Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Lincoln Center’s 2018 Midsummer Night Swing Series Opens With Potent Relevance and Breathtaking Musicianship

At the risk of getting into serious trouble saying this, there hasn’t been such a stunning display of jazz talent on any New York stage this year as there was last night at the kickoff of Lincoln Center’s annual Midsummer Night Swing festival. The inspiration for the mighty big band, the Sisterhood of Swing, was the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first integrated, all-female swing group, who debuted eighty-one years ago. As bandleader, trumpeter and singer Bria Skonberg took care to remind the audience who packed Damrosch Park, those women risked their lives playing music together.

The members of this group weren’t risking their lives, but arguably the majority of them were out of their element. And few among this allstar cast play regularly with large ensembles, fewer still with a group the size of this one. The majority are bandleaders who play their own material rather than bouncy 1930s swing. Yet everybody seemed to be pretty much jumping out of their shoes to be involved in this project.

In two lengthy, hard-swinging sets that spanned from standards to cult favorites and an obscure gem or two, the fourteen-piece ensemble offered tantalizing glimpses of pretty much each member’s personality, yet in a completely different context considering where they’re usually found.

The audience responded most explosively to tenor saxophonist and singer Camille Thurman’s serpentine climb to the vocal stratosphere in one of the night’s few ballads, quite a contrast with her rapidfire scatting in a Benny Goodman diptych during the first set. Another big hit was tapdancer Michela Lerman’s nimble solo over Savannah Harris’ irrepressibly boisterous, tropically-tinged tom-tom syncopation, mirroring the drummer’s rambunctious drive in the second set’s opening number, Lady Be Good.

At the piano, Champian Fulton delivered purist, masterfully spacious, blues-drenched lines that fit the material perfectly, especially when the band threw her what could have been the night’s longest solo. In her first turn on the mic, she projected with a surprisingly steely intensity, then a second time around worked knowingly triumphant, bluesy, Dinah Washington-inspired melismas.

Lead trumpeter Jami Dauber joined with her brassy bandmate Linda Briceño and Skonberg as well in a wildly crescendoing, tightly spinning exchange in the wryly titled Battle of the Bugles, one of a handful of numbers from the catalog of Sweethearts of Swing creators Kat Sherrell and Natalie Wilson. Bassist Endea Owens benefited from excellent amplification, giving her a forceful presence. Chloe Feoranzo stood out most noticeably with her gritty baritone sax work; trombonist and singer Emily Asher also got time in the spotlight to channel some goodnaturedly wry humor. Lead alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin played punchy soul alongside her fellow reedwomen Thurman and Sharel Cassity.

On clarinet, Anat Cohen spun silky arpeggios on the less breathlessly pulsing numbers and delivered joyously dancing dixieland when the pace picked up, notably alongside violinist Regina Carter in A Woman’s Place Is in the Groove, a deliriously frantic obscurity by 1930s vioinist Ginger Smock. The two worked more calmly and majestically in a new instrumental arrangement of My Baby Just Cares for Me. The group closed with a joyously edgy take of the klezmer-tinged romp Doin’ the Uptown Lowdown, made famous by Mildred Bailey with the Tommy Dorsey band. The crowd didn’t want to let the band go after discovering this new sensation.

This year’s Midsummer Night Swing series continues through July 14 with a more eclectic series of dance bands than ever. Tomorrow at 7:30 PM it’s salsa pioneer and “El Rey de la Pachanga” Joe Quijano y Su Conjunto Cachana. It’ll cost you $17 to get out on the dance floor, something an awful lot of people last night were doing.

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June 27, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

This Year’s Midsummer Night Swing Festival Kicks Off on a Powerfully Relevant Note

Midsummer Night Swing is a New York rite of passage. Everybody does it at one time or another. It’s hard to think of a more romantic date night. Every year starting at the end of June, Lincoln Center rolls out a real dancefloor at the southwestern corner of the campus in Damrosch Park, where an eclectic series of bands serenade the dancers with everything from 30s big band swing to 20s hot jazz, salsa dura, and this year, even classic honkytonk. Not everybody dances; lots of folks just come out for the music, or to watch the spectacle. By Manhattan jazz club standards, admission is a real bargain at $17, and there are deals if you go to multiple shows, as many people do.

