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.
Intense but not overbearing, richly melodic, rhythmically surprising yet extremely accessible, saxophonist Benjamin Drazen’s new album Inner Flights is smartly titled. Beneath the surface calm, there’s an inner fire – he’s one of those guys like JD Allen who chooses his spots. Drazen likes a clear tone with a judicious vibrato to drive a point home occasionally. While he typically favors restraint in his phrasing, pianist Jon Davis gets to absolutely scorch here, blazing through one tricky, ferocious chart after another, alongside Carlo de Rosa on bass and Eric McPherson on drums. This isn’t just one of the most fascinating jazz albums of the year, it’s one of the most fascinating albums of the year, period.
They get off to a briskly tuneful start with a somewhat altered swing blues, Mr. Twilight – a Mr. Moonlight allusion, it seems – with Davis taking no time launching into a rapidfire solo, echoes of Kenny Barron, Drazen on alto. Monkish comes together slowly, hints at swing and then goes there. It’s an unselfconsciously fun, wry evocation of Monk in a more devious moment, Drazen in airy Phil Woods mode without totally ripping him off, Davis once again getting some delicious charts, including some neat tradeoffs with the drums, and makes the most of them. The requiem Prayer for Brothers Gone By opens with Drazen pensive and somewhat apprehensive over rippling piano and low bowed bass, moves further from the center as each instrument reflects a second time around, then becomes a tone poem of sorts, winding down gracefully with upper-register cascades from Davis. By contrast, Jazz Heaven is a crisp, deviously syncopated swing tune, Drazen buoyantly playful, Davis following in the same vein. Building off a dark, incisive staccato piano hook, the title track is where Drazen and Davis switch roles, the sax cutting loose more here than anywhere else – when Drazen spirals down into a gritty modal atmosphere, the effect is viscerally intense. As it winds out, Drazen overdubs a sax section that eventually flutters to an unexpectedly elegant landing.
The warmly nostalgic Neeney’s Waltz updates Willard Robison-style Americana for a new century, while Kickin’ Up Dirt, an absolute gem, shifts from rubato piano glimmer to relaxed syncopated sway, distantly mysteriouso modalities, hints of a jazz waltz and then a real one: it’s a clinic in how to write allusively. There are also two covers here, a staggered, scurrying version of Gershwin’s This Is New, Drazen kicking up some dust along the shoulder of the blues road, and an expansively deconstructed and then reconstructed version of Polka Dots and Moonbeams, everybody taking their time. Watch for this on our Best Albums of 2011 list. It’s out now on Posi-tone.
Trumpeter and Ray Charles alum Jim Rotondi’s new album 1000 Rainbows is a brisk, no-nonsense romp through a mix of strong, memorable themes that an inspired cast – Joe Locke on vibraphone, Danny Grissett on piano, Barak Mori on bass and Bill Stewart on drums – lock onto and charge through with gusto. The opening track, Bizarro World moves from a rumble to a scamper and back and then fades out. A cover of the Beatles’ We Can Work It Out is completely disguised until the verse kicks in, the band messing with the time signature – it would be cool to see what they could do with Penny Lane. Locke takes a long chilly glasses-clinking solo, Rotondi takes his time and goes a little bluesy, then takes it up for Grissett to chill it out again.
An original, One for Felix has Rotondi opening it pensively, then Locke comes slinking in and has the room spinning in seconds flat, Grissett following in a similar vein. The title track, a Bobby Montgomery composition, has piano and bass locking into a hypnotic bossa-tinged groove, Rotondi in tandem with the vibes and then taking a couple of absolutely gorgeous strolls down to the lower registers followed by a pointillistic Locke excursion. Locke’s composition Crescent Street isn’t a New Orleans piece but instead a straight-up swing joint that motors along with some potently rapidfire playing by its author, Rotondi taking his energy level up as well. A bluesy One for My Baby-style ballad, Born to Be Blue gives Rotondi a long, comfortable and expressive solo followed with a wink and a grin by Grissett, who eventually sounds “last call,” Rotondi returning for one more after a long time at the bar. There are also two scampering swing numbers: Rotondi’s Gravitude, where Mori and Grissett push the beat as hard and fast as they can without leaving the rest of the crew in the dust, and an ebulliently bustling take on Bill Mobley’s 49th St. as well as the impressively vivid, almost rubato Not Like That, a conversation between Rotondi’s wistful horn and Locke’s otherworldly, reverberating chords. The album is out now on Posi-Tone. Rotondi’s next NYC appearance is a two-night stand with his quartet featuring Antonio Hart at Smoke on Sept. 3 and 4 at 8 PM.
Trigonometry. Just the word alone makes you shake your head. Seriously – how many of you remember any of that stuff? That’s the title of composer/alto saxophonist Jacam Manricks’ new album – and you mustn’t let it scare you off. Manricks vaulted into the uppermost echelon of jazz composers with his lushly orchestrated big band masterpiece, Labyrinth, last year. This one reduces the forty-piece orchestra to just a sextet, with hardly any loss of volume, trading sweep and majesty for melody, terseness and a jazz vibe that’s considerably more classic than classical. In addition to new compositions, there are three intriguingly rearranged cuts from Labyrinth here, along with an imperturbably fluttering cover of Eric Dolphy’s Miss Ann. Manricks – who steps out much more here than he did on Labyrinth, with great success – joins a cast that includes pianist Gary Versace, bassist Joe Martin, drummer Obed Calvaire, trombonist Alan Ferber and trumpeter Scott Wendholt.
The title track takes a funky late 70s Weather Report style riff and makes it purist and retro, Manricks buoyant against Calvaire’s aggression, then more expansive later on. The tongue-in-cheek Cluster Funk builds from similar riffage to a modally-charged simmer, Wenholdt and then Manricks bracingly warping in and out. Slippery, the third track, is a swing number: the sax pushes against the blues, against terse block chords from Versace, and the blues push back. And finally Manricks lets them in
Nucleus makes a big beautiful golden-age style ensemble piece out of a vivid latin-tinged melody a la late 50s Miles, followed by the pulsing, shapeshifting, aptly titled Sketch. The best song on the album, Mood Swing is a deliciously ominous, modal nocturne with masterful touches from Versace at the uppermost registers, echoed at the opposite end from Calvaire against distantly menacing sax. Versace really takes hold and owns this one, from his glimmery, insistent, deceptive chordal work (very Neil Shah-style), to an expressionistic solo. The stripped-down version of Labyrinth here shares that same eerie prismatic glow, Versace’s ultraviolet ambience again the highlight. Of the two final Labyrinthine tunes, Combat downplays the heavy Ravel influence of the orchestrated version in favor of wistful bluesy tints; Micro-Gravity, on the other hand, reaches for the Catalan majesty of the original and hits a bullseye. Yet another great new album from the Posi-Tone label. Manricks plays the cd release show on July 30 at the Cornelia St. Cafe at 10:30 PM.