Tia Fuller: The Brilliance of a Diamond


Tia Fuller’s most recent album is Diamond Cut (Mack Avenue).

(Photo: Jimmy & Dena Katz)

Tia Fuller knows about being a road warrior. As featured saxophone soloist in Beyoncé’s all-woman band between 2006 and 2010, she traveled from one mega-venue to another in high style, not infrequently in the leader’s private jet.

Between 2012 and 2015, she experienced the grind to which jazz musicians are more accustomed, traversing the European circuit by air, train and van with bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding’s Radio Music Society, and Terri Lyne Carrington’s Mosaic and Money Jungle projects, while also continuing to lead her own groups on periodic sojourns in support of her Mack Avenue leader albums. In 2013, when Berklee College of Music hired Fuller as an ensemble professor, a weekly commute to Boston from New Jersey entered her quotidian routine.

In late June—a day after she’d concluded a month of shows across the United States with a new quartet performing repertoire from her fourth Mack Avenue album, Diamond Cut—Fuller made the Amtrak trip from Boston (now her home) to New York to talk with DownBeat about the Carrington-produced date.

If the day-trip was well within Fuller’s comfort zone, the music contained therein is not: She eschews using a pianist, as she’d done on prior albums, instead framing her piquant, full-bodied alto saxophone sound with two all-star bass-drum tandems—Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette; James Genus and Bill Stewart—and guitarist Adam Rogers.

Fuller started the writing process in 2015 while traveling with the Mack Avenue Super Band, focusing on the spacious environment that John Patitucci’s six-string electric and piccolo basses imparted to portions of Angelic Warrior, her 2012 release. “It’s a sonic shift, which also expresses my feeling that I’ve evolved as a woman and as a musician,” Fuller said. “Terri and I had an extensive conversation about it. She said, ‘Tia, I’d like to see you align yourself with some of the masters in the community, so you’ll play up to that level and be pushed.’”

How successfully Fuller fulfilled Carrington’s mandate denotes her steadily ascending stature and maturity as a performer and implies her ability to convey within the educational arena the particulars of functioning at the highest levels of the music industry. Her students at Berklee benefit not only from Fuller’s myriad tours and albums, but also her background in academia and the practical wisdom she’s gained from conducting countless master classes. (Fuller, along with trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, will serve in September as artists-in-residence at the 2018 Monterey Jazz Festival—a role involving performances, as well as clinics.)

Fuller’s commitment to her educational mission was palpable as she described processing an offer for a full-time position at Berklee. “I had taken a very long break at the tail end of Beyoncé’s tour,” she said. “Then, within 24 hours of my receiving the call from Berklee, they called us all to come back out. Early on, I didn’t want to teach. My parents were educators; I didn’t want to do what they did. But I remember giving a saxophone lesson while I was serving in my TA position in graduate school, and the light bulb went off. Right then, I realized that to provide light and direction is a beautiful thing. When I’d rehearse with Beyoncé, I’d think, ‘I’m not maximizing my potential—it’s a great opportunity, but I want to teach.’ I didn’t want to do it in a public-school setting, though, because I wanted to be able to perform and to travel.

“It was almost a no-brainer. I’d done everything I needed to do. My only struggle was to let go of the ego of, ‘Oh, you’re playing with Beyoncé.’ Then it was like: OK, it’s time for me to move fervently into this next direction, so I can step into my purpose—to bring to the next generation the experiences I’ve learned from Beyoncé, from being a bandleader and everything else, and be a light for others, whether on stage or in the classroom.”

The decision to make the offer also seemed like a no-brainer to Ron Savage, a drummer who then was chair of Berklee’s ensemble department and is now dean of the performance division. “I was always looking for excellent musicians who have a certain spirit in the way they relate to people and share with people, and who are interested in teaching,” Savage said. He first heard Fuller play in 2011 at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Italy, where Berklee conducts summer clinics. “As soon as Tia came to the mic to introduce her band and began to play, she set a strong tone of collaboration, collegiality and respect. In that moment, it hit me that she’s a role model our students need to see, musically and otherwise.”

During several Berklee workshops the following year, Savage observed how strongly the students responded to Fuller’s teaching. “It’s not typical for any musician to go from playing hardcore, straightahead jazz to playing with one of the world’s biggest pop stars, and also have a master’s degree,” he said, mentioning Fuller’s advanced degree in jazz pedagogy and performance from the University of Colorado at Boulder. “She’s a complete package. I knew she’d have other offers, but I had no doubt we’d work it out.”

Berklee’s ensemble department comprises 450 bands playing 60 styles of music. Fuller was assigned the half-century-old Rainbow All-Star Ensemble and the Rainbow Big Band Ensemble legacy bands from Phil Wilson, and was asked if she had any new ensembles in mind. She suggested the Esperanza Spalding Radio Music Society, Christian McBride and Beyoncé.

“I wanted to bring something reflecting the A-list production skills I’d experienced and observed while touring and rehearsing with Beyoncé,” Fuller said. “The rehearsals were 12 hours. We might play for three or four. The rest of the time, I’d watch and learn the choreography, see how many lights were on Beyoncé, how things were set up. We have all the tools here, all the departments.”

In 2017, Fuller supervised a student-run production in which nine of the 10 original members of Beyoncé’s all-female band merged with the ensemble. It included five dancers, five vocalists, two guitarists, three keyboardists, two bass players, two drummers, six horn players, strings, LED lighting and a smoke machine. “It was a full-on production from head to toe,” Fuller said. On a student’s suggestion, she upped the ante in 2017–’18 with a student-organized Bruno Mars tribute show that included 60 dancers and a drum line.

“The Beyoncé show was the groundbreaker, but Bruno Mars taught us where we can actually go once we start doing it,” Savage said. “I thought they could do the show in Las Vegas the next day. There’s the inclusiveness of the band, of the singers and the dancers, drawn from the different demographics and communities on our campus. You also saw young women being featured and put in leadership roles—and Tia herself setting the standard.”

“On the first day of school, they’d learned almost all the music, with some choreography,” Fuller said. “The band is all men, so I interwove the #MeToo movement in certain sections. We talked about equality in the classroom, equality in the performing arts for women, that young men should hold their brothers accountable for injustice or unrighteousness to women. I wanted the show to be not only an A-list production, but a platform to educate the students and the audience.”

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