrew Miller, and bassist Santi DeBriano. In 1993, Sonny signed to Blue Note Records and released the album Four In One. The same year, he received significant media attention when he was the subject of a feature on CBS TV’s 48 Hours with Dan Rather.
In 1995, Fortune was a featured soloist to the score of director Sean Penn’s movie The Crossing Guard and also made an appearance at the Atlanta Montreux International Music Festival. The following year, Sonny released the album From Now On featuring Santi Debriano, tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, pianist John Hicks, and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts. A shining example of Fortune and the ensemble’s talents is the uptempo song “On Second and Fifth.”
The song begins with Fortune and Lovano playing the melody in unison adding power to the overall arc of the melody. The interplay between the two horns cannot be denied as their respective timbres blend easily within the ensemble forming a singular sonic form. During his solo from 2:50-4:28, Sonny crafts a solo that expresses the whole range of his instrument and beautifully leads back into the final verse of the song.
In 2000, Fortune released the album In The Spirit of John Coltrane, an album dedicated to the compositional genius of John Coltrane. On the album, Sonny offers rendition of such Coltrane standards such as “Africa” and “Ole” as well as originals such as “Trane and Things” and “Say What.”
The same year, Fortune performed with Tyner on the pianist’s album Incontournables. Sonny spent the early to mid 2000s maintaining a prolific performance schedule throughout the New York area, brining a quartet to the Jazz Standard in 2001 and performing with drummer Rashied Ali at Tonic in 2002.
The following year, Fortune released his album Continuum on his own label, Sound Reason. Upon its release, Ed Enright from Down Beat Magazine stated that the album “presents Fortune as a riveting composer and instrumentalist who can go inside or out without losing his audience.”
In 2007, he released his latest album You and the Night and the Music for the 18th & Vine label, which featured his quartet consisting of pianist George Cables, bassist Chip Jackson and drummer Steve Johns. Fortune’s most recent credits include contributions to percussionist/vocalist Raphael Cruz’s 2008 album Time Travel.
Fortune lives in New York City and maintains an active national and international performance schedule.
Select Discography As a leader
As a leader
Long Before Our Mothers Cried (1974)
Infinity Is (1978)
Laying It Down (1984)
It Ain’t What It Was (1991)
Four In One (1993)
From How On (1996)
In The Spirit of John Coltrane (2000)
You and the Night and the Music (2007)
With Nat Adderley
Blue Autumn (1982)
On the Move (1982)
Autumn Leaves: Live at Sweet Basil (1990)
With Kenny Barron
With Michael Carvin
With Miles Davis
Big Fun (1974)
Get Up With It (1974)
With Dizzy Gillespie
With Charles Mingus
Three or Four Shades of Blues (1977)
With Buddy Rich
Very Live at Buddy’s Place (1974)
With Mongo Santamaria
Afro-American Latin (1969)
With McCoy Tyner
Song of the New World (1973)
Sonny Fortune in Greenwich by Ralph Miriello
Contributor: Eric Wendell