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.
West Coast jazz singer Whitney James’ debut cd is auspicious because she sings nonstandard repertoire, she’s got a great band behind her, she embraces the role of band member rather than just having the other musicians back her up, and most importantly, she knows that less is more. Her voice recalls early 70s singers like Marilyn McCoo and Valerie Simpson, who made their careers in soul music using jazz chops. Yet James also bears some resemblance, if not timbre-wise, to another very popular singer, namely Karrin Allyson. James doesn’t go for Allyson’s fox-in-the-icehouse delivery, but like Allyson, she doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve. When she’s at the top of her game she draws you in with her clear, vibratoless, sometimes subtly cajoling, sometimes distantly rueful style. That explains why she gets away with what she does here when she covers material that’s been done before by jazz sirens with bigger voices and bigger names. Alongsider her, pianist Joshua Wolff, bassist Matt Clohesy and drummer Jon Wikan work the corners for subtleties, with Ingrid Jensen adding characteristically terse, rich color, on trumpet and flugelhorn on five of the tracks.
James puts her own subtle (some might say tender) stamp on Tenderly, rather than trying to mimic the iconic Sarah Vaughan version – Jensen is there right off the bat with a smoky/steamy trumpet intro. Whisper Not was a hit for both Ella Fitzgerald and Anita O’Day; here, James and the bass play a carefree game of tag until the swing kicks in. Then Jensen takes a sailing, breezily bluesy solo into a suspenseful spy movie-style bass/drums vamp out of which James bursts unexpectedly with a minor arpeggio. When you think about it, all the great jazz singers basically do horn lines, and that’s exactly what she’s up to here and elsewhere. Although on the intricate, expansive version of the obscure A Timeless Place (The Peacocks), she sings what’s essentially a righthand piano melody against Wolff’s expansiveness and gracefully terse, almost rubato accents by the rest of the band.
Long Ago and Far Away (Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin) was written for a man’s voice; the interpretation here is closer to Billie Holiday, James so comfortable over the bass and drums early on that when Wolff good-naturedly jumps in, the effect is startling. Abbey Lincoln’s My Love Is You hints at flying off the tarmac, suspensefully, with a neat bass solo; The Very Thought of You counterintuitively gets a dreamy ballad arrangement with romantic muted trumpet. Irving Berlin’s How Deep Is the Ocean gets a psychedelically percussive intro before it goes straight up into the air, as high and far as James and the band can take it. Then Wolff and James take it back down again with what might be the strongest song here, the vividly world-weary obscurity Be Anything. The only misstep on the album is In April, and not because the band does a bad job with Bill Evans’ tune, but because Roger Schore’s lyric has not aged well and at this point in history comes across as rather sexist. James recorded the album in Brooklyn, so a return trip shouldn’t be out of the question: watch this space.