Playing Dinah’s dues

29-year-old vocalist-pianist Champian Fulton is obsessed with jazz.

Champion Fulton (photo credit: ANTONIO MARVAEZ)
Champion Fulton
(photo credit: ANTONIO MARVAEZ)
Champian Fulton happily admits to living in some sort of time warp. By rights, the 29-year-old jazz vocalist-pianist should have mixed her early jazz inspirations with contemporary rock and pop she could have heard on the radio.
Instead, it was a long gone jazz diva who caught the infant Fulton’s imagination, and has not relinquished that hold on her ever since.
“I never did listen very much to contemporary pop or rock and roll music that was on the radio,” says Fulton. “I heard, in the ’90s, say, Madonna or Prince but it never connected with me. Once I became obsessed with jazz I never spent much time listening to pop or rock.”
The sounds and textures produced by iconic jazz diva Dinah Washington certainly connected with Fulton, and she is offering a salute to her idol in her forthcoming run of gigs here, as part of the Hot Jazz series, between February 9 and 14.
Fulton encountered Washington’s lush sensuous tones at a very early age.
“Dinah was always my favorite singer since I was very young,” she explains.
Indeed, Fulton was just about kneehigh to a grasshopper when she was inexorably and irrevocably drawn to Washington’s sultry tones. And a particularly Washington release has remained uppermost in the Fulton list of favorites for nigh on a quarter of a century.
The 1955 Washington LP “For Those in Love was one of the first records I discovered, around the age of five or six,” she continues. “I loved it. I played it over and over and over again.”
There was also some personal input there too.
“The [now 94-year-old] trumpet player Clark Terry is a family friend and Clark’s on that record.”
That, naturally, gave Fulton enviable access to some of the behind the scenes machinations, and what went into making the record. Washington, herself, died in 1963, at the age of only 39.
“I would talk to Clark about the record, and I knew all the tunes and all the arrangements when I was very small.”
Washington has always had sex appeal but, presumably, that is not something Fulton could fully appreciate at the age of five or six. The vocalist-pianist says she did get something of that, even in infancy.
“I think it was the way she sings the blues, and she brought that deep sense of feeling to every song, which I think makes her very emotive. I think she is very sexy in that way. She is very real.”
Fulton, who already has five CDs to her name, started out on her own hands-on musical path at a very young age, first setting her infant fingers to a piano keyboard at the age of three. That early start was fueled by genes and the ambiance at home.
“My father, Stephen, plays trumpet and flugelhorn, and he is coming with me to Israel to play,” she says. “I just grew up with music in the home, and my father had lots of musician friends, like Clark, and I was drawn to music and I always wanted to play music.”
Fulton’s initial expansive instrumental explorations also took in trumpet and drums that helped the youngster to establish a broad sonic infrastructure for her subsequent keyboard and vocal evolution.
“I always loved to sing, but my father was always very insistent that I should learn more about all the instruments,” Fulton recalls. “I really loved both piano and trumpet, and I played them both until I was about 18. Then I just decided I wanted to concentrate on one instrument, and it just seemed so natural to play piano and sing together.”
Presumably, logistics had a say in that choice. As far as I know, no jazz musician to date has managed to sing will blowing into a trumpet mouthpiece. Fulton is aware of that although she is a great admirer of the likes of Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie who combined the two disciplines – albeit not simultaneously – and also managed to lead combos in the process.
Jazz singers sometimes talk about emulating the sound and texture of a particular instrument, while the latter frequently aim to achieve a singing quality to their playing. With her experience in both areas, Fulton has a head start on both sides of the vocalist-instrumentalist divide, and says that, for her, the two reciprocate.
“I think that singing really connects you to the music in a way that is more organic, than when you’re an instrumentalist,” she observes. “You have to breathe and you are producing the sound with your own body. I think my piano playing is informed by that, rhythmically and in terms of dynamics and general musicality.”
For Fulton, it is a two-way street.
“I think the same goes the other way,” she continues. “I take a little more time to practice on the piano, and I bring the elements that I work on, on the piano, into my singing.”
Although still relatively tender of years Fulton says she connects strongly with the jazz sensibilities of yesteryear. That was partly fueled by having direct contact with her dad’s generation of players and, possibly, more crucially, Clark Terry and some of his contemporaries.
“The tradition of the music is very important to me,” she states, “but the music is happening now. Music is not a museum piece. I feel that when I perform even if I’m playing a song that is 100 years old, and I am playing it in a swinging, straight-ahead style, for me it’s not outdated because that swinging is what feels good to me. I like it. It makes me happy.”
Odds are the audiences at Fulton and her quartet’s half-dozen concerts, plus one kiddies’ slot, will go home in pretty good spirits too.
The Champian Fulton Quartet, which includes Dor Samoha on bass and Gasper Bertoncelj on drums, is performing at the Jerusalem Theater on February 9 at 9 p.m.; the Zappa Herzliya Club on February 10, doors open at 8:15, show starts at 10; the Einan Hall in Modi’in on February 11 at 9; Tel Aviv Museum on February 12 and 13, at 9 and 9:30 respectively; Abba Hushi House in Haifa on February 14 at 9. In addition, there is to be a children’s show at Tel Aviv Museum on February 14 at 11 a.m.
For tickets and more information: (03) 573-3001 and