Tia Fuller: ‘Crystallized Vision’

By Bryan Reesman

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Tia Fuller is riding high. She’s an accomplished musician, a respected Berklee professor, has toured the world with Beyoncé, and her fifth and latest solo album, Diamond Cut, scored her first Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Instrumental album (ultimately, Wayne Shorter Quartet walked away with the trophy for Emanon). That makes her only the second female solo artist to be nominated in that category, following drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, who produced Fuller’s album and won the award in 2014.

A big reason why Fuller stands out among the jazz throng is her ability to find connections between different genres of music and provide a diverse sonic experience. Just listen to Diamond Cut, which actually utilizes two different rhythm sections – bassist Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette, plus bassist James Genus and drummer Bill Stewart – along with support on many compositions from guitarist Adam Rogers and organist Sam Yahel. Working from a time signature counted out as 6-6-4, “The Coming” swells in volume and emotion as it twists and turns in tempo and mood, and it is bookended by Carrington’s hand percussion and mbira playing. “Soul Eyes” and “Save Your Love For Me” are silky and soulful, the former riding a bossa nova vibe. “Joe’n Around” serves up percolating interplay between sax, bass, and drums, while “Tears of Santa Barbara” invokes a nocturnal vibe as Fuller gently solos along with Holland’s bowed and plucked bass accompaniment.

When asked about how she fluidly weaves through different musical journeys, while also balancing musical complexity with emotional harmony, Fuller says it is not a conscious decision. “Early on, that was something that I heard over and over again from loved ones and friends, that you could always feel the spirit behind my music,” she says. “It just comes because it’s an extension of who I am naturally. The different elements of styles like Latin, soul, R&B, gospel, all of these different genres that come together in this melting pot of my tunes, are more or less an extension of the music that I love. There are different elements of the music that I attach to and that I gravitate toward on a daily basis. It excites me, and I think those are the things that I hold onto to serve as the seed or the germ, the light inside of the songs, and the type of feeling that I’d like to recreate in a studio recording.”

Such eclecticism should not be surprising given Fuller’s wide range of musical tastes, and the fact that she grew up hearing a lot of different jazz, including that of Ella Fitzgerald, Marlena Shaw, and Sarah Vaughan. The first solo transcription she learned was Cannonball Adderly’s run in his version of “Stars Fell On Alabama,” followed by John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” While she knew about Charlie Parker, it was not until Fuller lived in Jersey City at age 26, right above Jessie Davis, who had played alto saxophone with Roy Hargrove, that she understood his music. Davis gave her a couple of lessons – the first focused on Bird and his phrasing and vibrato. She learned that “Charlie Parker is not just a bunch of notes. Before my ears weren’t advanced enough to really embrace what he was playing and understand what he was playing, but it was at that point where this light bulb came on.” Then she was hooked. Three sax players who have also influenced her include Joe Henderson, Willie Shaw, and Freddie Hubbard.

The first song that Fuller ever wrote was “Eternal Journey,” which wound up being the title track of Sean Jones’ debut album. She played flute on that recording. It took her a whole year to write the song because she did not know where she wanted the bridge to go. “I used to play with my dad all the time and he’s a bass player,” notes Fuller. “I realized that the inception of my tunes always started from the bass line because it gave me the groove and the harmonic foundation as to where I was going. Since then it’s changed and evolved, but I usually do have a strong element of the bass voice in my tunes.”

Even as she reaches greater heights, Fuller is always learning herself. And as she straddles the professional and academic worlds, she can also impart her real world experience onto her students. “I’ll jump off the plane from being on the road for a week, won’t even have any sleep, and step into the classroom,” she says. “In lieu of the content and the material that we’re working on for the semester, I always integrate the idea that music is a manifestation of your life. How are we using certain particular concepts or practices within what we’re working in the classroom to essentially cultivate our character. That leads back to sustainability.”

An exercise that she conducts at the start of each semester is a visualization exercise where students are asked to be write down their big goals and dreams from the musical to the financial to the personal. “Of course, it may change,” notes Fuller. She did the same exercise as a student around the age of 22 and more recently pulled it out to see how she had fared.

