Pianist and vocalist Champian Fulton returns to the show to discuss her 10th album, The Stylings of Champian. In this interview, Champian talks about her very busy touring schedule and how she maintains it; the band reunion that led to the new album; her approach to selecting repertoire; and more. Learn more and find tour dates at http://www.champian.net/, and listen to her previous appearance on The Jazz Session here.
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“[Champian’s] voice is a little bit of heaven here on earth. Subservient to each song (as it should be), she takes lyrics and makes them all into one-act vignettes, believable, honest, imbued with a veracity that transcends the art of vocalese into a kind of personal communication that will resonate deep in your soul. “ Mike Greenblatt for “The Aquarian”
“I think I’ve finally put my finger on what it is that I find so entrancing about Champian Fulton’s artistry: it’s how she manages, against all odds, to be so many things at once. Her vocal style is a unique amalgamation of the straight-ahead and the experimental, alternately declamatory and lyrical, off-beat and swinging, devoted to the song itself and determined to express her uniqueness–imagine listening simultaneously to Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone singing the same song, and you’ll get a general idea of what I’m talking about. There are very few singers who can make hoary standards like “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” and “Body and Soul” entirely their own, and she is one of them. But then there’s her piano playing, which is every bit as playfully inventive and rhythmically surprising as her singing, while at the same time swinging so powerfully that it’s hard to sit still while listening. On her latest album she leads a brilliant trio that includes bassist Hide Tanaka and drummer Fukushi Tainaka, with her father Stephen on flugelhorn for several tracks as well. The program is all standards, with a focus on tunes by Oscar Peterson and Cedar Walton, and there’s not a weak track to be heard. Yet again, she delivers an essential purchase for all jazz collections.” - CD Hot List
Dan McLenaghan for All About Jazz
“Pianist/vocalist Champian Fulton may be the most charming person in the world. Even a short sip of her extensive internet presence (especially YouTube, with performances and interviews) reveals an artist who radiates the joy of creation with a luminescent personality. Her music reflects that personality, and—like the sounds of of Bud Powell and Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong—it lifts the spirit high.
And swing? Like the best of them.
The Stylings of Champian is Fulton's tenth album—a two disc, eighty-five minute exploration of the time-tested Great American Songbook tunes and jazz standards.
Listening to the disc's opener, the much-covered "Day By Day," it's hard to believe that, early on in her career, Fulton considered dropping the vocal side of her artistry to concentrate on her piano playing. But that didn't happen, and "Day By Day" says that's a very good thing. Supremely assured, she has developed a clean and precise articulation combined with exquisite phrasing.
"Lollipops and Roses" is not a song you'll encounter everyday in the jazz experience. The lyrics are advice for dealing with a temperamental woman. Fulton imparts this guidance with such good humor and grace (The Champian Charm) that it could be the set's highlight. And throw in a superb and concise piano solo.
With eighty-five minutes, there is plenty of room for instrumentals: A terrific take on Oscar Peterson's "Blues Etude," along with "Rodeo," from the pen of her father, Stephen Fulton, who sits in of flugelhorn on seven of the disc's fourteen tunes; and an ebullient rendition of Cedar Walton's "Martha's Place," and a high-energy take on "All The Things You Are," featuring Fulton cooking over a high flame with his flugelhorn.
