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Alto Madness

The Frank Morgan & Sonny Fortune Quintet featuring George Cables is one of the more intriguing units currently on the road. Certainly any one of those names would jump out at you from the page of your local newspaper’s calendar section--Morgan, the legendary bop alto saxophonist and survivor, Fortune, the musical seeker whose fiery sax (this time an alto) has informed so many diverse projects through the years, and Cables, as good an accompanist as there is on piano--the presence of three such accomplished musicians together on the same stage makes the group a must-see. Throw in the Skipper, Henry Franklin on bass and Steve Johns on drums and you have a special group indeed. The icing on this very tasty cake was that their concerts here in Los Angeles were performed at my favorite jazz club, the intimate Catlina’s Bar and Grill with its excellent sound, sightlines and kitchen.

The members of the group all come from different generations and traditions, and these differences would not only be expressed musically, but also sartorially. Frank Morgan stood serene in a comfortable sweater as he played his mellifluous lines; Sonny Fortune characteristically wearing a vest, the sleeves of his Oxford cloth shirt rolled up, ready for a night of hard work exploring the full range of his instrument; George Cables looked as elegant as the pristine chords he played in his immaculate suit; Henry Franklin wore his soul on the sleeve of the African shirt he bore beneath his acoustic bass, while the relative youngster Steve Johns wrapped his energy into a Hawaiian shirt (a very nice one, you understand-I’ve owned several through the years and know) and slacks.

The featured event, of course, was the pairing of altos. Morgan and Fortune embody as well as anyone the two dominant traditions of post-bop jazz saxophone, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, respectively. Frank Morgan’s story of being mentored by Bird, for good and for ill, is well documented. Sonny Fortune’s 2000 Shanachie release In the Spirit of John Coltrane and many recordings with such Coltrane associates as Pharaoh Sanders, Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner and Miles Davis all powerfully testify to his history of chasing the ‘Trane. Not that either player could fairly be reduced to a copycat-the playing of each contains both Bird and Trane, not to mention dozens of other players (if not more) and, most importantly, their own muses.

Opening up the set with some bop, Morgan and Fortune played the theme in unison, then traded solos. Morgan’s lines were long, fluid and complex, while Fortune combined furious sheets of sound with R&B wailing and honking that I could’ve believed came from a lower registered instrument had I not seen his alto with my own two eyes. Cables and Franklin each took a turn before the saxes came back in, exchanging lines. Again, they began with their contrasting styles, but each ingeniously managed to work some of the other’s style into his playing to the point where they were, if not quite indistinguishable, at least clearly sharing a wavelength. Around this time, the thought occurred to me that this was what it must’ve been like to see Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt together on stage.

The next number was very different, Wayne Shorter’s "Footprints." This time Fortune soloed first, building to a ferocious climax that nearly blew the house down. Frank Morgan took a subtler approach, first probing the piece’s melodic and rhythmic depths, then building up his own head of steam. Cables took the next turn, dexterously handling the tune in its modality, followed by Johns, who rang the song out alternating with the saxes.

Morgan humorously introduced the next selection as a "Medley" of ballads, with the selection of ballads to be chosen by the featured players. What followed was really a round robin of ballads with Fortune, Cables and Morgan each taking turns leading the group. Sonny Fortune went first, selecting his own tender "Tribute to a Holiday" and playing it soulful and sweet. George Cables led the rhythm section through a beautiful reading of "My Foolish Heart." Frank Morgan came back on stage for "’Round Midnight," recalling both the performance by Morgan and Cables on Morgan’s Mood Indigo and Cables’ duet on the Monk classic with the late Art Pepper on the Tete-a-Tete album. Is there another pianist who plays ballads as beautifully as George Cables? If there is, I couldn’t think of who he or she might be while Mr. Cables played.

The set ended with a rousing take of "Scrapple from the Apple," bringing things full circle. But the bebop classic had a post bop edge, the rhythm section playing it as the early Coltrane quartet might’ve. The energy of the musicians was incredible, all of them but the drummer between the ages of 58 and 69: after playing extra-long and vigorous set, Morgan, the group’s elder statesman reminded us they were coming back for a second show. The Frank Morgan and Sonny Fortune Quintet featuring George Cables is a well-matched and exciting group. Each musician has his own distinct approach and, while they sometimes come together something less then seamlessly, it is precisely that little bit of friction that makes the experience of the group so fascinating. Hopefully this group will remain together for a while and be able to make some recordings.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: The Frank Morgan & Sonny Fortune Quintet
  • Concert Date: 3/28/2003
  • Subtitle: Two legendary saxophones on one stage
  • Venue: Catalina's Bar and Grill
  • City State Country: Hollywood, CA
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