Singing with Sullivan Fortner

Episode nine of “The Journey” (Apple Podcasts | Spotify) dives into the dynamic between singers and pianists from the perspective of 2015 American Pianists Awards winner Sullivan Fortner. We talk to Sullivan about his musical upbringing in New Orleans, explore his current approach to collaborating and hear him perform with great vocal talents including Cècile McLorin Salvant, Dianne Reeves, Jean Baylor, José James and Paul Simon. Finally, we welcome two new contributors to the podcast: public radio reporter/host Jill Ditmire joins as co-host, and music publicist Amanda Sweet makes her debut as our field interviewer.

Sullivan Fortner and Cécile McLorin Salvant
Sullivan Fortner & Cécile McLorin Salvant

In the first part of the episode, Sullivan explains how he started working with singers:

“It came out of church.  My first musical experience was with singers.  I remember hearing harmony and listening to my mom and my mom’s brothers and sisters rehearse, and I’d tell them they’re singing the parts wrong.  I’d say, ‘the alto lines go like this’ and they’d say ‘boy, shut up,’ and they’d listen back and say ‘oh yeah, that’s right.’ So I always gravitated to singers because that’s what I first heard.”

Gospel music also first introduced Sullivan to major star he would later perform with. Dianne Reeves recorded a track on an album titled “Handel’s Messiah Soulful Celebration” that amazed young Sullivan. He would go on to meet her in person while traveling with trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s band in Shanghai, and then had an opportunity to perform with her at the finals of the 2015 American Pianists Awards:

Sullivan then talks about his partnership with José James. “I really admire José because he is a workaholic, and he is a visionary. For every record he is doing now he is already thinking three records ahead.”

The pair performed together in early 2018 as part of Jose’s project honoring the music of Bill Withers. Sullivan was eager to join: “I grew up with Bill Withers music. Those are classics. Hearing that music was part of my upbringing. He’s a deep musician, and I think jazz musicians gravitate to it because the melodies are great and the harmonies are simplistic enough to be of interest around and be free and open up different worlds and territories.”

The episode features Sullivan performing with Jose and Grammy-nominated Jean Baylor during New York City’s Winter Jazz Fest. Here is a bonus clip of Sullivan and the José James band performing Better Off Dead:

YouTube videos like these have helped spread music to new audiences. One of the thousands of views of the American Pianists Awards finals video above came with Paul Simon watching. Apparently, that experience led Paul to request Sullivan to come in for a talk.

“So I met Paul in his office and he walks in, and he was like okay come sit down let’s talk for a couple of minutes. So we sit down and talk, and he is a totally cool but very direct. He says, ‘the idea I have for this project is I want you to take two songs that speak to you. These are all songs that I have written that didn’t really take off for some reason. I really like these songs so I just want to reimagine them and see what you come up with.’

So I chose ‘Some Folks Lives Roll Easy’ as the first one, and I played it for him in the studio. Afterwards he said, ‘hmmm interesting. Now try to make it sound like its focusing more on the negative than the positive. Focus on the most folks not the some folks.’ I had never thought of it like that. I thought it was a happy tune, but it is not. It is very sad, and I’m a part of the most folks and here I am saying, ‘god I need you.’ Make it sound more like a prayer kind of vibe. So I started this little riff and the arrangement came out and he said, ‘I love this.’”

See Sullivan in the studio with Paul Simon in this trailer for “In the Blue” Light:

A final gem from this episode features the now three time (!!!) Grammy winner Cècile Mclorin Salvant joining Sullivan on stage during his trio’s performance at Dizzy’s Club in New York in December. That night capped an epic year for the duo, following the release of “The Window” and a much-watched performance on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series:

We hope you enjoyed this episode of The Journey. To help us continue sharing these stories, please consider giving us a review on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher. More new episodes are in progress; subscribe today to get the next one as soon as it drops!


THE JOURNEY is underwritten by the Allen Whitehill Clowes Charitable Foundation, as it continues Mr. Clowes’ legacy and philanthropy in promoting and preserving arts and humanities in Indianapolis. We thank them for their support.




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