Tia Fuller’s Diamond Cut

2018 Monterey Jazz Festival Artist-in-Residence

Mack Avenue recording artist Tia Fuller is a touring artist and full-time professor at the Berklee College of Music. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Music from Spelman College in Atlanta (Magna Cum Laude) and her Master’s degree in Jazz Pedagogy and Performance from the University of Colorado at Boulder (Summa Cum Laude). Tia was selected to be a member of the all-female band touring with R&B star, Beyoncé, as part of the I AM... Sasha Fierce and Beyoncé Experience world tours, and has played in various venues throughout the US, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia.

She is a featured soloist on the Beyoncé Experience DVD (Me, Myself and I), I Am... Yours DVD (Wynn Theatre) and also appeared on number of major television shows, such as the Oprah Winfrey ShowToday ShowGood Morning America, BET Awards, American Music Awards and Total Request Live, the 2010 Grammy Awards, and has performed as the featured soloist with Beyoncé for President Obama at the White House.

Tia has recorded four CDs with her quartet. The first, Pillar of Strength (2005/Wambui), received praise as being "an exhilarating work that introduced her as a leader who strives for perfection" (All About Jazz magazine). Her sophomore release, Healing Space (2007/Mack Avenue), is an offering of “melodic medicine” and healing agent. Her third, Decisive Steps, and her second for Mack Avenue, received the #1 JazzWeek rating for two weeks straight, placed #3 in JET magazine’s top jazz CDs, and was nominated for Best Jazz Album by JazzWeek. Her fourth album, Angelic Warrior, received praise from the Wall Street JournalNew York Times and numerous jazz publications. Tia’s quartet has performed world-wide, including the Angola, Croatia, South Africa, North Sea, Umbria, and Edinburgh jazz festivals, and New York’s prestigious Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, just to name a few.

Tia can also be seen touring regularly with a number of bands, including: Terri Lyne Carrington’s Grammy-winning Mosaic Project and Money Jungle “Provocative in Blue.” She is the assistant musical director for Esperanza Spalding’s Radio Music Society tour, and Dianne Reeves’ Beautiful Life tour. She has also performed with luminaries such as the Ralph Peterson Septet, Rufus Reid Quintet, Geri Allen, the Nancy Wilson Jazz Orchestra, Wycliff Gordon Septet, Jon Faddis Jazz Orchestra, Chaka Kahn, Ledisi, Kelly Rowland, Jay-Z, Jill Scott, Pattie Labelle, Nona Hendryx, Sheila E., Valerie Simpson, Dionne Warwick, Janelle Monáe, Patrice Rushen, Erykah Badu, and Aretha Franklin. 

The dynamic saxophonist has been featured on the March 2014 cover of Saxophone Today, the Jazz Education Journal, and JazzTimes Magazine. In addition, she has received numerous awards and marks of distinction including, winning DownBeat Critic’s Poll "Rising Star" two years in a row for Soprano Sax (2014), Alto Sax and Flute (2013). Tia was honored to be the keynote speaker at the Jazz Institute of New Jersey’s 2003 graduation ceremony, where she presented her “Journey to Success” speech. She also be featured soloist playing the National Anthem in Detroit’s Tiger Stadium in 2009, and interviewed on Fox 5 News and Fox 2 News in Detroit and Washington D.C.

As a devoted educator, Tia is a full-time Professor at Berklee College of Music, where she directs the prestigious Rainbow Big Band and Rainbow All-Stars, in addition to six other ensembles including repertoire and jazz improvisation classes. It is here and beyond, that she believes her passion for teaching and inspiring students is due to her parents being educators/administrators in the Denver Public School District. In addition, she presents lectures, residencies and masterclasses at some of the most respected institutions in the country including Duke University, University of Colorado at Denver, Spelman College, University of Idaho’s Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, New Mexico State University, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, China Residency, and Rimon School of Music in Israel. Tia was also part of a two-day seminar led by Geri Allen at University of Pittsburgh that included Curtis Fuller, Joe Lovano, Terri Lyne Carrington, and Esperanza Spalding. 

Tia moved to Jersey City, New Jersey two days before the events of September 11, 2001. Despite the fact that the jazz community believed there was not much work in the area during that period, she wasn’t discouraged and used the tragic event as a reason to succeed. She got her first gig playing in a big band at a fish fry in South Jersey. Brad Leali, who was playing in the Count Basie Orchestra at the time, spread the word that Tia was a skillful saxophonist who also played the flute. This brought her to the attention of others in the jazz community, including Gerald Wilson, Jimmy Heath, Don Braden and Don Byron, which led to her performing with a number of luminaries in the world of jazz.

With music in her blood and a song in her heart, Tia was born in Aurora, Colorado to jazz musicians, Fred and Elthopia Fuller. Her father, Fred plays bass and her mother, Elthopia sings. She grew up listening to her parents rehearse in the basement of their home, as well as the music of jazz greats, such as John Coltrane, Sarah Vaughan and Charlie Parker.

Inspired by her older sister, Shamie, Tia began playing classical piano when she was just three years old and continued until she was thirteen. She also began studying the flute when she was nine. Her interest in jazz came into fruition in high school. It was during this time that she began playing the saxophone. The Colorado native, and 14-year New Jersey resident who now resides in Boston, says playing music makes her feel as if she is a vessel for the Spirit to flow through. While listening to her songs, she wants people to be uplifted and experience a sense of restoration, compelling them to move forward not in fear, but in love and faith. 

