The Pianist Who Sings

Ever since I was a little girl I couldn’t choose between singing and the piano. I loved singing so much, as most children do, but I really loved the piano. I loved sitting behind the piano and having the control within the band that comes from playing in the rhythm section. I loved being able to come home and sit down at the piano and make music that I enjoyed. As I began to work as a musician, I loved watching the world pass by, watching people’s lives unfold from behind the piano. But as I said, I loved singing too, and as I grew up I would sing more, and then sing less, and sing more. My mind would just naturally lean towards one instrument and I would focus on it, and naturally neglect the other instrument for a while. To me, no matter what I was playing – piano, trumpet, singing – I was always the same person, the same musician.

As I grew up and began working more as a pianist / singer, other people developed strong opinions about what I should do. Most musicians strongly advised that I only play piano and giving up singing, but “music industry” folks strongly advised that I give up piano and only sing. Then my audience had their own opinions too: more singing, less singing, longer piano solos, shorter piano solos. Was I a singer or pianist?

In my heart, I was always a pianist who sings. I could never leave my piano, and quite frankly, standing in front of a band standing up and singing is awkward! I never know what to do with my hands….should I snap? Hold the mic? And what am I supposed to do during all their solos? Especially if I would rather be playing the piano solo myself?! Not to mention, standing in heels for an entire concert IS NOT FUN. Singers who can do that and look graceful deserve major props (I’d also like to know where they buy their shoes, haha).

So you can see, I am a pianist who sings. I love both. I have made 6 recordings dedicated to this love of mine, the most recent being “After Dark” released in 2016, but for my 7th release I wanted to do something different. I wanted to return to my first love of the piano and show a side of myself that hasn’t been seen before. My new album, “Speechless”, not only features only the piano trio, but it also is my debut as a composer with 9 new songs never before heard by the public.

I am so excited about sharing this new side of my music with everyone. The album will be released exclusively on iTunes and Apple Music on March 17, but you can also order your copy directly from me (like, right now) via my website www.champian.net/shop

Listen to the opening track, Day’s End, (below) and please check back here at the blog next week to read about my writing process and hear some more music! Ask your questions about the new record in the comment section below, and thanks for reading!

Speechless on Posi-Tone Records will be released on March 17 on iTunes and Apple Music. 

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The Great Pojangmacha Adventure

They taste like dirt. Like earth, mixed with something mildly crunchy and wet. It’s the texture that surprises you more than the taste, but I still found the expectation of the taste to be worse than the actual taste of eating silk worms. Yes, that’s right, I am eating silk worms in a pojangmacha in Tongyeong, South Korea.

Let me rewind. After an amazing week in Mongolia, we headed to South Korea for another week of concerts and clinics. We being myself, Martin Zenker on bass and Steve Pruitt on drums. Martin and I have worked together before in Europe, and in fact he is the one who introduced me to the people in Mongolia and helped bring me to Asia, but before this tour, I hadn’t seen Steve in nearly 15 years. Turns out Steve and I are both from Oklahoma, and at one time, many many years ago, Steve attended a rehearsal for my band in my house in Norman! We were both kids back then, working in Bricktown (Makers, anyone?!), and we hadn’t stayed in touch….until we saw eachother again in Mongolia. And now of course, while eating in a pojangmacha in Tongyeong.

A pojangmacha is a tented restaurant, kind of a like a food truck, that serves late night street food and often soju and other drinks. After FacebookLive streaming our concert at the Tongyeong Concert Hall (check out the FB Live Stream below!), a new friend took us to experience this particularly local hangout. Apart from eating silk worms, we tried local oysters (sooooo different from the oysters we eat in America) and incredibly spicy octopus. The food was delicious, and the experience was so bizarre – I mean, we are sitting in an unheated tent in December, eating raw seafood from a truck….. I’m sure we must have looked ridiculous to the other locals who came in, as we Instragrammed and Facebooked every single dish that was served, and laughed hysterically at my attempts to learn some Korean words.

That evening in Tongyeong was so great, I hope to visit many more times. We also performed in Jeonju, where we ate at one of the most famous Bibimbap restaurants in the world, and of course we also performed in Seoul. It was such a whirlwind trip, traveling nearly every day and performing every night, that I didn’t get as much time to walk around Seoul as I would have liked. I did ride the subway, which was so clean and easy to use, very much unlike New York City’s Subway system, and I did get to try several different Korean BBQ restaurants and some excellent raw tuna. Also, I know there is more to life than food, but one of my favorite parts of traveling is getting to experience different foods around the world. Although I don’t think any experience can top eating silk worms in a tent on the side of the road.

