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.