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Tia Fuller: Hustle & Flow

With an imposing new jazz album and a road gig backing R&B’s biggest star, saxophonist Tia Fuller is thriving

Tia Fuller
Tia Fuller
Tia Fuller
Tia Fuller

Determination: It sparkles in Tia Fuller’s deep-brown eyes; it radiates through her rich mocha skin; it flashes through her beaming smile. It also invigorates her voice both on the saxophone and in conversation.

We’re sitting in Gobo, a chic vegetarian restaurant in New York City’s West Village, on a frosty early January evening. Fuller rocks a svelte pinstripe blazer and matching pants with a red, laced blouse. When she talks, many of her words lean forward in an italicized fashion. Fuller hardly sounds harried, though; she also laughs constantly, emanating a magnetism that’s inescapable. Without giving off any of the negative attributes associated with the word “diva,” Fuller emits diva energy in the best sense of the word: She’s direct, she knows what she wants, and she knows how to get it.

It doesn’t hurt that since 2007 she’s been touring with the biggest diva in the R&B world, Beyoncé. Fresh off a massive worldwide tour that included Egypt, Japan, Europe and the Philippines, Fuller is constantly in contact with R&B, pop and hip-hop A-listers, a situation that can prove financially seductive for jazz artists. Fuller denies that there’s been any temptation spurred by Beyoncé to move fully into the pop world. And while she can talk endlessly about the artistic benefits gained from playing with pop superstars, Fuller continues to stake her claim in the jazz world. “I want to establish myself as a jazz artist first,” declares the 34-year-old alto and soprano saxophonist, flutist, composer and bandleader. “About 10 years ago, when I first moved out to Cherry Hill, N.J., I promised myself [I would] really focus on jazz and establish myself as a jazz artist. Being, of course, a female in jazz, a lot of people would like to take my career in different directions. I’m using this record in continuing to establish myself as [a jazz artist].”

When Fuller says “this record,” she’s referring to Decisive Steps (Mack Avenue), her vivacious third disc. Both the title and the album’s searing, no-nonsense jazz content affirm Fuller’s modus operandi. And while that title might appear at first to be a play on John Coltrane’s classic “Giant Steps,” it actually comes from the lyrics of “Life Brings,” a bonus track available exclusively on iTunes. The song contains the life-affirming verses, Live your life in faith, not fear/Abundant life in this new year/Pursuit of dreams, decisive steps/Will bring you to your victory yet. “Those lyrics really captured the kind of direction that I’m trying to take in my life,” Fuller says.

“It’s a guide that I want to send to the rest of the world about moving through life in faith, not fear, and really taking strategic and specific, aggressive steps toward where you want to go,” she continues. “Even during those times when I had bad days and [wasn’t] feeling as inspired, I can say, ‘OK, it’s time to take some decisive steps and move forward with intent and purpose.'”

“Life Brings” also features singer Asaph Womack and tap dancer Maurice Chestnut. Picking up on some of the visual razzle-dazzle gained from her tenure with Beyoncé, Fuller has an idea for a large-scale live presentation of “Life Brings” that would include dancers, video and an orchestra. Even during her smaller gigs, she tries to incorporate a few of Beyoncé’s dancers. “That component just expands the jazz audience,” Fuller explains. “If there’s somebody there who has never heard jazz before, hopefully the music will capture them. But if not, then I think a combination of the music and the visual will.”

Fuller argues that her experiences with Beyoncé have broadened her perspective regarding the music industry and the art of presentation. “Yes, the music is important,” Fuller assures. “But also the physical aspect of how I look onstage, the presentation of a show, the set list of a show and how it flows, the lighting of the show. All of that is not what the average jazz musician will think about.”

After one listen to Decisive Steps‘ opening title track, however, it becomes clear that Fuller’s visual insights haven’t diminished her focus on music. On alto, Fuller wields a silvery tone and is prone to serpentine improvisations that zig, zag, jab and soar with brisk fluidity. “I’m really rhythmic,” she explains. “I like playing with drummers. I like being melodic, too, but I’m extremely rhythmic.” Case in point: the hyper-kinetic interaction she ignites with drummer Kim Thompson, another member of Beyoncé’s all-female band, on that bristling title track, which also features Miriam Sullivan’s propulsive basslines and knuckle-busting piano accompaniment from Fuller’s older sister, Shamie Royston.

The rest of this feature can be found in the June 2010 issue of JazzTimes.

Originally Published