Mondays With Morgan: Pianist/Vocalist Champian Fulton (new album ‘Meet Me at Birdland’)

Mondays With Morgan is a new column in London Jazz News written by Morgan Enos, a music journalist based in Hackensack, New Jersey. He will be diving deeply into the jazz that moves him — his main focus being the scene in nearby New York City.

This week, Enos spoke with the Champian Fulton, a revered pianist and vocalist in New York City who just released her new album, Meet Me at Birdland. Purchase links below.

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Champian Fulton. Photo credit: Leslie Farinacci

For a well-regarded jazz musician, an album with Birdland in the title should be self-explanatory: here we are with a live, intimate recording at the hallowed New York City club — full stop.

But for singer and pianist Champian Fulton, the room isn’t just a room. On her new album, Meet Me at Birdland — released April 7 — it’s a distinct and potent presence, an instrument all its own.

From the hearty welcome by club owner Gianni Valenti to the room’s particular acoustics to the livewire feedback between Fulton’s trio and audience, Birdland is a collaborator unto itself — one absolutely vital to the operation. 

The Jazz Corner of the World’s prestige alone could have made it so. But Fulton has enjoyed a profound history here.

“That’s where I saw Lou Donaldson. I used to see Frank Wess. I saw Paul Motian; I played with Paul Motian there,” Fulton tells LondonJazz News of the seminal saxophonists and drummer. But those formative experiences comprised just one part of her 20-year history with Birdland. 

At the 44th Street landmark, Fulton and her primary accompanists — bassist Hide Tanaka and drummer Fukushi Tainaka — have continually honed their artistry. And these inspired performances of tunes from “Too Marvelous for Words” to “Just Friends” to “I Only Have Eyes For You” bear witness to Fulton’s ongoing evolution.

All in all, Meet Me at Birdland represents something of a culmination, as per the communion between these musicians — and the space where they’ve long held court. 

In this interview, Fulton explains her history with Birdland, her rapport with her bandmates, and how she’s healthily maintained her vaunted position in the New York scene for two decades.

LondonJazz News: How did you forge your relationship with Birdland?

Champian Fulton: Well, it’s a funny story. When I came to town in ‘03, I was 17 still. My birthday’s in September; I came in August. Birdland was one of the first clubs I went to. I went to see Buster Williams, and I talked to everybody: [Affects naïve tone] “Ooh, I’m Champian! I just moved here from Oklahoma!”

Back then, the manager’s name was Tariq. He works at Smoke [Jazz Club in Manhattan] now. Tariq was like, “Oh, yeah, you play piano! That’s cool!” That night, he was like, “You know, we need somebody to play happy hour from six to eight. Can you do it? I was like [Confidently] Yes.[Laughs]

So, I started doing that, and the greatest thing about that gig was: I got to know everybody, and I could go at any time and just be there.

LJN: What made Birdland different from the other spots you played at?

CF: Well, all the awesome shows I saw there. I didn’t have a ton of money, because I had just moved to town, and I had no gigs, and I was in school. But I could go to Birdland any time I wanted. I saw Oscar Peterson; I saw João Bosco…

LJN: You saw Oscar?!

CF: I did. The year he passed [in 2007]. He really wasn’t well; he was crippled, with one hand, and he was in a wheelchair. When Gianni had him at Birdland, it was a huge deal. Tickets were, like, $200 in the front row, $100 at the bar, and there was a line around the block. 

I think I didn’t play that week. because it was his special Bosendorfer and he didn’t want anyone else to play it. With one hand, he could outplay many people. He was super-swinging; they played great tunes, and it was a great band. To be honest, I cried.

LJN: Twenty years later, this is your first album recorded at Birdland. Why was now the time?

CF: So, my very first record, Champian Fulton with David Berger and the Sultans of Swing — that was a big-band record; that came out in 2007. It was a studio record, but it came about because we were playing every Tuesday at Birdland. We did the CD release at Birdland, but it wasn’t recorded at Birdland.

This came about because I had it in my mind that I wanted to a live record with this band. It seems like an obvious choice, and for some reason, I thought Gianni was going to say no. I don’t know why! And then he was like, “No, OK, that’s a good idea. Let’s do it.” I was like, “Wait, really? Did you say yes? I guess we’re doing it!” [Laughs.] It was just a wild idea; I get wild ideas.

LJN: Why would he say no?

CF: I don’t know why he would say no! 

I guess, to me, Live at Birdland, I think of Lou Donaldson and Clifford Brown. I think of [singer] Joe Williams. I think of the Count Basie band in the ‘50s. I think of my ultimate heroes — the ultimate classic records, the ultimate important records. And I think the idea of adding myself to that list of things made me think maybe he was going to say no. But he didn’t.

