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.
Trombonist/singer Frank Lacy is the extrovert star of the Mingus bands. He also leads his own groups. His latest album, Live at Smalls captures him with an inspired, straight-ahead postbop band – Josh Evans on trumpet, Stacy Dillard on tenor sax, Theo Hill on piano, Rashaan Carter on bass and Kush Abadey, this unit’s not-so-secret weapon, on drums – on parts of two hot nights in mid-October, 2012 on their home turf. Lacy can be much more avant garde than he is here: this is a showcase for lively interplay, pitch-and-follow and blazing gutbucket jazz-lounge entertainment. You can feel the heat: Ben Rubin’s engineering on this record puts you right there in the room. They celebrate the album’s release at the club on May 6 at 10:30 PM; cover is $20 which includes a beverage.
For Lacy, this is more of a showcase for leading a band than it is for blazing solos (after all, he can do that anytime he wants). And he’s a generous leader: the two most electrifying solos on the album belong to Evans – choosing his spots up to a series of wickedly rapidfire spirals on a steady, briskly strolling take of Charles Fambrough’s Alicia – and Dillard, soaring and sliding and throwing in some shivery doublestops on soprano sax on Lacy’s own gospel-infleced Spirit Monitor. Lacy also gives a characteristically witty clinic in how to pull the band out of a lull a little earlier during that tune.
Lacy’s also a distinctive singer, with a gritty falsetto that’s just as powerful as his lower register. It’s too bad that there’s only one vocal number here, Carolyn’s Dance, a series of long crescendos for the band members as Abadey rides the traps with all sorts of neat, unexpected jabs and crashes.
Dilllard’s boisterous bluesiness contrasts with Lacy’s more judicious attack on the summery, funky sway of Joe Bonner’s Sunbath. Lacy’s opening track, Stranded, works a catchy, chromatically-charged altered latin groove up to a tireless swing, a launching pad for everybody in the band. They follow that with a lustrous take of George Cables’ bossa-tinged Think on Me. They wind up the album with a good choice of closer, Freddie Hubbard’s The Intrepid Fox where Evans predictably gets called on to deliver the firepower and makes it look easy as the band swings it breathlessly. It’s surprising that more venues don’t do what Smalls does, recording all their shows (they have a subscription service for that) and releasing the creme de la creme on their Smalls Live label. Then again, Smalls takes the idea of community more seriously than most venues.