“I started tearing up because I realized I had hit about 98 percent, and the things that I had hit that I was blessed with even more in abundance,” the musician recalls. It was not just that she was touring world, but she that went on the road with Beyoncé and her all-female band. It was not just landing a record deal with Mack Avenue, but having Christian McBride appear on her third album Decisive Steps. She and McBride also toured together in 2016 with the annual Mack Avenue SuperBand.

“It was down the line,” sums up Fuller of her wish list. “I really use the classroom as a platform to cultivate character within the students and sustainability, so that music is not just isolated theory behind it, but it’s the meaning and the intent and how they could use that to empower themselves throughout their lives.”

Fuller certainly has her hands full these days. We spoke by phone just prior to the Grammy Awards, and on top of preparing for the awards (which included coordinating her wardrobe choice with a designer), she was juggling the teaching of seven ensembles at Berklee, acting as her own manager, conducting interviews, and organizing her curriculum for the second semester of the school year. This flurry of activity did not quickly swell “overnight,” and when some of her young and inexperienced students impatiently chirp about wanting their own endorsement or getting to tour with an icon, she stresses upon them the need to cultivate the tools they will need to move through life and prepare for when such opportunities arise. That is how longevity is achieved – through planning, discipline, and intention.

That longevity can lead to other opportunities along the way. At the end of 2017, Fuller and Carrington formed We Have Voices, a collective of young women in the performing arts that has a code of conduct promoting zero tolerance of harassment and bullying of any kind. It promotes the creation and strengthening of safer spaces upholding the equitable treatment of all people regardless of gender, race, creed, and background. They encourage speaking up against unfair or uncomfortable work environments in the arts, and they promote diversity and working together.

Music was the path that the 42 year-old composer and performer was destined to travel. Raised in Aurora, Colorado, a suburb of Denver, she grew up in a musical family with two jazz musician parents (bassist Fred and singer Elthopia) and her sister Shamie Royston, who plays piano. In adulthood, Royston has composed for her sister, played on two of her albums, and has been playing live with her regularly since the release of Diamond Cut.

Fuller started playing piano at age 3, an instrument her mother had her play until age 13 to get a solid musical foundation and learn discipline on an instrument. She started on flute at age 9 and saxophone around age 10, the latter of which she would play in middle and high school jazz bands.

All along the way, her mother exposed her to “different options and opportunities,” explains Fuller. “Although both of my parents are musicians and we had this family band called Fuller Sound, they didn’t want to force us into music.”

While playing saxophone during her time at Gateway High School, Fuller also played percussion in the marching band from her sophomore through senior years. “That really took precedent, especially during marching band season,” says Fuller. She was practicing rudiments for four hours a day on percussion, and she was still playing in jazz band on saxophone. “It really wasn’t until my freshman year in college that I made a very clear, decisive decision that I was going to become a professional musician and work toward that where I was practicing six to eight hours a day at Spelman College.”

Her high school percussion instructor Mike Nevin made them rehearse for long hours, and she learned about commitment, dedication, clarity of vision, and the fruits of hard work: “I saw the level of passion that he had toward us and toward the end result, and how that made us even more passionate for the end of the year performance or the competition or whatever we were doing.” That experience was so transformative that during her senior year she contemplated whether she should audition for drum corps instead of going to college.

The burgeoning artist chose to attend Spelman College in Atlanta. Not having a conservatory setting there that she would have had at a Berklee School of Music or a Manhattan School of Music, Fuller recreated it for herself by sitting in three or four nights at various jazz clubs including the Yin Yang Cafe and Churchill Grounds, while her teacher Joe Hennings procured gigs for her on campus that he could not commit to. “He really took me under his wing because I was one of the only two students at the time that really wanted to play jazz professionally,” she recalls. Fuller got the chance to play lead alto in a big band comprised of Spelman and Morehouse students who accompanied Ray Charles when he came into town. It was her first opportunity to play with a legend.

