New York City Jazz Record Artist Feature by Marilyn Lester
Pianist/vocalist Champian Fulton has, in her own words, reached a milestone in her career. She’s just released a new album, The Stylings of Champian, her 10th in a dozen years. That kind of output would be remarkable for any artist, but for this 33-year-old it’s tremendous; consider that she embarked on this path at 21, playing with the same band since age 19 (bassist Hide Tanaka, drummer Fukushi Tainaka and her trumpeter father Stephen Fulton). “I really wanted to record my first record by the age of 21,” she says, “because I felt that was really a time of growth and change for me, transitioning into an adult.”
Precociousness may be, in part, the result of being born into ideal circumstances. Her father has deep roots in the jazz world in both education and performance and encouraged his progeny. As her innate talent emerged Fulton became focused on jazz. It didn’t hurt, either, to have the likes of Clark Terry close by (her father co-managed Clark Terry Jazz Camps, Workshops and Festivals and was, for a time, Director of the Clark Terry International Institute of Jazz Studies at Westmar University in Iowa). When she was ten years old, Fulton played her first paid gig: Terry’s 75th birthday party.
“Clark had a huge impact on me in my formative years,” Fulton remembers. “He was never one to mince words and gave me plenty of helpful criticism, much that was beyond my comprehension at the time. He taught me a lot about stage presence, interacting with the audience on stage and off and, of course, a lot about the mechanics of music, from rhythm to breathing and even how to rehearse a band.” Terry also coached her on the business of jazz.
Talking about her band, Fulton recalls, “I first met Fuku while he was working with Lou Donaldson in 2002 and I loved his playing.” Shortly thereafter, Fulton moved to NYC. “I pestered him enough into hiring me for a gig, with Hide Tanaka on bass. We immediately felt like a band. We had similar musical sensibilities and ideas; it was easy to play together.” Fulton acknowledges that over the years each has grown and changed and that this growing and changing has been a great experience. “I think it’s a shame,” she says, “how so many people never have the same band for years, much less for more than 10 years, so you never get to really experience the changes that can happen in that relationship.”
Fulton has been working with her father since around 2000. He plays on 7 of the 14 tracks of The Stylings of Champian. She says, “the quartet number ‘Rodeo’ [composed by her father] is one of my favorites on this release.” The tunes, which feature varying ratios of playing to singing, fulfill Fulton’s goal of featuring the band on the tunes they love to play. “I think this record is a little more adventurous, a little less reined-in and a little more exciting because of that. It’s nice to just make a record where you can be yourself without any restrictions.”
Her heroes include many musicians and pianists, but she especially resonates to the influence of Red Garland and Erroll Garner, who caught her attention very early: “I just loved their block chords and their melodicism. Their musical statement is so clear, so precise—I think that really captures the listener.” In the realm of another personal experience with a living musician, Fulton remembers frequent visits to see Cedar Walton when she moved to New York City in 2003, recalling his good advice and helpfulness. “I saw him perform on my 18th birthday, with Jimmy Cobb and Buster Williams,” she says. “That was one of the best nights of my life.” She’s amused by a story told to her by Walton’s widow, Martha, about Walton trying to sit in with Duke Ellington in vain. This matched her experience with Walton. “I wanted to sit in on Cedar’s gigs and of course he wouldn’t let me because he was the piano player!” she laughs. “Evidently Cedar thought that was really amusing. You know, we both really wanted to play and be a part of the scene. I miss him all the time.”
Fulton is in the lineage of the notable singing pianists who preceded her yet she almost dropped singing to concentrate on piano. She sang as a child, but considered it just for fun. She would learn an entire record, songs and solos as a youngster. She recalls, “Clark Terry would get a big kick out of hearing me sing these songs and solos in the car or around the house.” Today, having made the decision to sing as well as play, Fulton still prefers piano—how much depending on her mood. “I’ve had gigs where I just wanted to play the piano, but never gigs where I just wanted to sing,” she declares. “I never much cared for only singing.” Her vocals are largely smooth and sophisticated. her phrasing superb and most of all, her instinct for jazz deeply part of her DNA.
Interestingly, Fulton didn’t gender-identify as that mimicking child. She didn’t care if the singer was male or female. That instinct has become a philosophy. “I don’t think about the music as it relates to gender,” she emphasizes. As to the notion of women in jazz, she bristles, looking beyond past and current advocacy to populate the genre with more female players. She is proud of what she she has accomplished as a performer and leader, citing the importance of the work despite gender, a conversation she hopes will soon end. “Why can’t I be categorized as any other male musician—a pianist, a singer, a bandleader?” she states emphatically. “Why must it always be that I am categorized as a ‘female’ pianist, a ‘female’ singer, a ‘female’ bandleader? I would love to see the day when being a woman in this music isn’t something odd or unusual, it’s just normal.”
On the horizon for Fulton is more of the same, plus a solid commitment to education (she’s been involved in programs such as Litchfield Jazz Camp and Rutgers Jazz Institute) and more touring. “I am so happy with the freedom and creativity I feel in my music and I want to focus on that and focus on playing more with my band,” she says. “I just want to keep playing.” ❖
For more information, visit champian.net. Fulton is at Blue Note Dec. 9th, Birdland Theater Dec. 23rd and Mezzrow Dec. 30th. See Calendar. See Calendar.
• Champian Fulton (with David Berger and The Sultans of Swing)—Champian (Such Sweet Thunder, 2007)
• Champian Fulton—Sometimes I’m Happy (Venus, 2010)
• Champian Fulton—The Breeze and I (Gut String, 2011)
• Champian Fulton—Change Partners (Live at The Yardbird Suite) (Cellar Live, 2014)
• Champian Fulton—Christmas with Champian (s/r, 2017)
• Champian Fulton/Scott Hamilton—The Things We Did Last Summer (Blau, 2017)