ARTICLE AND INTERVIEW WITH TIA FULLER
"A SPIRIT-FILLED HEART, A LIGHT OF HEALING, A PILLAR OF PRAISE"

By Andrea R. Williams and Terrence Richburg 2009

As Jazz Gospel Central continues to grow and reach out and into the fascinating world of Jazz and Gospel Jazz, this maiden voyage has quickly become a miraculous adventure. Just as astronomers continue to discover and expose the hidden wonders of the universe, with its infinite ocean of stars, worlds and galaxies each more vast and beautiful than the one before, so it is as we encounter a seemingly endless reservoir of exquisite talent and God-appointed and anointed musicians. Sometimes these rare jewels of musical splendor are revealed in what may seem to be a very peculiar environment. Yet, they are no less radiant as their spirit-filled hearts reflect the light of healing in the midst of darkness and serve as pillars of praise to the eternal creator, God, for all the world to see. Such is the creative force and musical temperament of saxophonist, composer, and performer extraordinaire, Tia Fuller .

Although her claim to fame could be said to primarily link with being a member of the all-female touring band for the R & B megahit superstar, Beyoncé , Tia Fuller is truly an accomplished performer and recording artist in her own right. Tia prepared herself well in advance for her sudden explosion onto the vista of popular music, having attained with honors a Bachelor of Arts degree in Music from Spelman College in Atlanta, GA, ( Magna Cum Laude) and a Master's degree in Jazz Pedagogy and Performance from the University of Colorado at Boulder ( Summa Cum Laude). She has already recorded two acclaimed CD projects with her own all-female quartet, Pillar of Strength (2005/Wambui) and Healing Space (2007/Mack Avenue). Fuller has also been featured in several publications including Jazz Improv Magazine, Rocky Mountain News, The Philadelphia Tribune, The Star Ledger, Downbeat Magazine and others.

Listening to Tia's music is really an experience somewhat complicated to describe with mere words. Fuller achieves a resonance on saxophone which is refreshingly nonconforming in Jazz, as she delivers with unmatched precision a smooth blend of butter-mellow tone with cut-through aggressive execution. Tia's sound is her own and is obviously expressive of her depth as a musician and a writer. Fuller's compositions are rich with heart-felt character and thoughtful sincerity. Her latest project, Healing Space , presents Tia at her best, but also showcases the incredible symbiotic chemistry between her and the other members of her band. Each musician is magnificent in their own right, but together they take each song to its zenith of dynamic interpretation and spiritual character. Moreover, Fuller uses every opportunity to present a unique aspect of her spirit-filled passion for her God, both musically and lyrically.

JGC was fortunate to catch up with Tia on one of her recent Beyoncé performance dates and speak with her in an exclusive interview regarding her phenomenal music career and success. This is what she had to say:

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JGC : I know that you were selected as a member of the all-female touring band for Beyoncé. Can you tell me how that process happened?

TF : It was strenuous. I had two call backs in that particular week, I was recording my latest release, Healing Space . We were just coming from a rehearsal of my recording. The whole band was like, "Let's go in and just audition". And I really didn't think I was going to make it. Me, Kim, Miriam and Miki went in there and auditioned. I was really going in to support Kim because I knew that she really wanted to do it. At the time, I was really stressed out. I soloed over a G minor vamp and Kim and I ended up getting the call back. I went back and they weeded it down, choosing different musicians to play with each other. We were there all day as they worked out different combinations. When it finally came down to the ten people who are now Beyoncé's band, the first time that we played - I remember it being a magical combination. It was amazing. Beyoncé was there and so was Jay-Z, Tina and Mathew. The whole crew was there. We were all rocking. I think at that moment she knew.

JGC : What's it like being on the road with her?

TF : I love it. It's a dream come true. I used to pray about it. I knew I wanted to move out to New York and do this professionally as well as travel. But you have to be careful what you pray for because you never know how God might answer your prayer. Sometimes it's even more than you can even imagine. I knew I was going to be traveling, but I thought it would be in the Jazz world. Never did I think it would be with Beyoncé to different continents and places like Thailand, India and Indonesia. It's been a great experience.

JGC : How does it feel to have opportunities like this in a male-dominated field? And what's it like playing R&B as well as Jazz?

TF : I am not a Jazz purist. I love all sorts of music. Although I love Jazz and that's what I prefer to play, I am definitely not a Jazz purist. When I first moved out to the East Coast in 2001, I told myself that I wouldn't block my blessings. So if God was going to bless me with a gig playing different types of music, then I wanted to go that route and see how it could enhance my musicianship. I can honestly say that a lot of the genres that I have played outside of Jazz have helped me when I go back to playing in the Jazz realm. It's been really rewarding. As far as being a woman, there have been definite challenges that I have faced and still continue to face. I have had people say that I play like a man or ask me if I am a homosexual because I play so aggressively. This was when I started playing 8 - 9 years ago. I would also have challenges when I would go and sit in at Jazz clubs at jam sessions. The musicians would consist of all men who would assume that I couldn't play. But I have learned to no longer be concerned about that. I have looked past that. I have reached a more comfortable space within myself and I don't allow people to take me off my center, not that it doesn't happen sometimes. In general, I just do my thing and don't allow anyone to get into my head. Once I play or any other woman plays who can play, the proof is right there.