After graduating magna cum laude with her B.A. in music from Spelman in 1998, Fuller wanted to dive into the New York scene right away. But then she received the opportunity to return to Colorado and get her masters for free by being a teaching assistant in a newly introduced program at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the first year of the jazz pedagogy program. It was a two-year program of which she was the first graduate with a master’s degree in jazz pedagogy and performance in May 2000. She arrived in New York two days before 9/11, eventually taking up residence in neighboring New Jersey.

Fuller remembered advice given to her by drummer Terreon Gully, who has played with David Sanborn and Diane Reeves and who she met in Atlanta. He told her to always have a plan – whether checking out live music, sitting in on a session, or meeting people – and to strategically place herself to meet or play with people. “Just to have a plan so that I wouldn’t get swooped up because there’s so much activity in New York, you can really get unfocused,” she says.

“I think by being visible, being intentional, and just being on the scene, more people got a chance to hear that I could read and then that I could solo,” remarks Fuller. “Then I would get hired for gigs. They saw that I was responsible, I was on time, I would learn music, and I would print out the music. I haven’t had specific conversations with bandleaders, but I know that all of that because, as a bandleader now, this is what I look for. It’s not just about musicianship, but it’s also about your workmanship, dedication, and commitment. Are you going to keep your word to doing a gig? These are all things I believe that over the years have worked in my favor. Then also practicing, staying diligent, and being prepared.”

The opportunities that have arisen include playing with the Nancy Wilson Jazz Orchestra, Esperanza Spalding, and Terri Lyne Carrington, who would become her mentor. “Terri has been extremely instrumental in my growth as a musician and throughout my life,” says Fuller. “Even before we met, I remember watching her on ‘The Arsenio Hall Show,’ which served as a major inspiration for me. I later met her in 2011, and got a chance to play with her while doing a residency at Berklee College of Music. I was so excited.”

At this point, Fuller started working with Carrington’s Mosaic Project more frequently. She was able to see first-hand “how masterfully she works in the studio and as a musician and band leader and business woman, on and off stage. In particular, she would always encourage me not to always ‘bear down’ but to explore nuances of my sound and approach as saxophonist and composer. She specifically would suggest for me to really check out Wayne and Charles Lloyd and Lovano, to check out how they play texture and shapes.”

As Carrington produced Diamond Cut, she encouraged Fuller to do multiple drafts of a tune. At one point, as the duo were traveling to Europe by plane, the saxophonist played one of her compositions. Carrington then suggested “how to restructure the tune,” recalls Fuller, “and essentially expand my scope of writing by extending the melody, harmony, or rhythm, by playing some examples of Wayne and Joni Mitchell, as well as many others.”

“Hands down, if it wasn’t for Terri, Diamond Cut would not be what it is,” enthuses Fuller. “Through her faith and vision for the album, she pushed and encouraged me to evolve, to grow, and reach a new dimension within my music as a player and composer. I am so thankful for Terri in my life. She always has and continues to be a source of light, for not only myself but many of the greats.”

The big gig that raised Fuller’s profile was, of course, with Beyoncé. That lasted from 2006 to 2010 and included a performance at the White House for President Barack Obama. She landed the coveted position through a combination of talent, perseverance, and fortuitous circumstances. When Fuller first heard about the pop diva’s worldwide auditions, the future Grammy nominee went over to Sony Studios in New York and faced a long line that wrapped around the block. She did not have the time to wait for eight hours, so she “strategically placed myself in front of the line and ended up auditioning.” While she had not had enough time to deeply study Beyoncé’s catalog, the singer’s musical director was more interested in just hearing Fuller play.

The saxophonist made the cut for the second callbacks, in which the number of auditioners was reduced from 5,000 to around 500. All day long players were learning Beyoncé’s latest single “Déjà Vu.” But when the names to advance were later called out, Fuller was not among them. Luckily, Beyoncé had walked in two performers prior to hers and thus heard Fuller play, and upon learning that she was not on the list insisted she be brought back. Following the third callback of 100 finalists, Fuller landed the gig.

