Posted by: russdavis | March 31, 2015


MOJA's Russ Davis with Amina Figarova, Bill Charlap, Billy Childs, Dianne Reeves, Christian McBride & Edward Simon at the 2015 APA Jazz Fellowship Awards in INDY!

MOJA’s Russ Davis with Amina Figarova, Bill Charlap, Billy Childs, Dianne Reeves, Christian McBride & Edward Simon at the 2015 APA Jazz Fellowship Awards in INDY!

MOJA's Russ Davis hanging out with the elegant Dianne Reeves!

MOJA’s Russ Davis hanging out with the elegant Dianne Reeves!

Sullivan Fortner receives the award from APA President Joel Harrison with the judges in the far background.

Sullivan Fortner receives the award from APA President Joel Harrison with the judges in the far background.

The 5 brilliant finalists for the 2015 Cole Porter Fellowship for jazz pianists from the APA...Christian Sands, Zach Lapidus, Emmet Cohen, Kris Bowers and Sullivan Fortner

The 5 brilliant finalists for the 2015 Cole Porter Fellowship for jazz pianists from the APA…Christian Sands, Zach Lapidus, Emmet Cohen, Kris Bowers and Sullivan Fortner

On Saturday night, March 28th, inside the beautiful Hilbert Circle Theatre in the center of downtown Indianapolis, young Mr. Sullivan Fortner was named the winner of the Cole Porter Fellowship for 2015 by the American Pianists Association. He won the amazing prize valued at $100,000 including $50,000 in cash, two years of artistic support and the offer of a recording contract with Mack Avenue Records. The announcement came after a year filled with various live performances as well as civic and educational activities that placed the five young pianists between the ages of 18 and 30 years of age in competition with one another. The five gentlemen, Kris Bowers, Emmet Cohen, Zach Lapidus, Christian Sands and the aforementioned Mr. Fortner were more like a band of brothers than competitors. Each one of the finalists is equally talented and, as I’ll explain, deserving of admiration, acclaim and future success. As was said many times by many people over the course of the 3+ days of Finals activities all of the guys were winners and the task of the 5 judges was an almost impossible one. Joel Harrison, the President and CEO of the APA, his staff , the APA board and seemingly the entire city of Indianapolis worked long and hard hours to make this event, the premier competition in the world for jazz pianists, amazing for all concerned.


Having served as the emcee of the 2011 edition of the awards and having turned that task over to the esteemed and award winning bassist, composer, bandleader, educator and broadcaster Christian McBride (quite an improvement if I do say so myself) I was instead free to do other fun things. I spent the time mingling with everyone involved, engaging in conversation with the great pianists chosen to be judges (Amina Figarova, Billy Childs, Bill Charlap and Edward Simon) as well as Mr. McBride and the featured vocalist who performed with the lads during the competition, the elegant Dianne Reeves. You can hear those conversations on my Voice of America and MOJA Radio programs. In other words I was able to enjoy one of the greatest hangs I can remember in years. I kept thinking it was akin to a jazz festival and like the greatest family reunion you’ve ever attended but without that loudmouth aunt or drunken uncle that might show up.


Everyone was in great spirits, the events were entertaining and conversation among the 5 finalists and all the other musicians gathered was like attending something that was part history lesson-part comedy performance. The laughs and meaningful, interesting tidbits of jazz history were more than plentiful. In case you didn’t already know, most jazz musicians are fun loving, positive people. So during meals, in breaks between events or in transit from one venue to another I was treated to hours filled with these great players exchanging reminiscences of old times together, stories of how something crazy or extremely meaningful happened to them in the past and, of course, the occasional joking jab from one to another…all in good fun.


