Tia Fuller Quartet

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Editorial Review

The angelic warrior’s horn: Jazz sax
By Jess Righthand
Friday, November 9, 2012

Since 2008, jazz saxophonist Tia Fuller has released two albums; toured with artists as diverse as Beyonce, Esperanza Spalding and Terri Lyne Carrington; and visited China for a week of teaching and performances. Somehow, she also found time to perform with her own band.

“It’s really a blessing,” Fuller says by phone from Florida, having just played two nights with three different ensembles. Fuller brings her quartet to Strathmore on Thursday to promote her new album, “Angelic Warrior.”

Being so busy means that Fuller, 36, seldom finds time to make it home to New Jersey. Spending hours in her office composing is a rare luxury, and multitasking is essential. Case in point: Fuller was on a plane descending into Barbados while singing rough melody lines for the song “Descend to Barbados” into her smartphone.

It’s also not implausible that such a jet-setting lifestyle would leave one craving some semblance of work-life balance. Fittingly, that’s one of her new album’s central themes.

“During the time I was writing the album, I was traveling a lot, and I still am just trying to balance,” Fuller says. “And I’m trying to remain graceful and peaceful, which are characteristics of an angel, but in the meantime, really trying to maintain the drive and determination of a warrior.”

The duality between angel and warrior energies manifests itself in the album’s playlist. The more percussive, upbeat songs, including “Royston Rumble” and “Cherokee,” embody warrior energy, while such melodic tunes as “Little Les” and “Simplicity” sound ethereal and angelic.

Fuller’s main musical concept evolved from the song “Ebb & Flow” off her previous album, “Decisive Steps.” On that track, she doubled up on bass players, using Christian McBride on electric and Mimi Jones on upright. The result intrigued Fuller, and for this album, she decided to use the electric piccolo bass in the front line with her sax instead of a trumpet or guitar, as is most common in instrumental jazz.

Fuller says much of the album was inspired by people who are role models in her quest for equilibrium. This includes her family (her sister and brother-in-law, Shamie and Rudy Royston, both play on the record) as well as musical mentors such as Carrington, who have helped paved the way for Fuller as a female jazz musician. The title track is an alternately lyrical and marching homage to Carrington. (The acclaimed jazz drummer also plays on the album; she will be replaced by E.J. Strickland for the Strathmore show.)

The two women met at a Beyonce concert during the 2008 I Am tour, but they didn’t play together until August 2011. Carrington, who is on the faculty at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, backed Fuller for a master class there. Carrington then began calling Fuller to play gigs in support of her Grammy-winning album, “The Mosaic Project.” (One of those shows was the Kennedy Center’s Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival in May.)

“To me, it’s amazing what visualization and speaking things into existence can do,” Fuller says. “I had only dreamt of playing with her. . . . The fact that I’m even able to be up onstage with her is amazing.”

Fuller says Carrington’s “wheels are always turning.” For “Angelic Warrior,” Carrington enlisted electric bassist John Patitucci and reintroduced Fuller to Dianne Reeves, who gives a characteristically stunning vocal performance on a neo-soulified interpretation of “Body and Soul.” Later this month, Fuller is set to release a “remix” of that track, in hopes of getting more radio play. That, too, was Carrington’s idea.

“She’s doing so much at one time,” Fuller says. “And she’s teaching me how it can be done. It’s just a matter of really staying on top of your stuff. And even more so musically, she’s taught me the beauty of really expanding and opening up conceptually.”

Having played R&B with Beyonce, Brazilian jazz with Spalding and everything in between also has sparked Fuller’s desire to expand the jazz audience. “Angelic Warrior” is indisputably jazz, but she blends old and new by adding pop elements to the album’s only two jazz standards, “Body and Soul” and “Cherokee.” The “Body and Soul” remix, she hopes, will give popular audiences a new way to relate to her music.

At this point in her career, Fuller finds herself amid a tight circle of the most accomplished female musicians in the business. She has learned much from each of them, about music, work ethic and balance. And with “Angelic Warrior,” she continues gracefully on her own path, all while forging new ground for women in jazz.