In any style of music, singers who are also formidable instrumentalists are rare. In jazz, that usually boils down to players who can carry a tune – Frank Lacy and Wycliffe Gordon, for starters- rather than vocalists with instrumental prowess. By any standard, Diana Krall is a strong pianist; Karrin Allyson is vastly underrated on the 88s, and Alicyn Yaffee is a fantastic guitar player. Then there’s Champian Fulton, who’s even more ambitious. Her latest album, wryly titled Speechless, has no vocals on it. It’ll be up at Posi-Tone Records; bookmark this page and check back for a link.
Although Fulton is best known as a singer with deep, blues-informed roots and a fondness for reinventing Dinah Washington classics, this daring move pays off, through a mix of originals and a coyly dynamic take of Someone Stole My Gal. She’s leading a trio at Mezzrow on March 7 at 8 PM, which no doubt will be a mix of instrumental and vocal numbers. Cover is $20.
This is jazz as party music and entertainment: it’s anything but rote or slick. There’s a jubiliant, fearlessly improvisational quality to these songs. Fulton obviously approached this album as she would a live gig, throwing caution to the wind and having an exuberantly good time with it.
Fulton plays and writes with a singer’s nuance. In the New York City Jazz Record, Scott Yanow compared the album’s opening number, Day’s End, to Errol Garner, and that’s on the money: one of Fulton’s signature devices is winding up a phrase or a turnaround with a trill or grace note-like lightness, just as she’ll pull back from the mic to lure the listener in. She also does that a lot with rhythm: throughout the album, bassist Adi Meyerson and drummer Ben Zweig anchor the swing while Fulton carves out a comfortable envelope for lyrical expression.
Lullaby for Art, an Art Blakey homage, is both a showcase for Fulton’s sublty ironic humor – it’s hardly a lullaby – and also for her scampering but spacious hi-de-ho swing chops. The ballad Dark Blue, based on the changes to Woody ’n’ You, is more tenderly dark: the way she essentially scats her way through the final verse on the keys, encompassing a century’s worth of stylistic devices, is the high point of the album.
Tea and Tangerines is a wryly waltzing mashup of Tea for Two and Tangerine, Later Gator, a shout-out to Fulton’s longtime pal Lou Donaldson, follows a loose-limbed soul-jazz tangent, spiced with Zweig’s tersely exuberant syncopation. Pergola is a peacefully lyrical Shelter Island vacation tableau, Fulton’s lingering upper-register chords paired against Meyerson’s dancing bass. Then the two switch roles.
Fulton cites Horace Silver as a stepping-off point for Happy Camper, the album’s most hard-charging number; Dizzy Gillespie in bracingly latin mode also seems to be an influence. That’s Not Your Donut – #BestSongTitleEver, or what? – returns to the jaunty charm of the album’s opening track. Fulton winds up with Carondeleto’s, a salute to her important early influence, Clark Terry and his Missouri hometown. It’s a bustling, rapidfire swing shuffle that’s the closest thing to hardbop here.
The most recent jazz album we reviewed was stylistically all over the place; the one before that maintained a very consistent mood. The Ellen Rowe Quartet’s new one falls somewhere in the middle – this is jazz songwriting. Elegant, richly melodic, often poignant, pianist/composer Rowe’s tunes get the chance to speak for themselves. A brief, hammering staccato passage during a characteristically understated yet heartfelt take of the old standard Alone Together (the only cover on the album) is as loud as she gets. Andrew Bishop, who absolutely gets this music, supplies similarly melodic, frequently pensive lines on tenor and soprano sax. Ingrid Jensen, another terrific choice, guests with characteristic sostenuto soul on flugelhorn; bassist Kurt Krahnke also makes his contributions count, particularly with his solos, and drummer Pete Siers provides terse yet incisive rhythm.
Rowe explores three styles here – ballads, swing and requiems – and makes all of them memorable. The opening cut, inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and dedicated to all the species who’ve been driven to extinction, has a vivid plaintiveness that evokes New York trumpet goddess Pam Fleming. Krahnke follows Jensen’s solo with a series of seamlessly moody horn voicings, all the way up to an evocatively bitter crescendo. Night Sounds, written in memory of Rowe’s brother, glimmers with distant latin allusions. The best song on the album – and it is a song in the purest sense of the word – is the genuinely haunting, modally tinged, thematic title track. But close behind is the swaying, funky Sanity Clause (a Chico Marx reference), written as an attempt to mine a more “modern idiom,” shifting almost imperceptibly from a carefree sway to an insistence that tugs on the listener and will absolutely not let go, courtesy of some gripping Bishop tenor work. It wouldn’t be out of place in the JD Allen songbook.
But all is not so gloomy here. Rowe proves just as adept at jaunty swing with the shuffle Lewisburg Bluesy-oo, an Ellington tribute of sorts driven by some casually expert Siers cymbal accents and named after the Pennsylvania town where the band used to do a stand every year. The ridiculously catchy Tick Tock mines a smoky, 4/4, early Jazz Messengers vibe, Krahnke’s devious bowed bass solo one of several highlights. And Seven Steps to My Yard melds elements of 7 Steps to Heaven and the Yardbird Suite as a showcase for some rhythmic shapeshifting. There’s also the title track, a beautiful ballad with more thoughtful buoyancy from Jensen, and an allusively wistful homage to Donald Walden, a mentor to scores of musicians including Rowe, featuring spot-on, emotionally candid solos from Krahnke and guest Andy Haefner on tenor. Count this among our favorites of 2010.