Another highlight: "Body and Soul," with a phantasmal and fluid bass/vocal duet from Hide Tanka and Fulton.” - Dan McClenaghan for All About Jazz
“the high point of Champian’s career so far…..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.” - New York Music Daily
“Her vocals are largely smooth and sophisticated. her phrasing superb and most of all, her instinct for jazz deeply part of her DNA. “ Marilyn Lester, NYC Jazz Record
“There's a lot of experience in her voice, which is flecked with Blossom Dearie's casual sophistication and hip intimacy. A bit of Billie Holiday and Betty Carter note-bending as well. “ - Mark Myers, JazzWax.com
“Fulton’s delightful piano is highlighted on “Martha’s Prise” and “Blues Etude”. Her place in any contemporary list of great vocalists is secured by her interpretations of the clever “Lollipops and Roses”, and “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.” -Joe Bebco for the Syncopated Times
“A voice with a youthful freshness and a perfectly mastered phrasing allow her to develop with a natural line of singing with a beautiful scale. This is particularly apparent in her way of detailing with a consummate sense of interpretation and an obvious artistic maturity the melody of Darn That Dream on slow tempo. More than a welcome addition to her singing, her energetic piano playing swings with naturalness and brilliance. Obviously, Champian Fulton caught the best while listening to the great keyboard masters Bud Powell, Red Garland, Wynton Kelly and Erroll Garner. Her line up, Hide Tanaka (double bass), Fukushi Tainaka (drums) and Stephen Fulton (bugle), the latter on some titles, do a remarkable job.” - CouleursJazz
"The Stylings of Champian" is a treat from start-to-finish, filled with strong songs and excellent musicianship. Champian Fulton is both a delightful pianist and an evocative, assured, singer, never just "going through the motions" to show off her "chops" but making each song her own. This, her 10th album, is well worth exploring and enjoying!” Step Tempest
“The Stylings of Champian, a two-disc set of standards perfectly suited to her lilting voice and classic jazz sound…Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart never sounded happier.” Suzanne Lorge, New York City Jazz Record
“a bluesy singing style with relaxed phrasing and a swinging delivery. 3.5 Stars” Scott Yanow, Downbeat
“The Stylings of Champian” was named in the Top 5 Vocal Releases of 2019 in the NYC Jazz Record alongside Cecile McLorin Salvant, Cyrille Aimee and Kat Edmonson.
Ken Dryden for the NYC Jazz Record (February 2019)
It’s hard not to admire an artist like Champian Fulton. Immersed in jazz through her father, jazz educator Stephen Fulton, she was already singing in public at a tender age. While her jazz education at SUNY Purchase was dominated by piano with the demanding Hal Galper as her instructor, she vowed to pursue both singing and playing piano. She’s a self-starter as well, as she has been a leader from day one of her career. This two-CD set is unusual: Disc One has around 55 minutes of music yet Disc Two has only 28; since it is priced like a single CD, think of it as a bonus disc. Her trio with bassist Hide Tanaka and drummer Fukushi Tainaka has been together since 2004 and her father guests on several tracks playing flugelhorn. Most of the album is devoted to familiar standards, but Fulton finds fresh ways to approach many of them.
Her striking vocals float over a swinging take of Harry Warren-Al Dubin’s “I Only Have Eyes For You”, spiced by her father’s Clark Terry-flavored solo. The leader’s bop chops are prominent in the brisk setting of Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein’s “All The Things You Are” while Buster Williams’ hip arrangement of Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart’s “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” and a dramatic interpretation of the often recorded Johnny Green-Edward Heyman-Robert Sour- Frank Eyton standard “Body And Soul” (accompanied only by inventive bass) are ample proof of her willingness to take chances.
There are some surprises as well, such as her romp through Oscar Peterson’s “Blues Etude” and soulful setting of Cedar Walton’s lesser-known “Martha’s Prize”. It’s easy to understand how she has grown a loyal fan base with outstanding efforts like this release.
“Fulton has a small voice and there are times I’m reminded of Carmen McRae, Patty Waters and even Slim Gaillard. Having written that—no one would mistake her for any one of them. She takes liberties with lyrics, stretches out lines and at a moments notice changes tempos. She is fine pianist and the rest of the rhythm section is fluid and totally in the spirit and on top of things. On about half of the 14 titles, Stephen Fulton joins the trio on flugelhorn to great advantage. He is obviously influenced by Clark Terry and that bubbly sound is welcome to these already wondrous sounds.” - Cadence Magazine
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)