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Alto Sax Wins the 'Battle of the Horns' for Sonny Fortune

July 25, 1993|ZAN STEWART | Zan Stewart writes regularly about jazz for The Times

You could say that Sonny Fortune has a case of "alto madness."

The musician, 54, will tell you that he's always been an alto saxophonist. But has he? There have been long periods of his life when he has favored the tenor saxophone as his vehicle of expression.

Fortune, a native of Philadelphia who has played and recorded with such giants as Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones, comically describes his vacillation as "craziness, a discussion into which logic did not enter."

Known for his bravura performances that at times bear the urgency of a charging rogue elephant, the New York-based Fortune makes his first Los Angeles engagement as a leader in more than 10 years when he fronts a quartet this Tuesday through Sunday at Catalina Bar & Grill. There he'll play the instrument that won his personal "battle of the horns": the alto sax, which was his first instrument, and was, for his initial two decades as a pro, his primary horn. His tenor saxophone will be back in the closet of his apartment on 102nd Street in Manhattan.

Still, it was the tenor sax that Fortune mostly played during the '80s, when he was heard with drummer Jones at such haunts as Catalina's. "At that time, I thought, 'Well, let me try this tenor.' I knew Elvin (Jones) loved tenor, and he wanted me to work with him," he said. "Then I'd go for months and never touch the alto, but I'd always tell people that I was an alto player."

It was the instrument on which he established himself as a jazzman during the '60s and '70s. "Alto is the horn that grabs me," he said. "It's the instrument that allows me to express the feelings I want to say musically."

Funny, then, that it's only in the past two years that the musician feels he's finally at home with it.

"Now the horn sounds right to me. It turns me on and doesn't send me into confusion," he said. "As a result, I feel fantastic and I'm playing better than I have ever played in my life. Musically, I feel unbelievable. I have never been here before, and I certainly didn't want to have this experience on tenor. I chose to punish myself by noticing at an early age that it would have been easier to play tenor, but I stuck with the alto because sooner or later I was going to get it. I made a commitment to play this horn."

Fortune started out on alto when he was 18. "I don't know why I picked that horn over the tenor," Fortune said. "Maybe because it was cheaper," he said, laughing with gusto.

Actually, Fortune admits, it was hearing such influences as alto saxophonists Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Stitt and Eric Dolphy that led him to select the smaller sax. And while he was impressed by the sounds his mentors coaxed out of their gleaming instruments, "I had an immature sound that I didn't like," he said. "You have to go a very long way to sound horrible on tenor sax, but you only have to go a very little way to sound terrible on alto."

It was by making minute adjustments to mouthpieces--a skill he taught himself--that Fortune feels that he was able to ultimately get a sound that knocked him out. "Now my tone is clear, big, warm. It's what I want," he said. "After so much craziness, to arrive at this point of satisfaction is an incredible achievement."

Fortune's most recent releases--"Laying It Down" and "It Ain't What It Was"--are on the Konnex label, a German import. He can also be heard on drummer Jones' "In Europe" (Enja Records) and pianist Mal Waldron's "Crowd Scene" (Soul Note). The altoist will arrive in Los Angeles with an ace quartet: pianist George Cables, bassist David Williams and drummer Ronnie Burrage. The band's program, composed of originals, jazz classics and great pop standards, will be in turn powerful, soft, angry, and emotional, he said.

"Mine is music that attempts to express human feelings, that attempts to make contact," he said. "It's definitely not music that is stagnant, that just sits there. And it's definitely not commercial."

Fortune said he likes being a leader more than a sideman because he can pick a more personally challenging repertoire. "I try to take the hardest music and make it sound simple," he said. "My responsibility is to be in tiptop shape and make a clear, concise delivery. If a person in the audience doesn't want to hear it, then I have to musically try and convince them that they should anyway. That's a music-maker's job."

Bennie Maupin, the L. A.-based saxophonist who has known Fortune since they were both upstarts in New York in the '60s, said the altoist has long been a man whose musical statements have had impact.

"We used to jam a lot in New York and he always had his own voice, his own approach," said Maupin. "I'd always know it was him. And he's worked really hard. And when I heard him with Miles, I was glad to see that the work had paid off and more people got an opportunity to see him. Sometimes you need that exposure to have your talents recognized."

Fortune cites one benefit of all the years of struggling with the alto: "For so long the issue was the instrument. Now I'm concentrating on playing.

"You have to get your equipment right. Otherwise you can't really play. It's so important to feel that comfort, for that's the key to whatever creativity you have in music."

Sonny Fortune plays this Tuesday through Sunday, 9 and 11 p.m., at Catalina Bar & Grill, 1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. $12 to $15 cover, two-drink minimum. Information: (213) 466-2210.

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