Champian Fulton Reinvents Charlie Parker with Her Usual Purist Style and Sense of Humor
Champian Fulton made a mark as a purist, Dinah Washington-influenced singer while still in her teens, but in the years since she’s developed piano chops to match that erudite sensibility. There is no other artist in jazz with as much mastery of both the mic and the 88s. Until the lockdown, she maintained a punishing tour schedule, continuing to release albums at a steady clip. Her latest one, Birdsong – a celebration of the Charlie Parker centennial, streaming at Bandcamp – is a logical step in the career of an artist who approaches jazz as entertainment and never stops pushing herself. It’s a mix of vocal and instrumental numbers, more of them associated with Bird than actual Parker compositions.
As usual, Fulton takes a painterly approach, parsing the lyrics line by line. The take of Just Friends, shifting subtly from a jazz waltz to balmy swing, is a good choice of opener. As silky and expressive as her vocals are, her jaunty Errol Garner-ish piano solo is even more adrenalizing.
Fulton chooses her accomplices well. With his smoky tone and uncluttered melodicism, tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton is a perfect fit, and Fulton’s longtime rhythm section of bassist Hide Tanaka and drummer Fukushi Tainaka (no relation) provide an aptly spring-loaded, low-key groove.
Her trumpeter dad Stephen Fulton harmonizes and then offers a mix of carbonation and restraint in a tightly bouncing version of Yardbird Suite. Hamilton matches the frontwoman’s balmy vocals in This Is Always; her droll ornamentation at the keys is irresistibly funny.
Star Eyes is a vehicle for Fulton’s command of a familiar Washington trope, going from mist to bite in barely the space of a syllable. The brightly swinging piano trio version of Quasimodo captures the bandleader in a particularly determined mood and gives the rhythm section a chance to stretch out. Then the three pick up the pace with a breakneck instrumental take of All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm.
Hamilton’s spacious solo makes an apt centerpiece in a midtempo swing version of Dearly Beloved. The decision to approach Out of Nowhere as loose-limbed tropicalia pays off, especially for the rhythm section. The band revert to strolling swing with If I Should Lose You, Hamilton’s most acerbic solo here handing off to the elder Fulton’s Satchmo-influenced lines and a coyly triumphant solo from the younger one.
The best version of My Old Flame may be by Spike Jones: Fulton creates nebulous wee-hours atmosphere with it. The whole band close the record with a comfortably conversational Bluebird. If you like the originals, there’s plenty more entertainment here.