Saxophonist, flautist and composer Tia Fuller has stated that “the Beyoncé gig has helped me to really appreciate the artistry and freedom that we have in jazz,” a conclusion borne out of five years performing in the pop diva’s band. Fuller has also been hired by Esperanza Spalding as Assistant Musical Director for Spalding’s Radio Music Society touring ensemble.. None of these sparkling credentials in the realm of pop or vocal jazz has diminished her lifelong upbringing and training and primary passion as a first-rate jazz instrumentalist, and she’ll affirm that again with the issuance of her fourth album Angelic Warrior.
There’s much to like about Angelic Warrior, most important of which is that this is a record by a jazz musician who truly thrives in the artistry and freedom that she speaks of regarding jazz. At the same time, I can sense her extensive experience working with major vocalists has rubbed off on her, and in a very good way. Just as Miles Davis learned a lot about phrasing and enunciation of his trumpet from listening to Frank Sinatra sing, Fuller has this deeply expressive sax dialect that can convey emotion, strength, grace and control…much as a world class vocalist such as Beyoncé or Spalding can do. And her time supporting these acts has given her a unique perspective when she assumes a bandleader role, because she understands everyone else’s roles and knows how to utilize them.
These are the things I hear in Angelic Warrior, an album that’s firmly connected to jazz tradition, but has its finger on the pulse of contemporary music, too. Her base band for this album consists of Mimi Jones on acoustic bass, Shirazette Tinnin on percussion and the husband/wife drums/piano team of Rudy and Shamie Royston (Shamie is also Tia’s sister). In choosing the electric guitar-sounding piccolo bass of John Patitucci for almost half of the tracks to share the front line Fuller shows some ingenuity. They make a great team whether it’s an explosive “Royston’s Rumble” (YouTube below), the whimsical “Lil Les,” and especially the intertwining lines they both play on the rhythmically dynamic “Descend To Barbados.”
The little innovations don’t stop there. Patitucci is deployed to provide syncopated bass lines on Fuller’s interesting mash up Cole Porter’s “So In Love With You” and “All Of You,” as she shows off sharp chops over Rudy Royston’s crisp timekeeping. Dianne Reeves is brought in to sing the timeless classic “Body And Soul,” but underneath her elite interpretative skills is this funky, almost hip-hop bass line, a tribute to Fuller’s bassist father (and her vocalist mother). Fuller tackles another old, worn jazz standard “Cherokee” with new fervor. Rudy Royston and Terri Lynne Carrington are locked into a galloping beat with a drum machine, Shamie Royston is strategically placing chords from a shimmering Fender Rhodes and the whole thing seeming altered by computer-enhanced treatment. And yet it’s Fuller’s own jaw slackening alto sax improvising in the middle breakdown section that steals the show.
In a relatively short period of time, Tia Fuller has attained the stature of being the preferred sax player of superstars for reasons that become quite clear by listening to Angelic Warrior. She made a record that takes no shortcuts, and makes excellent use of the talented personnel at her disposal. Tia Fuller has fully arrived.