Following on from their appearance at the London Jazz Festival (video above) Tom Harrison’s sextet, including guest US saxophonist Meilana Gillard will be performing the music of Sonny Fortune on 1st April at The Vortex. As part of the preparation, Harrison did an extensive interview with MARTY KHAN, who was Sonny Fortune’s manager and producer for all his albums for Blue Note. (*)
Tom Harrison: Can you just give the readers a quick reminder about your background?
Marty Khan: I started out taking saxophone lessons from Bill Barron. A few years later (1972) I started playing it at Studio Rivbea every Sunday night with Sam Rivers’ Orchestral Explorations. Quickly I became the section leader of the Bb section, and began studying privately with Sam. I gave up playing in 1975 and moved into the business side. I became a manager and producer (George Russell, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Sam Rivers, Anthony Braxton, World Saxophone Quartet, Sonny Fortune, John Zorn and so many more – visit http://www.outwardvisions.com for all the details) and all the things that kept me from becoming the kind of musician I wanted to be were the ideal qualities that would make me a good manager and producer.
TH: So our previous concert was billed as the Tom Harrison Quintet, but we’re featuring the incredible Meilana Gillard on tenor saxophone to bring expand the line up to fully represent the album, which features Joe Lovano.
MK: Right! The record was going to be a quintet, but Bruce wanted Joe on it, which is why Joe is on three tracks on the album. Joe man… he’s a beautiful cat, down to earth guy. Joe made the club date, and what impressed me most was that Joe really subordinated his own playing to Sonny’s music. He played very unobtrusively. He really fit in with the music, even though he is a leader. I was really taken aback by that.
TH: It must have been very exciting to work with Joe Lovano. What about some of the other guys in the band? Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts?
MK: You know, Elvin Jones is Sonny’s biggest inspiration, and they worked together for many years, but he wasn’t conceivably available for the record for economic reasons. So when Sonny approached Tain said, he said, “what are you looking for?” and Sonny said “I got a jones for Jones!” Tain said, “You want Jones? I can give you Jones.” Tain was killing man, you know he was just spectacular. It was the only time they ever worked together, to my knowledge.
TH: And one of my favourite trumpet players, Eddie Henderson is on the album too. How did that come to pass?
MK: Most of Sonny’s gigs were quartet gigs, but he would always say, do you think I should add a horn? So whenever it was a quintet, Eddie would always be one of the guys that Sonny would reach to. Freddie (Hubbard) was another favourite of his, but Freddie never worked in Sonny’s band. They worked together in bands, but never in Sonny’s band. Eddie was always his go to guy.
TH: We’re going to be performing selected compositions from the album ‘From Now On.’ Do you have any specific reflections about the compositions themselves?
This Side of Infinity – a great piece man! It’s one of those blowing pieces, where the cats just turn up and do their thing. On the album it’s probably the piece that sounds closest to how Sonny would sound in a club, except its about 30% as long as what it would be. Such a beautiful piece; I think Sonny may have done it on one of his atlantic albums. That piece goes back to the 70s.
Glue Fingers: Now that is a really challenging piece to play! It’s constantly shifting time and feel, I think there are four different time signatures in there! I was blown away that these guys got that down in two takes. Those cats nailed it!
From Now On: To me, that is a perfect piece of music. I thought that should have been the single. If they had got behind that on radio, that would have helped Sonny to cross over into another realm. That realm of more popular jazz, without losing any substance; what My Favourite Things did for Coltrane. I just love that piece of music.
Suspension: It has a kind of Wayne Shorter feel to it. Something else happened on Suspension, there’s two horns, two altos playing. Sonny made a mistake, and because they were all in the same room, there was bleed into the piano mics. We couldn’t wipe it out completely so I said to Sonny “why don’t you just put another one on there?” We were solving problems together, and I thought it came out really beautiful. The two horns really really worked.
TH: What about ‘Thoughts?’ (above – 10 minute version) That piece is epic, over 17 minutes long that must have been something to be right there in the studio when they were laying it down?
MK: Man, that piece! They only had one take to get that right. For collective improvisation, tonal, swinging, on-the-beat, melodic, lyrical and yet adventurous exploration; I can’t think of a better example of that collective improv concept than at the end of that track. It’s killing! You notice the section towards the end, before the collective improv, when Sonny comes back on soprano, and he’s improvising over the drums? That was supposed to be a percussion extravaganza. They were supposed to take it out, and the whole bridging section was meant to be this wild percussion thing. But they never did it! We had this long four minute gap in the middle of the piece. So I said “man, why don’t you just play the soprano over it? Just go out, take it out!” And it worked really well.
I think that closing collective improv is like four and a half minutes. I mean, that’s really long, but Tom man, we could have left 9 minutes on! We just felt we had to fade it; but that music was just so hip, so good, it got airplay! 17 minutes long and it got airplay! It amazed me. That track got a lot of airplay around the country. It was bad man!
This is the second part of the interview. The first part was published elsewhere in Jazzwise (LINK)