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I Left My Heart in Ulan Bator…..

In the past few years I have had the good fortune to travel quite a bit for my music, visiting many well traveled cities like Paris, London, Tangiers, and some more off the beaten path locales like Bulgaria and the Yukon, but none so exotic as Mongolia (Don’t know where Mongolia is on a map? Don’t worry, when I got called for the tour I wasn’t too sure either; I had to look it up. It’s between Russia and China, check it out). When I googled the country I discovered it has permafrost (yes, it really is THAT cold), salted milk tea (yes, I drank some), and is virtually untouched by the touring Jazz community. Duke Ellington did not visit Mongolia on his Far East Tour, Louis Armstrong never played there, not even Wynton Marsalis has visited (yet). The listening audience of Mongolia was undiscovered country. I had no idea what to expect.

I feel like all I hear these days are cries of “Jazz Is Dead!”, “There aren’t any women at my gigs!” “Young people don’t like Jazz!” Let me tell you, if you’ve ever wanted to disprove all these ideas at once, visit Mongolia. The agency that brought me to Mongolia is Jazz Lab and it is run by a young woman, Mandukhai, who believes that Jazz is the sound of freedom and she wants to bring that to her countrymen through a series of concerts and educational outreach. Many of the students at the school are young women, earnestly involved in the study of the music, not as a technical exercise like so many students I encounter, but as a way of thinking, a metaphysical pursuit destined to bring happiness and peace to their fellow human beings. There are very serious Jazz fans there, who listen to Clifford Brown and Sarah Vaughan and watch Jazz youtube videos all day long. In all my life I have never encountered so many young women, who, like myself, want to talk about Jazz all day and then go out for cake and shopping. It was an amazing experience, to travel halfway around the world and find myself surrounded by people like myself.

Between the long philosophical discussions about Jazz, lessons, listening sessions, and performing, I had time to get a Mongolian makeover (seriously one of the best hair and makeup jobs I have ever experienced), try many Mongolian dishes (lots of mutton) including yak meat, climb up a giant hill in -36*F weather (my lungs were burning), attempt to speak Mongolian (SUPER hard), buy lots and lots of cashmere (love it), attend a Christmas party complete with a Santa who handed out oreos (one of the most fun parties of my life), and drink salted milk tea. Salted Milk Tea is a typical Mongolian drink and it’s basically just what it sounds like, Tea with milk and salt. When I first tried it the taste reminded me of the ocean (it’s really that salty), and I shared my observation at the table. Everyone was immediately interested, as many of them had never seen or been in an ocean, and everyone began gulping the drink down, exclaiming “the ocean tastes like salted milk tea!!” I hope I haven’t set their expectations too high.

Mongolia was an amazing experience and I can’t wait to get back and see my newfound friends again. When I visit in the warmer months they promised me we would go horse back riding and sing under the big blue sky. I can’t wait. In the meantime I wish them all the best in their Jazz endeavors! 

Check back here next week to read about South Korea, which I toured after Mongolia this past December. Lots of excellent food experiences, including eating silk worms. Thanks for reading! 

 

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Happy Birthday Frank Sinatra, but Let’s Not Forget Joe Williams!!!

Today, December 12, is the centennial of Frank Sinatra’s birth. It’s hard to miss, my social media is overrun with #FrankSinatra posts, and there have been innumerable TV specials commemorating the special day, not limited to the #Sinatra100 Special which included Trisha Yearwood and Nick Jonas belting out the American Songbook. Even I participated in a salute to Sinatra at the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank NJ last week, where a cast of singers, including Deana Martain and Joe Piscopo, gathered to pay homage to the legendary singer.

And I’m on board with all of that. I love Sinatra at the Sands, I love Sinatra and Jobim, I love his hits on Capitol Records. If my iPod is on shuffle, you’re going to hear some Sinatra. I like Sinatra. Period.

But, nonetheless, a few things stick in my craw. Last week, while we were performing at The Count Basie Theater, I kept thinking: Here we are, celebrating Frank Sinatra, featuring dozens of singers who claim him as a hero, an inspiration, even a deity. He is the pride of New Jersey. And yet… We are in the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank New Jersey, Count Basie’s hometown, and where is the concert featuring dozens of pianists who claim Basie as their hero, their inspiration? Why does New Jersey not jump up and down to claim him as a favorite son? Half of the songs performed on the Sinatra tribute concert were from recordings where Sinatra performed with Count Basie, but yet Basie’s music nor his band were never mentioned. Why celebrate one and not the other? Surely New Jersey, and America too, has enough love to share with both?

