Jazz Pianist and Vocalist Champian Fulton Champions the Songs of Billie Holiday

Master jazz pianist and vocalist Champian Fulton ruled the Copley Symphony Hall stage Saturday in her sizzling program Lady Day: A Tribute to Billie Holiday. Ably assisted by three instrumentalists selected by Jazz at the Jacobs Concert Series Curator Gilbert Castellanos, Fulton’s quartet gave highly charged interpretations of many of the songs Holiday championed.

Champian Fulton [photo (c.) Antonio Narváez Dupuy]

Fulton’s approach to this tribute program saluted a number of songs Holiday recorded and made popular, especially in the 1930s, the early years of Lady Day’s career. Fulton included only one of Holdiay’s own songs, her “Fine and Mellow,” recorded on the Commodore label in 1939. Fulton did not—wisely, perhaps—sing any of the iconic Billie Holiday songs, her own compositions “God Bless the Child” and “Don’t Explain,” or “Strange Fruit,” a signature song she did not write but did make its first widely circulated recording.

With Fulton’s opening salvo, a very upbeat, rhythmically propulsive account of Rube Blume’s 1939 “Day In, Day Out,” she defined her musical strategy. Although the tunes may be vintage, Fulton’s assertive piano technique and breathless contemporary style brought everything up to date. In “Me, Myself, and I,” a song Holiday recorded in 1937, Fulton toyed with Irving Gordon’s tongue-in-cheek lyrics, but they faded into the background, easily displaced by Fulton’s blazing piano elaborations and the seductive effusions of Ralph Moore on tenor saxophone. Ditto for their performance of Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Mercer’s evergreen “I Thought About You,” also from 1939.

Beginning Marks and Simon’s “All of Me” (1931) as an airy duet for voice and the syncopated filigree of young bassist Alex Frank proved pure magic, especially when the subtle brushwork of percussionist Kevin Kanner crept in and then disappeared while Fulton and Frank brought the song to its deft final cadence. Fulton proved equally successful navigating the sophisticated phrasing of Irving Berlin’s 1935 “Isn’t This a Lovely Day (to Be Caught in the Rain?”), a sweet if lesser-known song that Holiday recorded much later in her career.

Several songs benefited from the full quartet’s rousing athletic ensemble, notably “Pennies from Heaven” (1936), Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things” (1935—and, yes, Holiday recorded this song in 1935), and “Travelin’ Light,” a song by Young and Mundy with Johnny Mercer’s lyrics. Trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos joined the quartet in this 1942 tune that brought a very full program to its close.

The San Diego Symphony in collaboration with San Diego jazz station 88.3 FM presented this program on November 30, 2019, in the Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall.

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