Tia Fuller Has Sax Appeal
On the Tuesday before Father's Day in 2006, Tia Fuller went to an audition that changed her life. Beyoncé was scouting for members of her ten-piece, all-female touring band at Sony Studios in New York. Although the tryouts started at 9 a.m., Fuller didn't show up until 6 p.m. The Aurora native had spent all day rehearsing with her bandmates — drummer Kim Thompson, pianist Miki Hayama and bassist Miriam Sullivan — in preparation for her second album, Healing Space, which she was set to record later that week. By the time she and the other ladies in her band made it, there were already between 600 and 700 other women waiting in line.
After waiting a few hours herself, Fuller finally got her chance to show off her sax chops. She had no idea what her chances were of landing the gig; she was just happy to give it a shot. Over the next three days, she laid down tracks for Healing Space. While in the studio that Friday, Fuller and Thompson were asked to return to Sony Studios and were invited back again the following Sunday.
"After being in these two eight-hour days of going in and out of the room with different girls," Fuller recalls, "we found out that we made it. They narrowed it down to ten women. So it was a great process, but it was really strenuous."
Fuller says touring with Beyoncé was an amazing experience. She learned a lot from the R&B singer and got to witness her work ethic firsthand. "She's like a workaholic," she says of the famous diva. "Just to see how she works and how she's really a facilitator and has people in place around her to facilitate certain things, it's really taught me — and continues to teach me — how to function as a bandleader. I've really tried to take that experience in watching her, just on a smaller scale, bringing it back to the jazz community and seeing how I could function as a leader and as an artist and how I'm able to reach out to the masses.
"Night after night of playing venues of 20,000 people was just, like, crazy," she continues. "So a lot of times, I'd come back home and I'd sit in at a jam session, and I'm like, 'Wow! People are people, whether it be thirty people or 30,000 people.' It's just a matter of reaching out and putting that energy out there in whatever venue you're in, so that's really what I'm trying to work on now."
This week, Fuller will be putting her energy into a two-night stand at Dazzle, where she'll be joined by her older sister, pianist Shamie Fuller-Royston, who also wrote three songs for Healing Space. The Fuller sisters grew up around music. Tia recalls her childhood in Aurora, hearing John Coltrane and Charlie Parker while she and Shamie played in the front yard. The girls come from a family of musicians, including a younger brother who plays drums and their parents, Ethiopia and Fred, who started a band called the Fuller Sound. The group released a disc titled Eternal Journey nearly a decade ago.
"Growing up with both my parents being musicians and being around the music really laid the groundwork and a strong foundation for me," Fuller points out. "I think it was an advantage, because I was able to hear the music playing constantly. Like my dad — if we were cleaning the house or if we were having a barbecue, music was constantly playing throughout our house. It was a definite advantage coming from a musical family."
Indeed. Fuller's parents started her on piano lessons at age three, and by the time she was thirteen, she'd switched to the sax, inspired by Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane and Branford Marsalis. After graduating from Gateway High School, she began working on a bachelor's degree in music at Atlanta's Spelman College. That's where she read about how Duke Ellington's compositions reflected the times and realized the impact that telling a story through music could have.
"You can give a chronological thing of what's happening, either with the social times or personally with what's happening with your life," she notes, going on to explain how she applied that sentiment to her music. "That's what I was really trying to aim for with Healing Space. And pretty much every tune is a reflection of some form of healing that I composed. There were a lot of transitions in my life. I was just getting over a relationship, and I was really trying to make some stuff happen career-wise. And so with all of that, I was just really trying to heal from that and, I don't know, just dealing with life, seeking restoration and some healing. I used this album as a sort of testimony to myself, and hopefully for other people, that I could I help myself and others."
That healing comes across in different forms throughout the album — in the thoroughly swinging "Breakthrough," the relaxed grooves of "Ebonics" and Fuller's contemplative tour de force on "Blue Room in Mama's Womb." When facing challenges, she says, she'll go back to a couple of tunes on her album, particularly "I Release Me/Healing Space," which features vocalist Iyana Wakefield.
"I wrote those lyrics to reflect just surrendering everything you have to God," Fuller explains. "And I'm trusting that everything will be okay, but also recognizing that everything you go through in life and everything you experience, you're able to give it back. Because God is really the source that is giving it to us. So even today, two years after the fact of writing the tune, I go back to that a lot. It just gives me strength."
Inner strength is something she's had to summon over the years. After earning her degree at Spelman, Fuller returned to Colorado and completed a master's in jazz pedagogy and performance at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Nearly a year later, she relocated to New Jersey, where she landed just a few days before the terrorist attacks of September 11. There was little work to be had in the months following the tragedy, and Fuller quickly determined that if she was going to stay on the East Coast, she'd really have to hustle.
"I knew that I didn't want to starve, even though I went through some hard times of eating beans and rice," Fuller recalls. "I knew that I didn't want that to be the end product. Through that, I was just hitting up a lot of jam sessions and, like, six nights a week going into the city and playing — just playing as much as I could at different things. I was playing wedding bands. I was doing R&B every Tuesday night. I was playing at church and big bands, like the Duke Ellington Big Band. I would sub sometimes for Brad Leali. Through all of that, I was just trying to generate as much work and experience as possible, which has really been a blessing, because it opened up a lot of different doors and different venues."
Two of Fuller's main mentors, Leali and Javon Jackson, both saxophonists and Colorado natives, were also instrumental in helping open doors for her. "They're like brothers of mine," Fuller says. "They really looked out for me, and continue to."
She's returning the favor by looking out for her own charges. She conducts master classes and lectures all across the country, urging students to have a crystallized vision of the direction in which they want to head. To that end, she teaches the VIR Method (Visualization, Internalization and Reproduction), a system she developed during her time teaching at the Jazz Institute of New Jersey.
"It's like sonic visualization of just being able to really feel what it is that you're playing," she explains, "and then internalizing and reproducing it by playing material and the language of the masters. And then you incorporate it into your own sound — but that can only happen by checking out the masters first."
If Healing Space is any indication, Fuller's well on her way to becoming a master herself.
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