This Tuesday, June 26 at 7:30 PM is kickoff night with a monster all-female band assembled by Lincoln Center specially for this occasion. They take their inspiration from the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first integrated, all-female swing group. Trumpeter Bria Skonberg leads this multi-generational mix of allstar and rising star talent, which features Regina Carter on violin, Anat Cohen on clarinet and Champian Fulton on piano with Lakecia Benjamin, Sharel Cassity, Chloe Feoranzo, and Camille Thurman on saxes; Emily Asher on trombone; Linda Briceño and Jami Dauber also on trumpets; Endea Owens on bass and Savannah Harris on drums.

If you’re going there to listen, who among these artists should you single out? Pretty much all have them have gotten some ink here at one point or another. One of the most obvious choices is Anat Cohen, who turned in what was arguably the most riveting performance at last year’s Charlie Parker Festival with her epic, often hauntingly mysterious, klezmer-influenced tentet, testifying to her prowess in a big band setting.

On one hand, her latest album, Live in Healdsburg – streaming at Spotify and recorded in California a couple of years ago – is 180 degrees from that, a duo performance with the similarly lyrical Fred Hersch on piano. Yet in its own way, it’s just as lavish, an expansive, warmly conversational, vivid and unselfconsciously joyous collaboration.

Hersch opens the night’s first track, the aptly titled A Lark, with impressionistic, Debussy-esque belltones before Cohen gently dances in and then all of a sudden it’s a surreal update on ragtime. The push-pull between Cohen’s voice of reason and Hersch’s trickster is irresistibly fun, especially when the two switch roles and Cohen goes spiraling. Neither have ever glistened more than they do here.

Another Hersch number, Child’s Song is both more spaciously tender and tropical, giving Cohen a launching pad for her terse, crystalline, often balletesque lines, especially when Hersch mutes his insistent, pointillistic approach. Hersch begins the first Cohen tune here, The Purple Piece with a brooding austerity: it’s as far from over-the-top as you can get. Cohen maintains the bluesy bittersweetness with her aching melismas over an understated waltz rhythm, Hersch grounding it with his expressive neoromantic chords and occasional, more incisive shifts.

As they do with many of the songs here, they build from opacity to an understated swing and then playful, experimentation in a pretty radical remake of Isfahan. Then in in the last of the Hersch pieces, Lee’s Dream, they jump out of their shoes gracefully over a precise, distantly stride-influenced piano drive that bookends a flutteringly disorienting interlude.

From Hersch’s phantasmagorical intro to Cohen’s similarly canivalesque shifts between wistful blues and eerie microtones, the album’s most lavish number could be characterized as a haunting improvisation loosely based on Jimmy Rowles’ The Peacocks. Their approach to Fats Waller’s Jitterbug Waltz is similar if somewhat more flitting. They encore with a similarly individualistic version of Mood Indigo, Cohen’s low, meticulously somber approach lightened somewhat by Hersch’s spare, steady, glimmering architecture. There could be plenty of moments like this from a completely different crew on Tuesday night in the park.

June 23, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Rare Christmas Album That’s Not Cloying and Annoying

Christmas music rots your brain. It’s true! Scientific studies have confirmed what most of us have known all along. No wonder, considering how repetitive, unsophisticated and utterly lacking in dynamics most Christmas songs are.

Into this musical wasteland swings Champian Fulton, one of the great wits in jazz, with her irresistible and stunningly dynamic new album Christmas With Champian, streaming at Spotify. There hasn’t been a Christmas record this fun or this subtly irreverent since dub reggae band Super Hi-Fi’s two woozy instrumental albums of “holiday favorites.”

