A few years back (2008 I think) at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival I saw alto saxophonist Tia Fuller play a few pieces with the Festival’s house rhythm section and perhaps a couple other horns. While my memory of the exact particulars (when and with whom) is clearly fuzzy the memories of my reaction to her playing is crystal clear. After hearing Fuller play, myself and other jazz musician friends of mine concluded that she seemed to be struggling at best, faking her way through the mini-set at worst. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt, because everyone has a bad day. She could have not been feeling well, tired from the crazy journey into remote Moscow, Idaho, had not seen the charts and the changes before the gig, didn’t get an adequate sound check or rehearsal, etc. But what was apparent in her playing – whatever the reason – was that she was not making it that night. The tempos were too fast, as her phrasing and accents were not in time, and she at times struggled to make the changes. She just didn’t seem or sound comfortable on stage. It could have been a case of sight reading gone sideways.
Fast forward a couple years and dig Fuller’s blowing on the title track of her new record Decisive Steps. I didn’t get an advance of the record, but was able to download the latest sampler from Mack Avenue Records from Amazon for free here which included the track. On this cut she sounds confident, comfortable, and definitely atones for the short, subpar performance I heard a couple years back. She’s definitely in a Kenny Garrett bag on “Decisive Steps.” Her tone is sweet and slightly tart and she’s got the technical chops to nagivate the tune’s high tempo and tricky sections. Like Garrett, she is adept at building tension near the climax of her solo by sequencing her lines up the horn’s range, playing shorter phrases, and generating a wailing, crying sound. Her rhythm section also aids in this buildup, showing their sensitivity to the needs of the soloist and group as a whole (info on the rhythm section and the entire album can be found on the label’s website). Fuller, who is Beyonce’s saxophone player, is not a dead ringer for Garrett, but she definitely evokes his style here.
After this limited encounter with her latest album it’s clear that Fuller’s live performance in Moscow was an abberation and not the best representation of her work and ability. On “Decisive Steps” she reverses my initial thoughts of her playing in the post-bop idiom. Fuller is definitely worth checking out.