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An Interview With Marty Khan: Memories of Sonny Fortune and Rudy Van Gelder

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The great saxophonist Sonny Fortune sitting, holding his saxophone Marty Khan, business guru, artist manager and owner of Outward Visions

Hey everyone! Here is the first in my new series of interviews, with music business guru and owner of Outward Visions Marty Khan. In 2015 I was lucky enough to interview Marty about the great alto saxophonist Sonny Fortune and his time producing and recording his 3rd album for Blue Note, 'From Now On.' The interview was published in various parts, so I thought I'd bring the whole thing together here for the first time. Enjoy!

STUK: Can you give me a little background on yourself?

MK: I started out taking saxophone lessons from Bill Barron. A few years later (1972) I started playing 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 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.

STUK: So how did you get into working with Sonny Fortune?

MK: From around 1975 I started working with Sonny. We booked him occasionally on our touring programme which we started in 1976. When he signed to Atlantic records, he would contact me about the deal. We booked him from 1976 until the late 1980s. I just loved the cat man, we were very close we were like brothers; and then when the Blue Note thing came along, it was a situation in which he really knew he needed more formal management, which was when we formalised it. From that point on, from 1994 on, I managed him until 1999.

STUK: So by the time you came to record From Now On, this was the third session for Blue Note. How did you prepare for the dates?

MK: Whenever we did a date, we did a week in a club called Sweet Basil. We’d do a week in the club, work the music live, take a day off, rehearse and then go into the studio on the following day. We would do 6 nights at Sweet Basil; 2 sets a night for four nights, and 3 sets for two nights. I would be there for every second of every set and when Monday morning would come around, I would actually be depressed that there wouldn’t be any more! I mean that’s how bad Sonny was!

STUK: Right! So for From Now On, do you remember anything special about the day of the recording?

MK: When we recorded this album, it was the most intense snowstorm in New York in about 30 years. I mean there was like 28 inches of snow out there, and we had to get out to Jersey for the session. So, coming home from one of the sessions took us two and a half hours!

STUK: That sounds like a pretty stressful start to the session. Did that cause any problems?

MK: Not at all man! Sonny’s got this kind of... you know the jazz world may define who the masters are, but the musicians know who the masters are; everybody always subordinated themselves to Sonny’s vibe. Nobody was late, even though the snow was intense. It comes down to Sonny man, the respect that they had for Sonny. Cats give their all, all the time when somebody is at that level. They were there to make it count for every second. The other thing is... You gotta understand Rudy’s studio. The first time I walked in there, I understood what a devout Catholic feels like when they walk into St. Peter’s Basilica. The room is overwhelming. When you walk in that room man, you know the spirits that are in that room? I mean, all of Coltrane’s Impulse albums, virtually every Blue Note album, most of the Prestige albums were done in that room. You cannot walk into that room and not be cooled out. There’s a magic in there. Once you were in there, you didn’t even know what was happening outside. The first time I walked in there, I was just walking through the room man, just picking up the vibe, and at one point my kneed buckled. I mean literally buckled, I almost hit the ground. I went back to Rudy and I said “when Trane used to record, where did he stand?” He said “right there!” There was no tension in that session at all; it was a perfect vibe all the time.

STUK: How was it to work with Rudy Van Gelder?

MK: It was one of the great privileges of my entire career as a producer. I produced over thirty albums, but man, getting to work with Rudy three times...its mind blowing when you work somebody at that level. I mean, the first session we did with Rudy, the session started at 11. We were listening to playback of the first track at 11:25! I’d never experienced anything like that in my life. I loved working with Rudy so much. To me From Now On is the peak of all the albums I’ve worked on in my life without question.

STUK: Were you present for the entire session?

MK: Of course yeah, absolutely, I’ve never produced an album where I wasn’t there for the entire session. It’s the old style you know; it’s the Alfred Lion style. You’re involved in it from the beginning, to the end. Sonny and I would speak on the phone maybe six or seven times a day, just talking about sequencing. Everything was hammered out; I was involved in all of Sonny’s stuff from beginning to end.

STUK: That’s incredible! Does that mean you got involved in directing the music itself?

MK: My job was to take care of everything involving the session, not the music. And this is what I say in my book Straight Ahead about the producer’s role; as the producer you only get involved in the music when the artist asks you for something. I don’t take any control; I don’t think that’s the producer’s job, not when you’re dealing with an artist like Sonny anyway. In the end I was actually able to contribute more to this album than to any other album I did.

STUK: You worked with Sonny for a long time, what was it about him that you found so inspirational?

MK: You know man, here’s the thing. On one of these gigs, on a Thursday night, the music was fantastic. The audience was receptive but they didn’t go wild. Later that night we were hanging out at this bagel joint uptown like always, and he was shaking his head saying, “I don’t know man, I gotta figure this out. The audience weren’t with me, people can think that something’s going on when nothing’s going on, but they can’t think that nothing’s going on when something’s going on. This is on me.” The next day he practised for like three hours, called a rehearsal with the band and then we went in that night. The music was so unbelievable, I’m getting chills right now just thinking about it more than 20 years later! The music was so powerful, so intense, the audience was berserk, screaming and hollering and jumping up and down. I just remember Sonny standing with his two feet planted the way Sam Rivers used to plant them with his horn like a gun almost. If he had an option of playing for one night in a concert hall, or six nights in the same city for the same fee, he would take the six nights in the club because it meant he would get to play for six nights instead of one. This, to me, epitomises what Sony Fortune was about as an artist.

STUK: And what about the other personnel? ‘From Now On’ features Joe Lovano as guest!

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.

STUK: 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.

STUK: 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.

STUK: Do you have any specific reflections about the compositions themselves?

MK: 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.

STUK: 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!