Champian Fulton – Birdsong
(Champian Records CR003. CD Review by Leonard Weinreich)
Pianist-singer Champian Fulton’s birth in Norman, Oklahoma, was – according to this album’s sleeve notes – accompanied by the sound of the ‘Charlie Parker With Strings’ album, from a cassette recording conveniently provided by her dad – flugelhorn-playing ‘Bird’ fan, Stephen Fulton.
If this unusual gesture was an experiment in preordination, it seems to have worked. Some years later, the infant Champian emerged as the accomplished Ms Fulton, garnering a clutch of critical awards to prove it. And now, in 2020, to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Titan of Kansas City, her 12th album release focuses solely on themes recorded by Bird during his tragically brief yet productive life.
Even seven decades after the controversial event, the ‘with strings’ sessions divide Parker fans, but nearly everyone is aware that Klenner and Lewis’s ‘Just Friends’ was Bird’s preferred favourite. Attempting a mood of heightened sensuality in her arrangements, Fulton unconventionally opts for languid tempi, her vocal delivery displaying stylistic nuances of Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae and her piano-playing influenced by Erroll Garner. Tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton, recording with her for the first time, solos in the manner of a restrained Ben Webster.
With two sets of lyrics to choose from – Carmen McRae or Eddie Jefferson – it’s slightly disappointing there’s no vocal offered in Bird’s own, lyrical Yardbird Suite, though Stephen Fulton (dad, and also the album’s producer) runs through the changes in the lower range of the flugelhorn. On Warren and Gordon’s This Is Always, Hamilton’s breathy obbligato is a fine match for Champian Fulton’s breathy vocal; and on Raye and de Paul’s Star Eyes, distant echoes of Blossom Dearie’s voice and Wynton Kelly’s piano can be heard. Fulton digs into the keyboard for Quasimodo, Parker’s lyrical reworking of the Gershwins’ Embraceable You, with unflagging support from both Hide Tanaka and Fukushi Tainaka on bass and drums respectively.
Kahn, Jurmann and Kaper’s All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm – a favourite with all the boppers – stretches Fulton’s chops, where long melodic runs are interspersed with block chords at an exceedingly brisk pace. Mercer and Kern’s Dearly Beloved, introduced by Fred Astaire in the 1942 movie ‘You Were Never Lovelier’, features a vocal which replaces sentimentality with huskiness, alongside Hamilton’s simmering tenor workout by way of quotes from ‘Three Little Words’ and ‘Fascinating Rhythm’. Green and Heyman’s Out of Nowhere begins with Fulton whispering over Tanaka’s sonorous bass until she allows the piano a tinkling entrance before Hamilton’s unctuous solo reading and an exploration by Stephen Fulton’s flugel. If I Should Lose You, by Rainger and Robin, is another selection from the ‘with strings’ album, with solos from all. Coslow and Midnight’s My Old Flame is performed at a tempo that (to quote master thriller author Len Deighton) ‘allows the piano player to go out and wash hands between chords’, with pleasant tenor ramblings from Hamilton. Finally, Bird’s Bluebird, the sole blues on the album, allows everyone to air their 12-bar shtick.
If you’re seeking appropriate accompaniment to a tête-à-tête moment (though, perhaps, not giving birth…), it’s worth knowing that the right, intimate album is within reach.