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Larry Fuller: It's a Dream to Play with Ray

Jason West By

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The ultimate situation is to be in a trio with great players as a pianist, because you sort of are in the role of leadership, you are responsible for the melody and the harmony.
Born in Toledo, Ohio, Larry Fuller began playing the piano at the age of 11. The son of a factory worker, Fuller was the sole musician in his parents' blue-collar family. He earned his first big break in 1988 accompanying jazz vocalist Ernestine Anderson. Their musical partnership continued until 1994 when Fuller joined Jeff Hamilton's trio. In October of 1998, Fuller achieved his life-long dream of playing with one of the finest bassists in the history of jazz, the venerable Ray Brown.

Today, Larry Fuller is the pianist in Brown's trio, a position he's held since April 2000. A Seattle resident for over a decade, Fuller still makes his home in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, the trio's appearance at Seattle's Jazz Alley was a homecoming of sorts for the pianist, who, during our interview, related fond memories of playing with Ernestine and other Seattle-based musicians. Soft-spoken and unassuming off the bandstand, Fuller is a whale of a pianist when it's time to play. Unless I miss my guess, jazz fans are going to hear a lot more of his incredible talent in the near future.

All About Jazz: How did you hook up with Ray Brown?

Larry Fuller: Well, it's kind of a series of events, I guess, but in working with Jeff Hamilton, we played some of these Jazz Parties. I don't know if you're familiar with Jazz Parties, but there's probably around 15 or 20 of them around the country. Essentially, what they do is hire three or four rhythms sections and a whole slew of horn players and they kind of mix and match everybody. So I met Ray at one in Phoenix, Arizona. Typically, they're held at a large hotel and all the music is in the ballroom and people buy like a package where they stay at the hotel and they go hear the music. It's usually over the course of a weekend. The first one was held in Denver, I think, and now there's one that's really popular called the West Coast Jazz Party, which I've played at a few times.

AAJ: Where's that?

LF: It's down in Irvine, just south of L.A. A lot of the audience, I've noticed, is older people. I think it appeals to people that really like the music and they and hear a lot of music over the course of one weekend. Perhaps, a lot of those people don't really like to go out to nightclubs.

AAJ: Interesting. So that's where you met Ray, at a Jazz Party?

LF: Yeah, I played on a set with him in October of '98 I did my own recording and asked him if he would record with me and he did, so I recorded with him and Jeff Hamilton.

AAJ: What's the name of the record?

LF: Well, believe it or not, I don't have it out yet. I'm still trying to shop it, but I've been so busy on the road that it's kind of been on the back burner. I have it recorded and mixed. Actually, I recorded with him in August of '98 and in October he needed a sub for his former pianist, Geoff Keezer, for a three-week tour in Europe. So, I did that and when Keezer eventually left the band, Ray thought of me, I guess.

AAJ: What are your thoughts looking back over the months since last April when you joined the trio?

LF: Oh, it's a dream to play with Ray, you know. I've listened to all the recordings with Oscar Peterson and Monty Alexander and a lot of my favorite players, and to grow up and to be able to play with him is like a childhood musical dream realized. The other nice thing about playing with Ray's band is that so many of the gigs are with a special guest artist. We've worked with Stanley Turrentine, Phil Woods, Nicholas Payton, John Clayton and Christian McBride, Marlena Shaw, Kevin Mahogany and Ernie Andrews.

AAJ: Let me ask you about rehearsing with Ray. Does the band rehearse a lot?

LF: No. I rehearsed for about a week when I joined the band, but, essentially if you join Ray's band you have to learn all the music off the recordings, which is a substantial library at this point, probably about 90 to 95 tunes and each one being a specific arrangement. We get together sometimes when we're traveling on the road.

AAJ: Did you know most of the tunes when you joined?

LF: Well, when I finally joined the band in October of '98 I knew probably a couple dozen of his arrangements, but I had to learn most of the tunes off the records, as I said. So, I went down to L.A. and rehearsed for about a week, not every day, but we probably rehearsed for about four or five days when I first joined the band.

AAJ: How did you come to play music?

LF: Well, an older brother of mine actually bought an old, upright piano. It was in the house and I started playing it by ear as a kid. I got basic piano lessons from the local piano teacher and went from there. I really learned a lot from being able to play gigs with older musicians.

AAJ: Did you start by learning popular music?

LF: Yeah, popular music and classical music, but I discovered jazz and I really liked the fact that in jazz you can be so creative as opposed to the parameters or limits in some regard that classical music has. I mean, in classical music, there's the creativity of expression, but essentially you're playing an interpretation of something that was specifically written out.

AAJ: When you came out here with Ernestine Anderson you worked as an accompanist for her. Was that a new role for you?

LF: No, because I had, growing up and playing countless gigs, a lot of just casual gigs, you know wedding receptions, or what have you. I had quite a bit of experience playing with singers.

AAJ: Is that something that you enjoy doing?

LF: I do. I mean to me the ultimate situation is to be in a trio with great players as a pianist, because you sort of are in the role of leadership, you are responsible for the melody and the harmony. But I enjoy the role of accompanying a singer, but obviously you have more freedom when you're playing in a trio or solo piano.

AAJ: What are some of the things that you have to keep in mind as an accompanist?

LF: To be sensitive and supportive basically, and try to provide some kind of cushion but not get in the way of the singer or the horn player whatever the case may be. Filling in the holes that the singer might leave in their phrasing, but not playing on top of them.

AAJ: Well, talk about Ernestine and her artistry. Can you comment on her style?

LF: She's a fantastic jazz singer. I think she's truly one of the great ones although her career was never elevated quite to the level enjoyed by some more popular singers, for whatever reason. She's just got a fantastic sense of time. She's incredibly soulful. That was definitely a good experience for me. I've often traveled with her; it was just the two of us, and then wherever we would go for the most part, unless it was over seas, but typically in the States we would just use a local bassist and a drummer. So I got to meet a lot of great bass players and drummers working with her. She used Frank Gant in New York, and Louis Hayes and Alan Dawson. That's actually how I met Jeff Hamilton.

AAJ: Do you still make your home here in Seattle?

LF: I do.

AAJ: Okay, I know you were playing with Ernestine, but did you have an opportunity to play with some of the local musicians?

LF: Oh definitely. I supported myself by playing on the local scene here. I know all the cats and played all the different gigs. Now that I'm with Ray, I don't really have too much time to play around the area because he keeps such a busy schedule, but when I worked with Ernestine, she keeps a lighter schedule than Ray so I might be in Seattle for a couple months at a time in between gigs with her.

AAJ: Talk about the scene in Seattle. Is it a good place for jazz?

LF: I think so, comparatively speaking. The one real big plus is Jazz Alley, of course. If you live in the community as a musician or just a jazz fan, you at least have one club where you can see the greatest musicians and bands in jazz on a week-to-week basis. I could think of cities larger than Seattle that don't even have one club, so that's a plus. There are some really good musicians that live here, people like Jay Thomas, Buddy Catlett, Bill Ramsey, and a lot of great younger players coming up like the Marriott brothers, of course they just moved to New York.

AAJ: What are some of your goals for the future? What would you like to do?

LF: Well, I've reached a long time goal, which is to be playing with Ray, so I hope to do that for a long time. But maybe somewhere down the road I'd like to lead my own trio.

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