REVIEW/ PHOTOS: Champian Fulton's London debut at Pizza Express


Champian Fulton
Photo credit: Melody McLaren

Champian Fulton Trio
(Pizza Express Dean Street, 12th May 2016. First night of three. Review by Sebastian Scotney) 

Oklahoma-born singer/pianist Champian Fulton has been named a Rising Jazz Star by Downbeat twice, in both 2013 and 2014. She has already toured extensively on the continent of Europe, and made one foray around Scotland. And yet this, the first of three nights, was her highly impressive London debut.

She has impeccable jazz pedigree. Her father is the trumpeter Stephen Fulton who instigated and ran the Clark Terry summer jazz camps. Fulton explained that she had her first experience of an undying infatuation with Dinah Washington at the age of five, and that she did her first public gig at the age of twelve. She has clearly just kept going, and has developed into a considerable jazz artist.

Champian Fulton
Photo credit: Melody McLaren 
It is strange how misleading a first impression can be, though. I thought I was picking up hints/ reminiscences from her opening number, Fats Waller's It's A Sin To Tell A Lie, of Blossom Dearie, say, or of early Diana Krall. I imagined, erroneously, that we would be in for an evening of studied, perhaps slightly steely cuteness. But wrong, wrong, wrong. The lasting impressions are of how her musicality and piano playing and depth of harmonic knowledge inform her singing, and the surprising directions things can take.

Fulton has a fascinatingly counter-intuitive melodic sense. For me that first came through in the Marks/ Simons 1931 song All of Me. A melody we all think we know inside out. But do we? As Fulton sings it, there is that consistent pianist's sense that the note, the voicing within the chord which can be brought out might not be the known, obvious one; it can equally be one of the other triad notes or an extension. Her choice of which pitch to land on is based on any of the notes she might play in her hand. so the melody can start in a different place from where you expect, it can go down when you expect it to go up, it has total freedom, within the harmony. And that surprise was just the starting point.

Fulton also has a predilection for the kind of standard songs that have inbuilt chromaticism, such as Baubles, Bangles and Mad About the Boy, and that leads her to build intriguing, meandering, sinuous, swirling vocal lines. And then there is her way of embellishing single vowels. It's certainly not melisma. It is structural, purposeful, shaped. Like an instrumental solo. Knowing her background the fact that she does that is not a surprise. But the uses to which it can be put, and the directions it can go certainly are.

Champian Fulton, Arnie Somogyi, Stephen Keogh
Photo credit: Melody McLaren 

She is also a considerable piano player. The strongest resonances I was picking up in the first set were of Hank Jones, but as the second set progressed ( I regrettably had to leave early), she was moving in the direction of more "out" playing, and deriving obvious pleasure from some particularly abstract Cecil Taylor-ish chords in the song That Old Feeling. Melody McLaren has caught that happy mood perfectly in her photos. And when Fulton gets out into the fast lane, it is punishingly, Oscar Peterson-ish fast. Those were the moments when the flawless rhythm pair of bassist Arnie Somogyi and drummer Stephen Keogh were put through their paces, and really earned their stripes.

There are still two nights to go. Go.

 LINK: Champian Fulton's website

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