Sullivan Fortner has won the 2015 Cole Porter Fellowship in Jazz, presented by the American Pianists Association. The honor was awarded on Saturday night at the Hilbert Circle Theater in Indianapolis, after a final round of performances by the five finalists in competition. As the winner, Mr. Fortner will receive $50,000, the opportunity to record for Mack Avenue Records, and two years of professional career services and development.
The American Pianists Association focuses on both jazz and classical music; its Cole Porter Fellowship Awards are held every four years. Finalists are selected through a process of blind submissions. Each pianist later spends a week in Indianapolis, performing concerts and leading workshops at high schools. The competition semifinals, held on Friday night at the Jazz Kitchen, featured solo and trio sets by all five pianists.
Mr. Fortner, 28, hails from New Orleans, and studied at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and the Manhattan School of Music. Though he hasn’t yet released an album, he’s known to jazz audiences for his work with the Roy Hargrove Quintet, the Christian Scott Quintet and Stefon Harris & Blackout.
This year’s other finalists — Kris Bowers, Emmet Cohen, Zach Lapidus and Christian Sands — represent a similarly accomplished peer group. Mr. Bowers won the 2011 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition, and has a thriving major-label solo career. Mr. Sands works prominently in bands led by the bassist Christian McBride, who served as one of the hosts of Saturday’s gala concert.
The concert was structured to feature each pianist in two settings: as an accompanist to the singer Dianne Reeves, and with the Buselli Wallarab Jazz Orchestra, a big band. For his first piece, Mr. Fortner chose a Cole Porter song, “Just One of those Things,” backing Ms. Reeves with alertness and rhythmic brio, and fashioning a solo of breezy assurance. With the big band, he played an arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s “I Mean You” shot through with a driving, staccato attack, calling Monk himself to mind.
The competition was judged by a panel including the distinguished jazz pianists Bill Charlap, Billy Childs, Amina Figarova and Edward Simon. Also on the panel was Al Pryor, an executive with Mack Avenue Records.