Father Fortuna - The rappin' jazz priest of Scola Tristano

october 4 2006  • Written by Jonathan Funke for new york press

“BLESS ME FATHER, for I have riffed. Like, a lot, man.”

It’s how I imagine Father Stan Fortuna at confession after a fire-breathing gig at Birdland with his free-improv band Scola Tristano. How else to pardon an ascetic Roman Catholic priest who sleeps on a bare floor, ministers daily to the poorest kids in the South Bronx, then packs up his borrowed bass fiddle to play a notoriously indulgent form of music in one of the toniest venues in Christendom?

The short answer is that there needn’t be any conflict. The Lord’s calling proved undeniable; music simply shouted first. Father Stan doesn’t even try to blend his inspirations in the manner of John Coltrane’s epochal hymn of faith and renewal, A Love Supreme. 

“It wasn’t like, ‘Wow, Coltrane did it—maybe I can do it,’” says the Franciscan, who made a name for himself bumming around New York clubs before entering St. Anselm’s College in his mid-20s to answer a higher calling. “I came in thinking I was letting it all go. But people started to say, ‘Wait, you’re that bassist from New York.’ And after a lot of time, it started coming back.”

That’s not to say that music—even hip-hop culture—doesn’t help the ministry. Our interview is briefly interrupted by a young graffiti artist who, under the guiding hand of the Community of Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, has redirected his energies from defacing property to creating “Francesco Ghetto Design” T-shirts. Sales of shirts, videos and music downloads (at www.francescoproductions.com) support outreach efforts, which have grown since 1987 to include missions from Honduras to the United Kingdom 

Opinions differ on how much reverence to give to Father Stan’s rap credentials, but that shouldn’t be at issue on Monday for the man who got his start “trading fours with Slam Stewart” and Woody Herman. “I’m not gonna be doing any hip-hop at Birdland, you know what I’m saying?” he reassures in a rapid-fire version of his “hey, man” lingua franca. 

Though versed in the street currency of 50 Cent, Fortuna and drummer Peter Scattaretico both drew personal inspiration directly from mentor Lennie Tristano. The Scola Tristano trio, rounded out by veteran guitarist Peter Prisco, is a breathing tribute to the free-jazz pioneer once described as an “adamant iconoclast” at the keyboard.

Pressed to show a connection between jazz and other influences, Father Stan blows past “fusion” to the deeper musical truths they share. “Lyrical improv is the best of Brazilian music. It’s the best of what hip-hop is; hip-hop is heavily seasoned with jazz melodies. Improv is a language. You develop some vocabulary, learn some grammar … but whether it’s music or life, I want to be swinging.”

Amen to that.