Such Sweet Thunder
In the liner notes to his 2006 release Hindustan, bandleader (and former Lincoln Center Orchestra conductor and arranger) David Berger observes that there were, in 1938, no fewer than 5,000 big bands crisscrossing North America. How many are there today? One-tenth that number? One-twentieth? And how many accurately mirror the verve and imagination of the Goodman or Dorsey or Miller outfits? Pitifully few. Fortunately for fans of that faraway era, especially those of us who have had it up to our ears with tribute bands and other painfully faux substitutes, Berger’s 15-man ensemble is the real deal.
Berger has employed singers in the past, most notably with the addition of Aria Hendricks to a handful of tracks on Hindustan. Now, for the first time since his band’s inception just over a decade ago, Berger has built an entire album around a vocalist. The risk, of course, is that a contemporary singer could throw Berger’s genuinely retro vibe off-kilter. No worries. Berger has not only discovered a winner in 22-year-old Champian Fulton, but has found a 16th bandmate who fits as fluidly with the whole as any of the others. Winding her way through an all-standards playlist that extends from the extremely familiar (“Too Close for Comfort,” “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,” “Just One of Those Things”) to the far less covered (Jimmy McHugh’s wily “I Didn’t Mean a Word I Said,” Irving Berlin’s playful “He Ain’t Got Rhythm,” Lil Green’s spicy “Romance in the Dark”), Champian, living up to her first name’s homophone, suggests two radically different but equally indelible swing era icons, melding the intimacy of Billie Holiday with the brassy bravura of Kay Starr.