Like many of you since the onset of COVID, I’ve been itching to be able to attend live music events and festivals. There just haven’t been many opportunities, and although I’m willing and able to travel, I’m hesitant to go to congested cities like New York until things get under better control.
But on Christmas Eve Eve I felt it was safe to travel to New Brunswick, New Jersey, to see pianist and vocalist Champian Fulton with her quartet. This was outdoors in a heated tent at Tavern on George, hosted by the New Brunswick Jazz Project. It truly was “on George”: the tent was set up in the street where several other restaurants also operated out of, or more correctly, inside tents.
New Brunswick evidently has an active jazz scene, and to promote it, and help keep downtown restaurants going amidst severe COVID restrictions, the city closed off at least one block of the street. The Tavern’s tent, like the others in the block, filled the entire width—about 25 feet, and was about 100 feet long. So its capacity under COVID limits was probably about 75, but perhaps because it was so close to Christmas, the crowd was smaller than that, maybe 50.
Not everyone was there for the music. Those who weren’t were mostly seated toward the back of the tent, where their conversations would not intrude as much on the music. My table was about in the middle, so I did have to contend to some degree with this disturbance. I also found the sound system lacking. While I could hear the band and Champian’s vocals clearly, verbal announcements by her and the emcee were barely intelligible.
There were propane heaters, and the restaurant’s website advised patrons to dress in layers, claiming it is “pretty darn warm” inside the tent. You couldn’t prove that by me. I dressed in four layers, and wore them all the entire time I was there. That included my winter parka and wool ski hat. At least, I didn’t have to wear gloves to eat. And this was not a particularly cold night—in the mid-30s. I am not bothered by cold; if I were, I would not have gone in the first place. But having to eat dressed like an Eskimo took some of the pleasure away. Outdoor dining and music will continue in January and February, be prepared if you go. The restaurant followed all the COVID protocols. I had brought a pair of disposable gloves just in case, but didn’t need them.
Still, I can’t be too critical of the house. Restaurants, like musicians of all stripes, are fighting for survival amid COVID, and not all have the ability to adapt the way Tavern on George has. The full impact on musicians who depend heavily on restaurant and club gigs, as well as on the venues themselves, has yet to unfold, and it’s not likely to be pretty.
Now, about the music. Champian, whom I had seen in person only once a few years ago when she played at the Ware Center in Lancaster, moves well in traditional as well as more modern jazz circles. Being firmly in the trad camp, I’m not familiar other than by name with many of the people she has performed with and whom she considers mentors. One constant is her father, Stephen, a long-established trumpet and flugelhorn player, drummer, and educator who has worked with Clark Terry, Lou Donaldson, the Woody Herman legacy band, and many other notables from the period post-dating that on which this paper focuses. He was with her in Lancaster but I only got to meet him personally this time. Champian rarely introduces Stephen as her father, but the mutual admiration and respect between the two is clear. Yet they treat each other as professionals on stage and if it weren’t for a common surname, one would not suspect they’re related.
I have recently gotten to know Champian much better musically through her Live from Lockdown broadcasts, with Stephen, on Facebook and YouTube on Sundays at 5 PM Eastern. By the time you read this, LFL will be well past week 40, and I expect it will continue until normal performance opportunities return. Champian, of course, is not alone in using the internet to maintain a presence and earn some income. She has had a few normal gigs, such as this one, but has not been able to return to what had been a very active travel schedule.
Rounding out the quartet were her regulars: Hide Tanaka on bass and Fukushi Tainaka on drums. Both are very competent but are not what I’d call trad players. The music menu was a mix of seasonal tunes, standards, and more recent compositions. Not surprisingly, several selections from Champian’s most recent CD were played, as were others that I’ve heard on LFL in recent weeks.
Champian can play with a driving rhythm as well as with a very soft touch, depending on the tune in question. Both skills were evident this night. She was using her electronic keyboard, since acoustic pianos do not like cold temperatures (or very high and very low humidity). For that matter, wood and brass instruments are also affected by cold temps. I don’t know if Tavern on George owns a piano—I did not see one when I went inside to use the facilities—but if it does, it would be almost impossible to maneuver it down the narrow switchback ramp (presumably installed to accommodate wheelchair customers) from the restaurant to the front door.
Champian’s vocals, like her playing, can range from knock-em-dead loud and brassy to quiet and sensuous. Her voice projects very clearly—borrowing from Jack Teagarden’s line in “Say It Simple,” there’s “no friction with her diction.”
Those attributes, combined with what Ira Gershwin called a “sunny disposish,” makes Champian a delight to hear and see.
The verdict on the evening? The 2-1/2 hour drive to New Brunswick was worth making, but I doubt I’ll repeat it until I can enjoy the music indoors. And that goes for any venue, not just this one.
I direct your attention to Champian Fulton’s album with Scott Hamilton titled The Things We Did Last Summer, released on Blau Records. Reedman Scott Hamilton