Fulton is the best singing pianist in jazz. There isn’t another instrumentalist out there with her mic skills, nor a singer with her fearsome chops at the keys. More than anything else, this is a great jazz record in a Santa hat. Fulton never ceases to find both poignancy and exuberant fun in the least expected places. For the latter, check out how she Sarah Vaughns White Christmas, the album’s opening track. Better watch out if you don’t want that snow, because Fulton sounds like she might smack you upside the head! It’s a good guess that Irving Berlin, who cut his teeth in ragtime, would approve of this jaunty, bluesy arrangement.

Fulton’s take of Pretty Paper, recast as a brisk jazz waltz, has to be the saddest version of the song ever recorded. That vendor girl, out there in the cold with all that merch she has to unload before the 25th of the month or she loses all her money! Likewise, the solo piano-and-vocal version of I’ll Be Home for Christmas is balmy and plaintive: when Fulton hits the end of the chorus, “if only in my dreams” packs a wallop.

Walking in a Winter Wonderland gets reinvented as wry viper swing, with some coyly emphatic trumpet from her dad, Stephen Fulton, who also lights up a carefully articulated version of Gracias a Dios. She sings that one in Spanish, hardly a stretch considering her Mexican heritage – and the point where she follows her dad’s solo with a deadpan jinglebell solo of her own is subtly priceless. Drummer Fukushi Tainaka’s elegant brushwork and David Williams’ terse bass add subtle bolero hints.

The Christmas Song – better known as Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire – is one of only a couple of tracks here with a genuine jazz pedigree, but Fulton goes for devious, tongue-in-cheek humor rather than trying to follow in Nat Cole’s footsteps.  She reinvents Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas as midtempo swing, with hints of Dinah Washington and an unexpectedly dark intro that edges toward barrelhouse.

Daughter and father team up to remake Christmas Time Is Here as a bittersweet, lustrous, languidly tropical instrumental ballad. Likewise, she transforms A Child Is Born into a bluesy waltz, with a melismatic, insistent bass solo. Her piano solo in a wee-hours take of The Christmas Waltz goes in the opposite direction, with enough droll ornamentation for a fifty-foot tree.

Her version of Sleigh Ride pairs a boisterous trumpet solo with an unexpectedly seductive vocal and teasingly allusive piano, an approach she revisits in Let It Snow. The Dinah-inspired piano-and-vocal final number, Merry Merry Christmas, is the only Fulton original here, but could easily date from sixty years ago – and might make it to your local supermarket someday.

December 16, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Entertainment and Formidable Piano Chops at an Unexpectedly Contemplative Spot with Champian Fulton

Champian Fulton brings a rare blend of daunting piano and vocal chops to the final nights of her indian summer Radegast Hall residency this Sept 18 at 8 PM. She’s also here on the 25th. Either way, it’s Monday, and it’s professional night, and while you might not expect people to come to listen, they do. Remember, every bar on a Monday could be the best bar in town.

Fulton’s latest album is The Things We Did Last Summer, a collaboration with suave tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton recorded live onstage in Spain last year and streaming at Spotify. It’s a mix of instrumental and vocal numbers, and despite the fact that it’s mostly standards, it’s arguably the high point of Fulton’s career so far. She makes solid studio albums – her all-instrumental collection, Speechless, is a party in a box – but both co-leaders do their best work onstage. More artists – particularly players who can improvise at the level the band reaches here – should be making live records.

Fulton’s subtle, tantalizingly melismatic vocals and entertaining stage presence are what she’s best known for, but she’s also a hell of a pianist. To open the album, she brings a moody been-there, done-that, know-your-pain feel to When Your Lover Has Gone, contrasting with a spacious, playfully jaunty, ragtime-tinged piano solo. Hamilton brings in the mist from there; Fulton really works the blue notes at the end.

The ten-plus minute take of Basie’s Black Velvet is a classic example of the kind of extended excursion Fulton excels at when the night is winding down, but she’s not ready to call it quits. Bassist Ignasi Gonzalez and drummer Esteve Pi settle into a comfortable midtempo stroll as Fulton winds her way up from gimlet-eye glimmer toward jubilation, Hamilton echoing her as he takes the long way in through the fog.

