Jazz Album of the Week: Pianist and Vocalist Champian Fulton Champions Charlie Parker on Birdsong
August 24, 2020. Champian Fulton’s first paid gig was playing Clark Terry’s 75th birthday party. She was 10 years old. Now, at 35, the pianist and vocalist is more than just precocious and well-connected; she’s ambitious, too—averaging nearly one new release every year since her 2007 debut. But her latest, Birdsong, released to coincide with Charlie Parker’s centennial, might be her loosest and most joyful recording to date.
And there’s a reason for that.
The music of Charlie Parker has been hardwired into Champian Fulton’s musical mainframe from the moment her life began. Fulton’s father, Stephen—a professional trumpeter who’s now played for years in his daughter’s quartet and appears here on flugelhorn—wanted to make sure his newborn came into the world accompanied by the “most beautiful music there ever was.”
For Stephen Fulton that was the Norman Granz-produced Charlie Parker with Strings.
A cassette of that legendary recording played throughout Fulton’s mother’s pregnancy and accompanied mother and newborn into the delivery room, where Bird—or, at least, his music—literally played the future jazz musician’s introduction to existence.
Now Fulton gets to return the favor, singing and playing new life into her favorite slice of the Charlie Parker songbook. Each selection here was either written or otherwise made famous by Parker, including three from the seminal With Strings outings.
But Birdsong deftly avoids the trap that ensnares so many Parker tributes; it doesn’t thoughtlessly trot out near note-for-note takes of the tunes most celebrated or re-recorded. The record feels more substantial than just a note-playing proving ground or something to tick off a jazz-instrumentalist’s to-do list—like a Christmas album. For Fulton, Parker is personal, and what we get here are the tunes that have been most impactful on her personally and to her development as a jazz musician. It makes a difference.
She’s backed by her longtime quartet of Hide Tanaka on bass, Fukushi Tainaka on drums, and Stephen Fulton, her dad, on flugelhorn. The privilege—and pressure— of playing saxophone on this particular tribute to modern jazz saxophone’s foundational innovator falls to Scott Hamilton, the veteran tenor-man with whom Fulton has played frequently over the past few years, most notably on 2017’s live-from-Spain recording The Things We Did Last Summer.
They start with a tune that was one of Bird’s favorites from the With Strings sessions, “Just Friends,” a tune some might be surprised to learn was Bird’s top-selling single. It’s one of this group’s favorites to play, and it shows. Though don’t expect a Bird-like rendition with improvisational lines of lightning; Fulton’s vocals are at the forefront of this arrangement. Though, vocally, she’s more Ella than Etta Jones, Fulton’s affect and attitude, paired with Hamilton’s laid back and melodic tenor sax solo, calls to mind those great Etta Jones-Houston Person combinations.
Hamilton is given some more room to stretch out on one of Parker’s most iconic originals, “Yardbird Suite.” What’s striking is how different Hamilton and Parker are as saxophonists. Underlying Bird’s playing, one so often intuits a sense of compulsive urgency, a feeling that he absolutely had to get his ideas out or else they would die…or he would. It’s totally different with Hamilton, who is the epitome of cool equanimity. There are so many tribute albums where saxophonists try to be Bird that it’s refreshing to hear an instrumentalist approach Bird’s compositions with such a marked distinction in temperament.
Next is “This is Always,” a ballad Bird recorded in 1947, not long after his discharge from Camarillo State Hospital. Not one that usually receives treatment on the tribute albums, it’s rendered beautifully here by Fulton and co., and will linger with you for a bit if you let it.
“Star Eyes,” a standard that became a standard on the strength of Parker’s interpretation of it for Verve Records in 1951, follows. It’s here that you begin to realize the subtle elegance with which Fulton commands a tune vocally. As a vocal interpreter of standards, there’s simply no room for many who are doing it any better right now.
The Parker original “Quasimodo,” breaks up the string of vocal tracks and features a lighter ensemble—it’s just a piano trio here, and that means some deserved time out front for bassist Hide Tanaka.
On “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm,” Fulton channels some magical combination of Bud Powell and Art Tatum, revealing a sheer athleticism that, to this point, had remained under wraps. Fukushi Tainaka also deserves some shine for impressive up-tempo brush work.
“Out of Nowhere” and “If I Should Lose You” are two standards from the With Strings sessions that bear a listen. The latter features an extended flugelhorn solo from the man who introduced Fulton to Bird in the first place, her dad, and the former is treated to a “Poinciana”-like arrangement.
Meanwhile, the take on Kern and Mercer’s “Dearly Beloved” underscores Hamilton’s style and sensibility on tenor sax as well as or better than any tune here. If this dude sweats at all, I’d be surprised.
Wisely, Fulton’s chosen a Bird original to close things out, a nine-plus minute take on the bluesy “Bluebird” with some authoritative block chord soloing from the leader and a whimsical series of traded measures between Hamilton and the elder Fulton.
Avoiding many of the common pitfalls of tribute albums, Birdsong is a solid, Earth-bound outing that lends credence to “Bird Lives” as more than just an old Beat-era rallying cry. For some musicians, it’s more like a family motto.