And then today, December 12, Frank Sinatra’s birthday. The centennial birthday, nonetheless. It’s a big deal. I understand that we, as a people, as a culture, want to celebrate this man and his music. But, you know who else was born on this day in 1918? Joe Williams. And what I don’t understand, is why we as a people, as a culture, don’t want to celebrate HIS music, too. I have not seen a single social media post about him today, much less a tribute concert honoring his legacy.

Joe Williams was one of the greatest singers to ever walk this earth. He had a beautiful voice, and if you ever heard him in person, you know it was even more beautiful than on recordings. He swung, HARD. He made you feel tremendously, wonderfully good, every single time he opened his mouth.

joe williams

I was fortunate enough to see Joe Williams a few times when I was a little girl before he passed in 1999. The first time was at the Ravinia Jazz Festival in Chicago. I was only 11 or 12 years old, but I was SUCH a fan; I knew every word to his “Live at Birdland” recording. Our family friend, Clark Terry, introduced us backstage, but it wasn’t until my family and I ran into him in the hotel elevator that I had to truly interact with him. My parents began telling Joe what a fan I was, how I knew his recordings, and how I wanted to be a singer. I was petrified. We stepped off the elevator, and my mother said, “Champian, sing for him!” I couldn’t move at all, much less sing, so I remained silent. Joe bent down on one knee so he was eye level with me (he was a very tall man), and I’ll never forget his face and his eyes so close to mine, just looking at me and waiting. I couldn’t do anything. He must have thought we were all crazy! Finally he stood back up and said goodnight to us, and I remained, frozen to that spot in the hallway, unable to move. When I saw him enter his hotel room and close the door I burst into tears. Embarrassed and ashamed, I was inconsolable.

Later that year, I saw Joe again. This time we were on the Jazz Cruise (again with Clark Terry) and I was determined to make a better impression. He remembered me and was very friendly towards me, even though I’m sure he remembered that bizarre interaction in Chicago. On the very last evening, he sat in with DIVA and sang “Alright, Okay, You Win”, and he asked me to join him on stage. Finally over my fear, I was able to get up sing with him. That duet was one of the most fun moments of my life.

So, you see, Joe Williams means a great deal to me. And though I love Frank Sinatra as much as the next red-blooded girl, Joe Williams will always have my heart.

Amidst all the celebrating of Frank Sinatra today, let’s take a moment to honor this man and his music too! Happy Birthday Joe Williams!

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Letters to Dinah: A Tribute to the Late Great Dinah Washington

Dinah Washington, Queen of the Blues, is my first true love in terms of Jazz singing. Discovering her album, “For Those in Love”, absolutely changed my life.  When I was little I would listen to her and her alone; until I had completely absorbed nearly all her music, from her early blues recordings, her straight ahead Jazz albums, her early R&b hits, and her crossover pop recordings of the early 1960’s. I loved them all. As I became more infatuated with her music, I began to learn more about her career and personal life, asking friends of mine who knew her (Clark Terry, Junior Mance, etc) and reading what books I could find. Learning more about her, I became more and more in love with her music.

In the 20 years of her recording career and with her unprecedented cross-genre hits, she became one of the most commercially successful female black performers of her generation, all while never changing the artistic approach to her music. You’ve probably heard her renditions of “What a Difference a Day Makes,” “Unforgettable,” and “Evil Gal Blues” (her first hit, from 1943); and you’re likely to hear her music on the TV and in movies even today. Besides winning a Grammy in 1959 for her recording of “What a Difference a Day Makes”, she was awarded 3 posthumous Grammy’s (1998, 1999, and 2001) and inducted into the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame in 1993.

She has long been my hero, the voice I turn to when I’m happy and when I’m sad and so I am very pleased to announce my  new project, “Letters to Dinah”, a new show which features songs she has taught me to love. You’ll hear some blues, some standards, some country, and some R&B too. I hope you’ll join me in this celebration of Jazz and Black American Music, by following along here on the blog and by attending a show:

The International Premiere of the show will be in Israel as part of the Hot Jazz Series (February / Details here) and the US Premiere will be at WNYC’s The Greene Space (February 18), where you can attend the show or watch via the live broadcast. (Details here) More concert dates to be announced soon.

Right now, I am picking out songs for the show! Which ones should I include? “Salty Papa Blues”? “TV is the Thing This Year”? Let me know what you think in the comments.

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