I told Lou about it; I was really excited. I was like [eagerly] “Lou! I’m going to make a Live at Birdland album like you and Clifford and Art Blakey!”

LJN: No matter how many times the venue has relocated, the brand still carries tremendous weight.

CF: Yeah, and I think it should. For me, it felt like a monumental event.

LJN: What do you enjoy about the physics of the room? How’s it sound on stage?

CF: So, this is in the downstairs theater. Downstairs, the sound is great. We like to play very acoustic, and I like to be able to control the volume and dynamics of the band. In that room, it’s really easy. The piano’s super nice. The vibe of the room is very warm, and there’s not a bad vantage point.

Upstairs, it’s so big, and when you’re me, you’ve got people behind you and [gestures in all directions] over there, and over there. You feel like you’re in this stadium. Downstairs has a much more intimate feel.

Champian Fulton, London, 2016. Photo credit Melody McLaren

LJN: As a pianist, you’ve been compared to Erroll Garner. And this record certainly has that rough-and-tumble, boogie-woogie feeling, which I don’t hear from very many other artists. Meet Me at Birdland feels like a consolidation of that approach, a love letter to that feeling.

CF: That feeling also has a lot to do with the band. 

We’ve been playing together since 2004, and I really feel like I’ve developed myself with them, and we’ve developed together. And in our live shows, we really like to — I don’t want to say show that off, but we feel free with the repertoire. I feel that Fuku and Hide can follow me anywhere I go, and I can follow them where they go.

It gives this really nice feeling when you’re playing, and that was one [impetus] to make a live record. I really wanted to document that with this band, because it’s totally different than the studio and the other live records that I have.

LJN: It also feels like a counterweight to the vibe of Live from Lockdown, a very interior record — for obvious reasons.

CF: I went into this record with the mindset that it was very celebratory for me. To celebrate my band, to celebrate Birdland, to celebrate 20 years in New York. To celebrate my successes in a more artistic sense than a commercial sense.

Because I think it’s really important. I was talking to a lot of my friends this week about this: we work so hard, and we’re always, as we would say, scuffling for a gig — always trying. 

I think very rarely do we sit back and go, “Wow, that’s good! I did a good thing, and I should feel some satisfaction or contentment from that.” I went into this project wanting to have that feeling.

LJN: Tell me what you appreciate about Hide Tanaka as a bassist.

CF: He has sort of a more amp-y sound — a ‘70s, Buster Williams or Ron Carter sound that I personally really love. That, these days, I feel is not too popular in the music, because a lot of guys want to play on gut strings and have a really acoustic sound. 

I also love that! I love Paul Chambers; I love Sam Jones. But I kind of like that ‘70s feeling. A lot of my favorite records are from that time period, on Pablo. We have these amazing musicians that are super-swinging, but also harmonically and conceptually a little bit looser. It’s not like a swing record. We can branch out.

Kind of like what I was talking about with Thad Jones (link to interview). That’s what I want. He comes out of Basie, and he comes out of that generation of super-swinging, traditional values regarding the music. But then, he wants to go to a few new places harmonically, but while always super-swinging.

That’s what I love about Hide, and also about Fuku, and the three of us together.

LJN: And what would you like to express about Fukushi Tainaka and his drumming acumen?

CF: I love his drumming. I think he’s one of the best drummers for those reasons right now, because he’s so swinging but he’s not overly married to preconceived notions. 

Which happens with a tune like “Evenin’,” from a Count Basie record from 1936. It’s one of the first Lester Young recordings. So, you tell people, “OK, we’re going to play ‘Evenin’,’ and it’s from Basie,” and they automatically think of this little artistic box. Fuku’s not like that. He’s like, “I’m going to play ‘Evenin’’ like me.” That’s one of the things I love so much.

Also, he’s just so swingin’, and I love his cymbal sound. I think the recording quality really highlights his sound on this record; I’m happy about that.

LJN: You have such a fount of material to draw from. How did you curate this selection of tunes?

CF: We didn’t have a plan. There’s no setlist. We did four nights, and we recorded three of them. We did Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. 

I had a few tunes that I thought would be good on the record. I really wanted to have “Just Friends” on there, because I wanted a live version of “Just Friends.” I really wanted “I Don’t Care” on there, because it’s one of our favorite tunes to play, and we hadn’t recorded it. I really wanted a live version of “I Only Have Eyes For You.”

But other than that, we didn’t have a plan. We just played tunes we liked to play at the time. I would say, “What do you guys feel like tonight?” “Oh, let’s do ‘Theme For Basie.’” “Oh, let’s do ‘Happy Camper.’”

