Beyond sheer entertainment, the point of the Sisterhood of Swing Seven show at Lincoln Center’s Midsummer Night Swing series this July 3 is to create a septet supergroup of some of the foremost women instrumentalists in jazz. That they chose Champian Fulton as the pianist is hardly a surprise. But they could just as easily have chosen her to be the singer. The rest of the group also has fearsome chops: Catherine Russell on vocals; Camille Thurman (another rarity, a first-rate singer and instrumentalist) on tenor sax; Emily Asher on trombone; Endea Owens on bass; Shirazette Tinnin on drums, and Molly Ryan on guitar. Showtime is 7:30 PM (you can show up for a dance lesson earlier if you want), it’s free to get into the park, $18 in advance for the dancefloor.
Fulton considers her latest album, the lavish two-disc set The Stylings of Champian Fulton (streaming at Spotify) to be the high point of her recording career so far. With her longtime rhythm section, Hide Tanaka on bass and Fukushi Tainaka (no relation) on drums, she brings her signature, subtle, stinging wit and sense of surprise to enliven a collection of familiar standards. Vocally, Dinah Washington (an artist she paid tribute to with her After Dark album) is the obvious influence), but Fulton’s range reaches both the calmer and sharper edges of where Washington would typically go.
There’s mist in Fulton’s voice on the opening track, Day by Day – but it’s the mist off a kettle on the stove. As with many of the songs, Fulton’s dad Stephen Fulton adds an amiable flugelhorn solo; his daughter’s rugged chordal intensity afterward is a typically counterintuitive move for her.
She takes the first verse of Lollipops and Roses solo, dead-serious, then the bass and drums kick in and the trio romp through to the end. The full quartet reinvent I Only Have Eyes For You as a deviously chuffing march and then swing it hard. The instrumental Blues Etude has an even more careening intensity; after that, they rein it in just a bit with I Didn’t Know What Time It Was, lit up by Fulton’s bluesy charm on the keys and contrastingly incisive vocals.
The elder Fulton’s ebullientce filters through the album’s second instrumental, Rodeo; the younger one plays with as much devious bluesiness as anywhere else on the record. She takes a similar purist approach to Darn that Dream, but at half the speed, with a more coyly exploratory touch.
Borrowing a more upbeat love song from the past, Too Marvelous For Words perfectly crystallizes what she’s all about: matter-of-fact, unselfconsciously adrenalizing crescendos matched to vocal nuance. The first cd winds up with a brief, balmy bass-and-vocal take of Body and Soul, .
The second record kicks off with a Isn’t It a Lovely Day, the bandleader catching the subtle irony in the lyrics but then contrasting with a cheerily crescendoing piano solo. The band scrambles frantically behind her casually brassy vocal in a lickety-split version You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To – it’s doubtful if anybody’s ever done it so fast, or with a Chopin riff tossed into the piano solo. In context, the feral, jungly drum solo is the icing on the cake.
The instrumental Martha’s Prize has a brisk, incisive, latin-tinged swing. She does the country-flavored Lonesome and Sorry as a jazz waltz, while All the Things You Are swings through a leapfrogging drum break to a fiery latin vamp out. On one hand, all this is as retro as it gets. On the other, Fulton’s knowing vocals and improvisational flair are as cutting-edge as anything happening in the avant garde. To paraphrase JD Allen,, sometimes the most radical thing you can do these days is swing.