Fulton gets back on the mic with a barely restrained vengefulness for I Cried for You, which the band takes scampering, Gonzalez’ wry, brisk bass ballet contrasting with Fulton’s clenched-teeth attack on the keys. There’s a Sarah Vaughan-ish told-your-so quality to the vocals, but it’s not derivative.

The album’s instrumental title track brings back the wee-hours serenity, Hamilton plush and balmy over Fulton’s lingering phrases. Then the two offer contrast, floating sax against Fulton’s lowdown bluesy vocals and joyous staccato piano in Too Marvelous For Words.

Allusive, understated bluesy angst pervades an expansive vocal take of My Future Just Passed, this one closer to the Shirley Horn version. Then the band picks up the pace with the hot jazz standard Running Wild before going back to the “Great American Songbook” for a lush excursion through The Very Thought of You, Fulton ending the night with misty suspense that Hamilton works for all it’s worth before her fingers finally bust it through the clouds. It’s a good bet she’ll do something a lot like this during the Williamsburg stand.

For those in Jersey, she’s also at the Gruin Center for the Arts on College Drive on the Ocean County College campus in Toms River on Sept 19 at 8; tix are $24/$20 srs.

September 16, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Rare Brooklyn Residency By the Best Singing Pianist in Jazz

Lately there’s been a lot of top-drawer jazz popping up in some unexpected places. When Bar Lunatico in Bed-Stuy booked the Jazz Passengers for a weekly residency, that sent a signal. Likewise, the cavernous Williamsburg beer garden Radegast Hall books many of this city’s best swing bands, but it’s not known as a listening room – and if you’ve witnessed the din there on the weekend, you know why. But that’s not always the case.

This September, the venue has booked pianist/singer/composer Champian Fulton for a Monday night, 8 PM weekly residency that resumes September 18. If you’re a serious jazz fan and you’re on a budget – the venue doesn’t charge a cover – you’d be crazy to miss this. If Manhattan is easier for you, she’s also at Smoke on Sept 7 with sets at 7:30, 9 and 10:30. 

Watching her figure out where she was going to go, in a spit-second, pensive smile on her face a couple of weeks ago at her first night at the Brooklyn venue was great fun – and a revelation. Fulton is known as a singer. Dinah Washington is the obvious influence – Fulton’s 2016 album After Dark got a big thumbs-up here, as did her 2017 all-instrumental release, Speechless. The former is a subtle reinterpretation of songs that other chanteuses tend to mimic rather than putting their own stamp on. But while nuance is what distinguishes Fulton’s vocals, she’s got fire in her fingers. Not to disrespect Diana Krall’s piano chops, and Karrin Allyson is a much better pianist than she typically lets on, but there’s no other singer in jazz with chops as fast and fluid as Fulton’s  Nor is there a pianist with her speed and prowess who’s equally gifted on the mic.

Through almost a full two sets, she only played one instrumental, a percolating postbop shuffle to open the night – understandable considering that most of the acts here have vocalists. The rest of the set was mostly standards, which also makes sense considering where she was. It was what Fulton did with them that separates her from thousands and thousands of loungey acts around the world. For example, was she going to follow that snarkly little curlicue with another devious glissando? Yessssssss. Maybe one more time? Nope. She’d already moved on to a big hammering series of downward chords.

“Every gig is a good gig,” she mused between sets. Confident words – or just the daily routine for one of the great wits in jazz, who makes no secret how much fun she’s having onstage. Her rhythm section shuffled and swung tersely and tightly behind her as she made her way through one eclectic intro after another: hard blues into Bessie Smith’s After You’ve Gone, plaintive classical balladry into April in Paris. Then she’d take flight over the entire span of the keyboard, trickly highs to looming lows, slowly building to a crescendo and then back at times. Like her vocals, the musical jokes were subtle, but there were a lot of them, quotes from other tunes as well as unexpected peek-a-boo phrases and more. See for yourself next month.

August 29, 2017 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Ambitious, Spontaneously Fun New Instrumental Album by Champian Fulton

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.

March 3, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Champian Fulton Brings a Subtly Victorious Take on Dinah Washington to the West Village

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.

April 22, 2016 Posted by | blues music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment