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Tia Fuller: Stepping Forward Decisively


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For saxophonist Tia Fuller, becoming a musician, and concentrating on jazz, seems almost preordained. After all, she came from a musical family who loved and performed jazz. She started playing piano at the age of 3. Music has always been in her life.

Then there's that family video where, at age 9, asked what she wanted to do in her life, she tells her father she wants to play the saxophone.

"That's the only reason I knew what I said, because I saw it (on the video). Even though it was over three years later that I picked up the saxophone. It's interesting that at 9 I knew that I wanted to play the saxophone," says Fuller, laughing. "It just took me a while to get there."

Get there she did, studying jazz in college, then going to from her Colorado home to New York City to meet musicians and carve out a career. She's done well so far, adding her glistening alto saxophone sound to a variety of settings with the likes of Sean Jones, T.S. Monk and others. She has also connected with the big-time popular music world, doing a tour as part of Beyoncé's all-female band.

But she remains grounded in the jazz world, as evidenced by her new recording Decisive Steps, her second for the Mack Avenue label. It's a strong album, played with zest and fire by Fuller's all-female band with special guests like Christian McBride and trumpeter Jones.

"My roots are in jazz, so I definitely do consider myself a jazz person," she says. "But I'm not just limited to jazz. I grew up playing in some funk bands and wedding bands ... I am a musician, but my roots are in jazz."

Her latest CD showcases not only her sharp playing, but her writing skills. It also is a step in her progression as a musician and a person, she says. The titles of her three CDs as a leader deliberately reflect her strong, move-forward philosophy. Her debut CD was Pillar of Strength (Wambui, 2005), her second Healing Space (Mack Avenue, 2007).

Decisive Steps comes from a song lyric she wrote that, in part, says: "pursuit of dreams, decisive steps/ will bring you to your victory yet," and it jumped out to her as the theme for the new album.

"I really wanted to write something that reflected seeing beyond the obvious and really pushing yourself, taking aggressive and strategic steps forward in our purpose as human beings, whatever our purpose is ... taking steps in faith and not fear," says Fuller.

"It's definitely intentional that all of the album titles are affirmative. They are titles that, on a daily basis, I go back through and try to use them as affirmations," says Fuller. "To be a pillar of strength. To also be in a space of healing and restoration. And now, I'm in a state of really moving forward and trying to press through it all, no matter what's going on ... pushing forward toward the light and my purpose and all of the goals that I'm trying to achieve.

"Not only do I want to make music, but I think it's important that as musicians we inspire. It's our obligation, really, to inspire and help other people in life. We're all human beings. I think we all can use encouragement. I just pray that this album can be encouraging to myself and also to other people. Right now, I can feel that it has, which is great. I'm going to continue to go in that direction."

The CD bursts out of the jewel case with the title cut, a song that burns, then changes texture. Fuller gets a chance to flex her bop chops, as well as deftly negotiate the changes with her invigorating and expressive attack. Pianist Shamie Royston, Fuller's sister, also dazzles over the pulsing rhythm of drummer Kim Thompson and bassist Miriam Sullivan. The song came from the mind of Fuller, but it stymied even her for a bit.

"I actually had to grow to like that one because it was so complex. When we recorded it, we did about 10 takes of it because we hadn't played it. I had just finished the song a day or two before the recording session. It's such a complicated melody, the time changes," she says. "It has to grow on you. But I like it now."

The songs are varied. "Kissed by the Sun" has a Latin tinge. "Night Glow" and "Clear Mind" have a ¾ time vibe. There are a couple of standards, "I Can't Get Started" and "My Shining Hour," and one selection, "Windsoar" penned by Royston which features some scorching trumpet by Jones, one of today's brilliant trumpet voices and someone with whom Fuller has been playing for nearly a decade. Fuller's sax also blisters through the various changes.

Says Fuller, "I wrote specifically for this album in mind ... The past couple albums I've typically written for those specific albums so that I can deal with a concept and everything is kind of related to each other. It's more or less like a disjointed story. A story, nonetheless, that captures the wholeness of taking decisive steps in some way. I was trying, in putting the sequence together, to offer many different tempos and styles within the genre of jazz. But sometimes extending beyond it. Like with "Ebb & Flow," it's more like a funk deal. It's still jazz, but it has more of a groove."

McBride, a giant of his instrument, thumps a funky electric bass on "Ebb & Flow" and his signature acoustic work provides the appropriate dashes to the aptly named "Shades of McBride." The latter also has a fine vibe solo by guest artist Warren Wolf.

"This is one of the first times I've played with him," Fuller says of McBride. "It was amazing. He's such a strong player that just he came in and, upon looking at the music the first day, played it exactly how I heard it in my head. That was definitely a blessing."

Fuller is happy with the response she's received for the new recording. "I do feel it is a representation of who I am and where I am today," she says. "I'm in a place of being more comfortable with who I am as a musician and as a woman, as a black woman. I think this just comes with life."

The band is already touring in support of the new music and will continue to do so this year. The album shows a musician maturing, with a strong concept and a full, supple alto sax sound. She can negotiate any style and any feel, as her recordings show. Her association with Beyoncé also displays that she can adapt and contribute strong musical statements in a different setting.

Fuller had to audition in 2006 to get the job in Beyoncé's band, a process that started with 5,000 women nationwide, was trimmed to 200, and then 50 before the 10-member band was finalized. (Her drummer Thompson also made the band). But Fuller didn't just use the gig as a chance to pick up a bigger pay check and get a taste of that popular world. The Beyoncé band is part of her musical palette and, like everything, Fuller finds a way to use that life experience as a learning experience.

"I learned a lot about myself and my function as a band member. Also as a leader," says Fuller. "I learned a lot just watching the hard work ethic she has. And how not to be afraid to push the people that are working for you, be it the band or the video crew, to push them to the level of greatness that you want them to be at. So the product overall will be that much better ... I was placed in this position of being able to play with Beyoncé so that I can merge the two worlds of pop and jazz, the two industries, per se, with what I'm doing with my individual album. I'm just trying to work on that. The approach to take. Still staying in the root of jazz, but maybe incorporating certain things that I've learned with Beyoncé.

"It's made me realize that anything is possible. I never would have thought of playing with Beyoncé, but I knew that I wanted to travel the world. I knew I wasn't just going to play jazz. But it's shown me that anything, pretty much, is possible. If there are ways to do certain things, if you have the right resources and connections ... (big names) have the support of different endorsers, different sponsors. People who are willing to put money into them so that they can travel comfortably. It's all about knowing people, having a vision of where you want to go, and trying to attract those things to you."

Fuller seems always willing to learn, perhaps because education, as well as music, has always been part of her life.

Fuller was a young child when she was hearing the sounds of Sarah Vaughan, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Ben Webster and Ella Fitzgerald around her home. Her father, Fred, was a bassist and her mother, Elthopia, sang. They were educators, but also had a band called Fuller Sound that played gigs.

"My parents had exposed us both my sister and I to playing piano," she recalls. "I started at 3. She started at 6 or 7. Then they exposed us to instruments and different art forms. I started playing flute when I was 9 and saxophone when I was 13. But when I was 13, I was also doing other things. I was in gymnastics and dance and an acting troupe. They allowed us to come into our own as far as what we wanted to do, although it was pretty much certain that I was playing piano from 3 until I was 13. After that I was able to choose the direction that I wanted to go ... I'm really thankful to my parents for that. Never did they force me to play."

It was as a senior in high school, after she did a feature solo with the school band on "I Hear a Rhapsody," that she had a revelation that playing saxophone professionally was a distinct possibility. She was listening to jazz CDs, not only of Coltrane and Parker, which were too complex at first, but music by Eric Marienthal and Vincent Herring. The Wynton Marsalis album, Black Codes from the Underground (Columbia, 1985) and Cannonball Adderley's Somethin' Else (Blue Note, 1958) were also early listening influences.

Around the age of 18, she was gigging with the family band, "which was very cool. We still play a lot together when I'm home. We played clubs in the Denver metropolitan area and private parties and things like that. I was gigging around at the age of 18, my freshman year in college (Spelman College in Atlanta). When I'd come home I'd gig or I'd be sitting in five to seven nights a week. I'd go to local jazz clubs. The same thing in college. I was sitting in a lot. Trying to learn the music and the history. Learning repertoire. Practicing. Sitting in whenever I could and playing whenever I could."

She adds, "It was mainly jazz, because from 18 to 21 I was really trying to focus on just jazz. I would take some other jobs, but I was kind of hesitant because I wanted to stay focus on the history and learning how to improvise. Learning jazz theory."

In Atlanta, drummer Terreon Gully a mentor, as well as her teacher, Joe Jennings. The latter "really took me under his wing and taught me a lot about jazz theory and saxophone. Those were the two main individuals. Then all of the Atlanta-based musicians when I was in school. They really did help. They embraced me and took me under their wings. Get out and play and learn as much as possible."

Fuller yearned for New York City and its jazz scene. It was a goal. But after graduating from Spelman, she had a full scholarship to get a master's degree, so she moved forward to the University of Colorado, Boulder.

"Education was highly stressed in my family because both of my parents are retired administrators in the public school district," explains Fuller. "Even before that, my mom always instilled that whenever you start something you finish it ... That carried me on throughout school. I saw a lot of my friends not finishing, for whatever reason. For me that wasn't an option. On top of my parents both being educators, I knew that if I started something, I want it completed. I knew that, both with under-grad and graduate school, I was going to knock it out—straight through. I didn't want to take any time off, for one. I also enjoyed school. It gave me an opportunity to hone my craft."

There as another benefit to graduate school, she admits. "I was able to hone my craft for teaching, doing clinics and workshops. That's when I really started teaching at the university level. Directing a big band and combos and teaching jazz improv as a TA (teaching assistant) at the University of Colorado, Boulder." Today, she lectures and teaches ensembles and master classes at institutions around the country and enjoys that aspect of her vocation.

Upon receiving her master's degree, she finally moved to New York. She jokes, "I took a little detour (grad school), but I'm glad I did, because it all worked out."

She arrived there, settling across the Hudson River in New Jersey, on September 9, 2001. Two days before the tragic terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

After the attack, the economy of the Big Apple, and the spirit in some sense, went into a slump. While the city was resilient enough in the face of the tragedy, people were going out less. Night clubs were staggered, musicians complained. Some say it has never quite fully returned to pre-9/11 form. For Fuller, she was in the teeth of it in the months of late 2001. But she was undaunted.

"That actually encouraged me and motivated me to really hustle," she says. "I was working within a week. I remember my first gig was at a fish fry in south Jersey. It was a big band gig at a fish fry. From there I got a gig playing every Tuesday night playing at a poetry jam. They had a live band. A funk band. And playing every Sunday at church. Doing some weddings with different bands. Also, I was still remaining a part of the jazz scene. I'd go and sit in about five nights a week in New York so I could remain visible. It's been nine years now and led up to this, which has been really amazing."

Musicians like Ralph Peterson, Jimmy Heath, Jon Faddis, T.S. Monk, Don Braden, Don Byron, Brad Leali, Javon Jackson and longtime friend Jones helped her budding career and she found opportunities with them and through them. She did big bands gigs with Faddis, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Charlie Persip and others. "It's been a lot of different people," helping along the way, she notes.

It's led to a career where she works as a sideman in various capacities—the bands of trombonist Wycliffe Gordon and pianist Orrin Evans are more recent regular gigs—and brings her music to the forefront with her own band. It's a good place to be, she admits. She's come a long way from Aurora, Colorado, to playing at the White House. (She was excited for a week before that trip because the Beyoncé band would play Anita Baker's "Sweet Love" in front of President Obama, a song on which she trades sax solo riffs with Beyoncé's vocals).

"I feel very blessed and extremely thankful to be given the many opportunities that I've been given. I know that it's extremely hard to be a professional jazz musician. A professional musician and artist. Especially today. So I'm really thankful and just want to do my part. Walk in my purpose in playing this music. Hopefully inspire other people," says Fuller in earnest.

Looking at the future, Fuller still sees good things, even while she acknowledges the tough challenges facing the musicians and the music business.

"There are a lot of great young players out there today that are carrying the torch. I just wish that there were more clubs. I wish there were more venues so the people could come out and support it. ... It's hard with the talent that's around, then not having enough gigs for everybody to play at. There are fewer incentives, other than the music itself, to play. If there was anything that I wish to change and be altered, it would be that there are more opportunities to play in clubs. To share the music with people that aren't musicians, and also other musicians."

Fuller is one of those torch bearers, and listening to her inspired, inventive playing, it's easy to imagine that good things lie ahead.

Selected Discography

Tia Fuller, Decisive Steps (Mack Avenue, 2010)
Tia Fuller, Healing Space (Mack Avenue, 2007)
Sean Jones, Kaleidoscope, (Mack Avenue, 2007)
Tia Fuller, Pillar of Strength (Wambui, 2005)
Sean Jones, Eternal Journey (Mack Avenue, 2004)
Brad Leali, and his Jazz Orchestra, Maria Juanez (Montreux Jazz, 2007)

Photo Credit

Maketta Wilcoxson, Courtesy of Tia Fuller

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