“I Didn’t Mean a Word I Said”: It’s funny, because that is not a tune that we play. The guys had never played it before. We didn’t talk about it, but right when I was going on stage, [my friend] Avi [Duvdevani] was like, “You should do ‘I Didn’t Mean a Word I Said,’ because it’s from your first record and it will be like a reunion with the tune!” I was like, “Wow, that’s a good idea.”

So, we went on stage, and I was like, “OK! We’re going to try this song.” I told Hide, “We’re going to be in B flat — and here we go!” It was such a great version for them having no idea what was happening. I love to hear them in that space — where they’re really listening.

“It’s Been a Long Long Time” was actually the very last song we played on Sunday. So, the last song on the record was the end of the run.

LJN: Do you get self-critical when you’re going through recordings of yourself?

CF: [Somewhat grave expression] Yeah.

LJN: Like, really bad?

CF: No, because when I was becoming a musician when I was a little girl, Clark Terry and my father [trumpeter Stephen Fulton] told me, “There’s no feelings. There’s no crying in jazz.” They would criticize me and it would upset me and I’d be like [youthful mewling] “You’re mean!” and they’d be like, “No, there’s no feelings.”

Even now, when I listen to myself critically, I’m not upset. I don’t have feelings. I’m just like, “Well, that could have gone better. I need to fix that.” [Laughs.]

LJN: There’s a really nice balance of vocal showcases and piano workouts on Meet Me at Birdland. It doesn’t go too heavy on either of them. I’m sure that’s a conscious decision-making process during your live shows.ƒ

CF: That’s something that’s been happening over the last couple of years, because I go back and forth — in a micro and macro sense — between wanting to sing a lot and play a lot.

I’ve been really struggling, because some nights, I really want to play piano, and just play piano, and play long piano tunes — piano tune after piano tune. And I thought, Oh, a way to help this is to make short vocal tunes that just are about the voice, and intersperse them in the set. [That way,] people feel like they’re hearing a lot of singing, but then I can play a 10-minute piano tune on the other end.

That’s what we’ve been doing with these arrangements — with “I Only Have Eyes for You,” “I Didn’t Mean a Word I Said” and “Just Friends.” We have these condensed versions, you know?

LJN: From your perspective, what’s the landscape of the vocal-jazz market like these days?

CF: It is, and has always been, sort of… [hesitates, winces] crowded.

LJN: Uh oh.

CF: Well, there’s no shortage of great singers. When you’re vying — certainly — for radio space, a lot of radio stations won’t play more than two or three singers an hour. That’s not a lot, considering how many singer records come out virtually every week.

I really think of myself as a pianist and singer. I think of myself as both at the same time, whereas I know that in the business, people think of me as a singer. But I don’t always think that about myself.

If I’m trying to book a gig and they’re like, “Oh, yeah, you’re a singer,” I’m like, “Well, yeah, I sing, but it’s also a piano trio,” or quartet, or whatever. Because they’re like, “We only have so many slots per year for singers,” and I’m like, “OK, but…”

It’s a strange market, but I feel good about having been in it for a while. Twenty years is 20 years, whether it’s a long time or not a long time. I feel somewhat pleased that I’m still standing.

Champian Fulton. Photo credit: Leslie Farinacci

LJN: How have you maintained that momentum and stamina? How have you kept your gloves up for all these years?

CF: I really love what I do, and I think that’s the thing you really have to focus on. 

I think now, in this weird post-COVID time, a lot of people are feeling very discouraged, because the past couple of years have been so stressful and overwhelming. Now, people are like: Wow. I’m tired. Maybe I don’t want to do this anymore.

LJN: Really?

CF: Yeah, from the people I’m talking to. Just because it’s always hard to get a gig. It’s always hard to get a review. It’s always hard to do these things, and you feel like you’ve been doing them for a while. It’s hard; it’s getting harder — maybe because of COVID — and people are tired.

I try to tell people — and this is the advice I give to myself — that it can’t be about commercial successes, or commercial quote-unquote achievements. Because they come and go. They’re transient, and somewhat without meaning. You really have to feel contentment or satisfaction with how you’re achieving your artistic goals.

That, to me, is what this record is really about. I feel so happy that I’ve had a band together for so long. That we have a lot of repertoire. That we’ve grown together. That we love to play together. Those things feel good for me, and I really wanted to highlight that.

I look at my friends who have long careers. Long careers. Lou Donaldson’s career is, like, 70 years long. That’s an achievement there — sticking in the fight, keeping going. Not every gig, or every record, or every period of your life is the best one. 

But if you’re a jazz musician, you’re a jazz musician, and you remain a jazz musician. That should be satisfying by itself.

LINK: Meet me at Birdland is available from Champian Fulton’s website

or from Bandcamp

Links to LJN’s previous ‘Mondays with Morgan’ features

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