“Had it not been for her being in that room, I wouldn’t have made the cut to that second tier,” admits Fuller. “It happened at a perfect time in my life. Now I wouldn’t have done it. I was 28 or 29 hustling in New York.” Ultimately, the experience of touring the world with the pop star (they played every continent except Antarctica) was a profound one.

“After sitting in 8 to 12 hour rehearsals and seeing how she would function as a bandleader, I learned from watching how she would always turn a no into a yes,” recalls Fuller. “If she wanted something to be a part of our show” – for example, asking for particular choreography or lighting cues that were deemed hard to do – “she would always try to find a yes. That’s my more positive and optimistic way of saying she wouldn’t accept no for an answer. She’s very steeped in her vision for herself and the vision for her show, and that’s been really transformational for me as a band leader and even as an educator. To me, it’s all in light of what I was saying before regarding having a crystallized vision and really holding on to that vision, allowing that to be the directive in your life.”

The sax player also gelled with her bandmates. “It was like a party,” she says. “As a band, we all got together and everybody would really bring their own voice and whatever they were proficient in it. But when we got together it was always a party. And it still is. It’s because everybody has such strong personalities that complement each other.” She would later bring them to Berklee to perform concerts with students there as the Berklee Beyoncé Ensemble.

Five years ago, Beyoncé’s musical director called and asked Fuller if she could go back on the road and also play the Super Bowl show that year. Literally 24 hours later, the chair of the ensemble department at Berklee, facing “unforeseen changes in their faculty,” offered the saxophonist a full-time position at the school. She faced a major crossroads in her life.

“Up until that point, I realized that I had been praying to be able to teach,” says Fuller, “and to give the experience that I gained touring with Beyoncé and everything I had done up until that point. It was time for me to move on. But that was a painful process because you can get caught up into the hype of touring with somebody like that. It’s this artificial hype. After some prayer and talking to my parents, I realized that it was time for me to move on, and that’s probably the best decision I could’ve made for my life at that point in time. I had already done everything I needed to do with her.”

After a year of commuting four hours from Jersey City to teach in Boston and back Monday through Wednesday, then touring Thursday through Sunday, Fuller decided to move up there in January 2014.

The professor and performer sees her professional and educational lives as being intertwined. She wants to “encourage and inspire others through an internal narrative woven about the show, or to share an experience that may give some light to the audience.” Conversely, she can bring her real world experiences into the classroom to enlighten her students.

“I’m realizing that the two are one, and it’s the same concept,” Fuller says of her two lives. “We’re dealing with people. We’re dealing with love. We’re dealing with cultivating empowerment, inspiration, all of the things that we’re talking about in this interview as far as maintaining faith, how to exercise your faith, and different ways of tapping into your character and your purpose in life. That’s what it essentially comes down to. So whether it be on stage or whether it be in the classroom, it’s the same. It’s just different methodologies.”

Her hard work has come to fruition in many ways. Fuller’s first album in five years, Diamond Cut, snagged a Grammy nomination. She returned last year to Spelman to receive the distinguished alumni award and gave a keynote speech for all the graduating students in the College Of Music, which she really enjoyed. Her theme was “journey to success.” Her key points? “Moving forward with a crystallized vision, a warrior-like persistence, and an angelic-like optimism.”

On her list of future projects, the lifelong musician says she would like to write an orchestral piece. She would also like to start a school, although whether it will be physical or online has yet to be determined. “Those are more recent goals that I’m working toward now,” she says. Like anything else Fuller has achieved, it’s simply a matter of hard work and perseverance to get there. On her dream list last year was to get a Grammy, and she says it really seemed far-fetched then.

“I always tell students that anything is possible and everything is tangible,” says Fuller. “It’s a matter of aligning yourself with the opportunity, with the people, but not expecting for it to happen overnight. Essentially to keep the faith and keep your vision, that big picture that you have for yourself, and trusting that it will come to fruition no matter how hard it gets. To me, that’s one of the most important themes and principals that’s interwoven throughout this whole life.”

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