JGC : Talk about your relationship with Christ.

TF : I got saved, got baptized when I was 13. It was in Colorado. My mom brought one of the ministers from the church that we were attending - Church of Christ in Denver, Colorado - to our home. We had been in training and studying the word with him for about 6 - 8 months before I got saved. We had been studying it before, but more so after that. Then after that period, both my sister and I got baptized. I have always been brought up in the church and in a Christian-based environment including relatives like my grandmother, my grandfather, and my mother.

JGC : We've all seen Beyoncé's videos which some view as provocative and sensual. Do you ever feel a tug of war or a conflict with your Christian values?

TF : In the beginning I did, a bit. I prayed about it. I just want God to use me and I want to serve as a light for Him. I think that He's blessed me with this opportunity to play with Beyoncé so that when I come back and do my own project I am able to bring something else to the table, something other Jazz musicians aren't able to experience - to learn how to hone the spirituality through the music and really be a vessel for the music. It's been a little challenging because the music has been a little provocative. But I know that God sees the desires of our hearts.

JGC : Much of Beyoncé's music is modal based. Is it easier to play modally-based music being a Jazz musician?

TF : It really doesn't matter to me. Even though her music is pop or R&B music, it's really spirit-driven. She 's really is able to pull her spirit into the music. And every night, she gives that to the audience, night after night.

JGC : Do you have opportunities to witness?

TF : Within the crew and the background singers, there are a handful of us who are Christians. We all have a chance to witness.

JGC : What's your impression of Gospel Jazz and would you consider your music "Gospel Jazz"?

TF : I classify it as music. It's a part of my ministry whether it's Gospel Jazz or straight ahead Jazz. It crosses genres. I've actually gotten some flack from Jazz critics because a lot of people in the Jazz industry see it as one dimensional. I would consider it Jazz because it incorporates a lot of improvisation, but not necessarily Gospel Jazz, but it definitely has elements of it. I call it "spirit-filled music".

JGC : If you had to name one defining moment in your career, what would it be?

TF : I remember being in Atlantic City and I was playing with Sean Jones. I remember being on stage and he was soloing. I looked out amongst the people and I saw how lifted they were. And I just started crying. I thought, "This is what I'm supposed to be doing." Even recently I have been able to give my best every night, even though we play the same thing each night. I am learning how to give thanks through playing one note and exploring the purity of one note has been so enlightening.

JGC : I know that Jazz is your love. Do you get a chance to use some of your improvisational skills on tour?

TF: Yeah, definitely. Actually, this tour I have been able to do it even more so. During the tour on our days off, I try to book a jam session. It's something so that everyone in the band members and the dancers can improvise and do what they do. That's our way of releasing.

JGC: Do you still play piano?

TF: Yes, enough to write.

JGC: Do you play flute?

TF: Yes, I play flute on "At Last", "Ave Maria" and "Listen." And actually I play the same flute that I had in high school!

JGC: Was it hard to develop your ear for Jazz?

TF: When I was younger, I heard Jazz all the time; both my parents were Jazz musicians. Instead of hearing Smokey Robinson, I would hear John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Sarah Vaughan. So initially, I had to develop an appreciation for it. Actually, when I was younger, I didn't really like it. My dad and I would fight about what to listen to on the radio. But at about 12 or 13, I really started getting into it and my ear started to develop. So a Charlie Parker album that I heard by then, I wasn't able to internalize it; my ear wasn't developed enough then. And I am still trying to work on certain aspects. In Jazz, there's a lot happening, but it's beautiful because you can always hear something different. You can listen to something a hundred times and hear something different every time. It's almost like a flower that's constantly blossoming.

JGC: Is it difficult to move between the worlds of Jazz, Gospel and R&B?

TF: The expression is the same and the spirit is the same. It's not hard, but it's a different hat that I wear. But I have learned when I am in church not to play the be-bop lines...(laughs). It's not effective. They want to hear some soul. Wearing different hats has made me appreciate Jazz. So for me, bouncing from Jazz to Gospel to the Beyoncé' gig helps keep everything fresh. I try to enhance each of those genres with the other.

JGC: If you had to choose one, could you? And if so, which one?

TF: Wow...if I had to it would be either Gospel or Jazz. In Jazz you are able to do so many variations and that's what I'm trying to do with what I am writing.

JGC: Are you working on a new project now?

TF: Actually, we just finished mastering it. It will be dropping in January 2010. It's called Disciples Steps . We have a couple of guest artists: a tap dancer, a vocalist, Christian McBride (who is an amazing bass player) and my quartet. The vibraphone player, Warren Wolf, and Tim Green who plays gospel saxophone, are both from Baltimore, play on it as well.

JGC: For young musicians that are seeking to follow in your footsteps what words of wisdom would you give?

TF: Keep God first, listen to your parents and have a crystallized vision of what you want to do. Hold on to that vision no matter what. And speak those things that you want to happen and God will bless you with more than abundance.