Dianne Reeves and Billy Childs played together in the early stages of both of their careers and remembered that fondly. They also explained how they had both won Grammys this year with similar projects that brought many all-star singers and players from various musical genres together to perform songs not usually heard in jazz projects with excellent results. Christian McBride, obviously embracing his work as a broadcaster, asked a wonderful question of some of the pianists sitting together in the hotel lobby. He asked what gig other than jazz would they most like to have had. Bill Charlap, known as the master of “The Great American Songbook” and jazz from a more traditional approach quickly answered that he’d have loved to work with Frank Zappa, equating him with any jazz or classical master. Bill took advantage of a classic piano that was sitting in the lobby of our hotel that once belonged to the legendary Hoagy Carmichael. Bill brought the ancient instrument to life several times during the weekend with songs that Mr. Carmichael himself probably played and would have been proud to hear.


Mr. McBride also told some delightful stories about lessons learned from the great Ray Brown and how working with George Duke was thrilling and exhausting in a recording session for the song “10 Mile Jog” that went on non-stop for 30 minutes. Amina Figarova, joined by her husband and musical partner the great flute player Bart Platteau, explained all about their recent move from lower Manhattan to their new home in Harlem and how she and Bart had become their own renovation contractors. She also said we should look forward to her forthcoming project with a new sextet. Bart cleared something up for me that’s been a bother for a long time. He explained that he plays flute, not “flaut,” and has never understood why anyone would be called a flautist? If he wants to be called a flutist not a flautist then I’ll go with what the professional says thank you very much!


Edward Simon may be the quietest of the group but when he speaks it’s clear and meaningful. I enjoyed my first interview with him and found that though he left Venezuela, the land of his birth, many years ago and now calls America his home, he has not lost a musical connection with his homeland. His latest work, the brilliant Venezuelan Suite, is proof of that. He covers the four major styles of music born in Venezuela in the recording. His work in the New York scene from the time he as about 20 with the likes of Bobby Watson, Greg Osby, Kevin Eubanks, Terence Blanchard and many more, in addition to his own work as a leader, have helped establish him as one of the finest players and composers of his generation. He has new group and hopefully a solo piano work coming in the future he told me.


Returning to the APA Cole Porter Fellowship competition events, the first performances happened at the legendary Jazz Kitchen club where each of the gentlemen played three songs with the same rhythm section, a terrific local bassist and drummer. They played one solo piece as well as two with the trio. The performances were aired live on local FM station WFYI and the packed house was ecstatic. The house was cleared and a second audience filled Jazz Kitchen for another set of new songs with equal results. It was obvious to me that none of these five young pianists was head and shoulders above the others and in fact my estimation of them changed from song to song and set to set. I was, like many others in attendance, extremely glad I was not on the jury of judges.


The following night took us to the stately Hilbert Circle Theatre for The Finals which were webcast on the APA website and broadcast live on local FM station WICR. The night began with each gentleman performing in a duo setting with the brilliant vocalist Dianne Reeves, who announced that she had just returned from Europe and was a bit jet-lagged. It’s obvious after hearing her performance that Dianne is one of those artists who, at her worst, would be better than most at their best. She was showing no signs of jet lag whatsoever and was thrilling from the first note to the last. She chose a series of 5 jazz standards to perform with the lads but the songs were assigned randomly to each pianist. Again, there seemed to be no obvious leader in this setting. The large ensemble from Indianapolis, The Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra, conducted by Brent Wallarab, took the stage and accompanied the five finalists in the performance of classic songs by Monk, Chick Corea, Billy Strayhorn, Ray Noble’s “Cherokee” and the modern standard “Nature Boy.” There was another set of songs including some originals and more standards and by the end of the night I remained completely stumped as to who would or should win. If any of these young men had won it would have been worth celebrating. Each took away a cash prize and the admiration of everyone in attendance. I heard more than once from the stage and in conversation everywhere the same statement. “The future of jazz piano is in good hands!” Yes, indeed it is and be sure to look for the names of Emmet Cohen, Christian Sands, Kris Bowers, Zach Lapidus and Sullivan Fortner as you follow the development of the next generation of jazz stars!

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