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.
On one hand, would you ever want to hear anybody other than Dave Brubeck play Take Five? OK, maybe the surf rock version by Mike Rimbaud. On the other hand, there’s the argument that jazz, like classical or folk music, is a repertoire that any artist with the requisite talent ought to sink their teeth into. Which is where Champian Fulton is coming from on her new album, After Dark, a Dinah Washington tribute streaming at Spotify. Fulton will be playing that material and more in a rare duo show with bassist David Williams at Mezzrow on April 26 at 7:30 PM; cover is $20.
Covering material so closely associated with such an iconic figure is a potential minefield, but Fulton meets that challenge head-on, in a performance that’s respectful but not reverential. On one hand, Fulton has assimilated Washington’s style – those coy little swoops up into head voice, the dips into feline lows, and the spaces between the notes – to the point where there are are many places on this album where, if you didn’t know who the singer was, you would assume it was Washington. On the other, Fulton puts her own stamp on these songs. The new album is a mostly trio affair, with Williams and drummer Lewis Nash as rhythm section plus her dad Stephen Fulton on trumpet and flugelhorn on a handful of numbers.
Another way Fulton differentiates her versions from the originals is that she’s as nuanced and expressive a pianist as she is a singer. Lots of iconic tracks here, beginning with a slowly swinging, uncluttered, gently seductive take of Ain’t Misbehavin’, the elder Fulton’s gentle, smoky muted lines in contrast with the younger’s nonchalant good cheer. That Old Feeling has even more subtlety but also exuberant wit, right from the LOL intro. How does she tackle Washington’s signature song, What a Difference a Day Makes? She lets Nash give it a masterfully hushed, bossa tinge, her piano as spacious as her vocals, a lot more low-key than the original.
Blue Skies gets a rubato intro with a few wisps from Williams’ bow, the trumpet adding a New Orleans jauntiness as the swing kicks in, up to a considered, purposeful piano solo. The group does a perfectly acceptable job with Keeping Out of Mischief Now; on the other hand, it’s sort of redundant, Ain’t Misbehavin’, round two.
A Bad Case of the Blues is a showcase for the bandleader’s elegantly expansive command of that style on the piano as well as on vocals. Travelin’ Light makes a striking contrast between a rather stern, embittered backdrop and a distantly embittered, matter-of-fact approach to a sad storyline, the band picking it up, wryly trading eights as they wind it up to the final chorus. Mad About the Boy is the most stunning reinvention here, part Brecht/Weill, part Beethoven.
All of Me may be the Hotel California of vocal jazz, but the singer makes it worthwhile, with a bass/vocal intro that looks straight back to Sarah Vaughan and Joe Comfort. Give a close listen to the piano solo on slow, slinky version of Baby Won’t You Please Come Home: through the first verse, Fulton voices the lyrics emotion for emotion with her fingers, phrase by phrase, a neat trick. A steady, slow, vocal-less solo piano Midnight Stroll makes an apt closing track, another showcase for her purist command of the blues.
Throughout these songs, what’s most striking is how much care and attention Fulton gives every line, every word: she really sells the lyrics, which isn’t easy because, let’s face it, some of them would sound awfully prosaic delivered by someone who didn’t give a damn. Fulton moves effortlessly and vividly from delight, to wistfulness, to wounded angst in a matter of seconds and makes it seem completely natural, the work of a deep and insightful individual and a rare force on both the keys and the mic.