Jazz singer Champian Fulton blows back into the metro with a new album 

Champian Fulton
9:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday
9 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Maker's Cigar & Piano Lounge
25 S. Oklahoma

Champian Fulton's pilgrimage to Maker's Cigar Bar & Lounge is fast becoming an annual affair.

A New Yorker by way of Norman, Fulton has been in the big city since 2003, where she's kept busy with constant regional gigging and appearances alongside big jazz names like Jimmy Cobb, Frank Wess and Louis Hayes. She's a regular at New York's renowned Birdland, but her current biggest worry is an empty calendar entry for New Year's Eve.

"Those are big gigs, and I've always got something lined up," she said with a laugh. "I know it seems far away, but I like to have that show squared away by August."

Fulton is her own manager, publicist and booking agent. Last year, she welcomed 2010 with a quartet inside the David Rubenstein Atrium at New York's Lincoln Center.

She returned to the Oklahoma City metro last week for a series of shows at Maker's, the club where she cut her teeth as a young jazz musician. The shows continue tonight through Saturday.

Then a high school sophomore, Fulton became a Maker's mainstay in 2001. By the time she left Norman North for State University of New York at Purchase's Conservatory of Music, she had been playing the Bricktown club "every weekend for almost two years."

Running down her list of East Coast engagements, Fulton still uses Maker's as a basis for nightclub comparison. Having returned last summer, she is excited to be back in Oklahoma at the dark, smoky venue where she started. 

"I love going back because I know everybody. I know all the staff and all the management and so many of the regulars that come in," she said.

Fulton was inspired by her dad, Stephen, a drummer and well-known jazz trumpeter in his own right, and started piano lessons by the time she was 5. By 12, she founded her own "Little Jazz Quintet" in Le Mars, Iowa, where the family moved so her father could take a director post at the Clark Terry International Institute for Jazz Studies at the now-defunct Teikyo-Westmar University.

Her dad's been an ongoing bandmate and collaborator, Fulton said. He's traveled to New York " where he and Susan, his wife and Champian's mom, are in the process of moving " to play alongside his daughter, "usually flugelhorn," she said, although he'll be behind the drums at the Maker's shows.

"He knows all my material, so I think we're ready," Fulton said, laughing.

She's performed on more than a half-dozen albums since 2001. Her latest, "The Breeze and I," is the second release from her trio, which includes bassist Neal Miner and drummer Fukushi Tainaka. Bassist Yuta Tanaka accompanies Fulton at her OKC shows.

The 13-song album has a retro sultriness and a vintage swing that's quite charming when paired with Fulton's effortless vocals and effervescent charm. The album is anchored by standards, like Irving Berlin's "Say It Isn't So" and Cole Porter's "Easy to Love," but new for Fulton are purely instrumental songs " five of them " which dim the spotlight on her voice to highlight her considerable piano chops.

"When I do my shows, I always do instrumentals, because I really enjoy playing the piano," she said.

And making the new disc sound like her live show was exactly what she wanted to do. Unlike her other albums, which were labored over in a studio, "Breeze" was recorded in a Brooklyn rehearsal space with the trio's own equipment: "Four microphones, no isolation and no baffles," she said. "We ran the tape and we just played it. It's just the tunes we would play, the way we would play them."

The album had to "feel good," which was "more important than it being perfect," Fulton said.

She's already making mental plans for her next album, which she tentatively plans to record during the winter or early spring, she said. It likely will include a few original tracks she's been working on for about the last six months.

The songwriting thing is relatively new to Fulton, who said she's been largely focused on jazz standards, which she loves learning and performing.

"I love playing tunes people know, that they recognize," she said. "So many songs from the jazz world are really a part of American culture. When you play 'Fly Me to the Moon' or 'It Had to Be You,' and people in the audience perk up and think, 'Oh, I danced to that at my wedding.' I like that."

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Joe Wertz

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