William Paterson University Jazz Room Wayne, NJ February 13, 2011
Who is Tia Fuller? Oddly enough, the question came to mind after the conclusion of a performance at William Paterson University's Jazz Room. During the seventy-five minute set, Fuller deftly juggled a handful of identities: audience tour guide; purveyor of positive, uplifting messages; leader of a fierce band; composer and arranger; and, perhaps most importantly, a positively hellacious saxophonist.
With the help of a wireless mic, Fuller made a theatrical entrance by blowing the alto from the wings and slowly making her way front and center. She then offered the first of a few monologues designed to establish a rapport with the audience. "Welcome. You don't have to be quiet. Dance if you like. Who wants to go on a journey? Moving forward with decisive steps. Not worrying about what other people say. Sit back. Enjoy the ride."
Though Fuller's personality and stage presence loomed large, they didn't detract from the music. The set's material was taken from Decisive Steps, Fuller's 2010 release on Mack Avenue. The melodies of her originals "Clear Mind" and "Kissed By The Sun" wouldn't seem out of place on a smooth jazz record. However, unlike polite, commercially oriented fare, the rhythm section furnished a busy, thickset, even bruising foundation, and the soloists displayed some of the strident aspects of the last fifty years of the jazz tradition. Bassist Luques Curtis served as the band's workhorse, holding the music together, while Justin Faulkner
s drums and cymbals pushed and shoved the soloists. The comping of pianist Shamie Royston, Fuller's sister, contributed to the music's dense textures and provided stabilizing elements such as relatively simple, repetitive chords.
Fuller's "Clear Mind" improvisation was an apt representation of her work throughout the set. Once she got started, there was no stopping her. While the band thrashed and churned around her, Fuller's brassy, serpentine lines became faster, longer, and more complicated. A brief nod to her bebop roots led to hard, guttural sounds. The obsessive, run-on quality of everything Fuller played contained a logic of its own and never descended into chaos.
Fuller offered something of a change of pace on a rendition of the standard, "I Can't Get Started." An intro without the band featured rapid changes in direction wrapped in a rough, acidic tone. She found a respectful way with the song on its bridge and continued in a conventional manner. After the rhythm section's subdued entrance, Fuller's solo was an amalgam of soft, tender phrases, reckless blowing, some open space, and one nasty, protracted bent note.
Bringing down the volume after a maniacal encounter between Fuller and Faulkner, Royston's "Decisive Steps" solo was about sustaining momentum and consistently inserting accessible elements. She immediately hit on a rollicking jazz-Latin groove, and for a time played a smart, measured combination of single notes and chords. Later on a long series of bright, dancing chords evolved into pounding eruptions.
The concert concluded with a wickedly fast version of another standard, "My Shining Hour." There was a distinct contrast between Royston's nightmarish chords, Fuller's banshee screams, and the leader's affable exit strategy. As the band continued to play, Fuller said she hoped that the audience "had a good time," urged everyone to "move forward with decisive steps," and offered a sincere "God bless you" to all. The band shifted into a vamp and Fuller slowly walked off the stage, playing the horn all the while.