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Saxophonist, composer, and bandleader Tia Fuller uses the process of diamonds forming under four levels of extreme pressure and heat as a metaphor for the time she spent honing her artistic craft. When looking up the term ‘diamond cut,’ you’ll learn that it was not necessarily pertaining to the shape but to the proportioning and the balance as to which the highest amount of light is reflected through the diamond. The process serves as a direct correlation to her teaching and playing.

While the phrase “diamond in the rough” often describes burgeoning talents brimming with potential, Fuller has exhibited impending greatness since emerging on the international jazz scene more than a decade ago. Now, her artistic capacity has blossomed tremendously, resulting in her fourth Mack Avenue Records release – the aptly titled Diamond Cut, her first album as leader since 2012’s Angelic Warrior. In those six years, she’s transitioned from being a member of Beyoncé’s touring band to becoming a full-time professor at Berklee College of Music, while still juggling a demanding career as a solo artist and touring with the likes of drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, bassist Esperanza Spalding, and Ralph Peterson Jr., among others.

“Not that I’ve arrived by any means, but I think I’m in a space of empowerment, knowing that I’m walking in my purpose,” says Fuller as she reflects on her multifaceted career. “I’m in the fullness of my purpose. Now, I’m more able to directly reflect the light toward others because of what other people have poured and reflected into me. I feel that I’m in a solid place to give back things of substance.”

Produced by GRAMMY® Award-winner Terri Lyne Carrington, the album finds Fuller leading two superb rhythm sections, both of which contain some of jazz’s brightest luminaries – bassist Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette, then bassist James Genus and drummer Bill Stewart. Adding texture and harmonic support of several compositions are guitarist Adam Rogers and organist Sam Yahel. Additionally, Carrington contributes to two tracks with percussion.

While touring together in 2014, Carrington encouraged Fuller to recruit some more seasoned musicians for her forthcoming disc. “Terri said, ‘I really would like to see you house yourself amongst the greats on the next album so that you can really hone in on playing jazz. You’ve done it with your peers. But I would like to see you with some elders,’” Fuller recalls. The net result is a sparkling, cohesive album that optimizes her iridescent tone and supple, sometimes rhythmically aggressive, improvisations through an enticing program of mostly originals firmly rooted in the language of 21st century modern post-bop.

The actual day of recording Diamond Cut marked the first time Fuller worked with both DeJohnette and Holland. “Seeing them arrive at the studio and set up, I was definitely nervous,” Fuller says. “But as soon as we started playing, it was all about the music. One thing that I appreciated from both of them was that they approached the music in a very humble way and really honored it.”

Indeed, Fuller sparks an electrifying rapport with DeJohnette and Holland on the pneumatic waltz “Queen Intuition,” on which Rogers and Yahel provide subtle harmonic cushioning, and the capricious “Joe’n Around,” on which Fuller unravels various improvised, melodic fragments associated by three of her saxophone mentors – Joe Lovano, Joe Henderson and Joe Jennings. They’re also featured on the episodic “The Coming,” of which Fuller uses Clark Atlanta University professor Daniel Black’s The Coming: A Novel as inspiration in the retelling of the Middle Passage that brought captured African slaves to the Americas; a prancing reading of Mal Waldron’s signature composition, “Soul Eyes,” on which she tips her hat to John Coltrane; and the soothing “Delight,” which takes its inspiration from the Christian Biblical scripture, Psalms 37:4 –  “Delight in the Lord/And he will give you the desires of the heart.”

The album also marks the first time Fuller has recorded with Genus and Stewart. And again, she strikes a winning accord, indicative of the album’s searing opening piece, “In the Trenches,” on which she rides a turbulent momentum steered by Stewart’s jagged rhythms and Genus’ hefty, propulsive bass lines. “That was the first song that I wrote for the album, while I was literally in the trenches of transitioning and balancing my work schedule and dealing with personal family challenges,” Fuller explains. “I literally felt like I could not move. I remember being in my office feeling like I was all the way in the trenches, trying to dig myself out.”

From there, Fuller along with Genus and Stewart render “Save Your Love For Me,” the first of only three jazz standards on Diamond Cut. The soulful makeover—arranged by vibraphonist, drummer and fellow-Mack Avenue Records artist Warren Wolf—allows Fuller to pay homage to yet another significant lodestar, Cannonball Adderley. Also powered by the Genus-and-Stewart rhythm team, Fuller delivers the majestic ballad “Crowns Of Grey,” which honors her parents – Fred and Elthopia Fuller – both of whom encouraged her formative musical growth while living in Aurora, Colorado.

Fuller praises Carrington for her production ingenuity, which helped guide Diamond Cut from its early conception to completion. “Terri really pays attention to minutia while being able to see the big picture,” Fuller says. “And she can enhance the big picture by having an endless arsenal of ideas for sounds and song structures. Even while I was writing the tunes, she was on the front lines saying, ‘Tia, you want each and every song to be the best song that you’ve ever written.’ She was always strongly encouraging me to not just lapse into what I’ve done before. She really helped shape the finer points of the compositions, then as the producer she put her magic touch on it.”

This newest outing illustrates that Fuller continues to etch away at her inner diamond as a saxophonist, composer, bandleader and educator. History will surely reveal Diamond Cut to be a landmark chapter in her artistic journey.