Into the Light: Tia Fuller Releases a Gem of an Album with ‘Diamond Cut’

Tia Fuller’s new album, Diamond Cut (Mack Avenue), her first since joining the Berklee College of Music faculty full-time in January 2013, is a giant step forward in her development as a solo artist. NEA Jazz Masters Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette join her on half the disc’s tracks, an idea suggested by her Berklee colleague and frequent collaborator Terri Lyne Carrington, whom Fuller tapped to produce the album.

“She had said that she wanted to do a funk project or something,” recalls Carrington, who believed the time was ripe for something more challenging. “She had done a lot of records with her touring bands. It’s different than when you’re playing with masters and elders. You put yourself in a different environment, and you rise to the occasion.”

Fuller confirms Carrington’s account while hustling through a pre-show meal of chowder, salmon and greens at Henrietta’s Table, a restaurant one flight down from the Regattabar at the Charles Hotel. Fuller was off the road and back home in Boston for a few days, performing that night with vocalist Sachal Vasandani.

“I was kind of teeter-tottering between doing a funk album” and a jazz one, acknowledges Fuller, “and she was like, ‘No, Tia, I think this next album really needs to be a mark for you in the jazz world, and in order for you to do that, you need to include some of the masters.’ From that, it was really on her as a producer. She called in her ranks. I was introduced to all of them through her, single-handedly. She was like, ‘Tia, I got Bill Stewart, I got James Genus, Jack is on. Dave Holland’s on.’”

Fuller’s focus was on composing, and as they toured together in 2015 for one of Carrington’s own projects, she often found herself writing on the plane and having Carrington check out her work. “She would listen to something and say, ‘Tia, this sounds good but it sounds like something else you’ve written. You can take this a little bit further melodically. Check this out.’ She played some Joni Mitchell for me. She played some Wayne Shorter for me, just to hear how the development of an idea can happen. And one specific thing that she said was, ‘Tia, every song needs to be the greatest piece you’ve ever written.’”

Fuller began doing this composing while still settling into her gig teaching student ensembles at Berklee. The opening track on the album, “In the Trenches,” had as its impetus all she was juggling at the time alongside the shift to full-time teaching: moving to Boston and buying a house, traveling to and from Colorado to help her parents deal with health issues, a shift in her management and booking agent.

“At that time,” Fuller recalls of her first few years in Boston, “I just felt like I was trying to dig myself out, and so this is where ‘In the Trenches’ came from. And, ironically enough, the more I read about the history of diamonds, the more this relates to the concept of the album Diamond Cut.”

She describes the extreme temperature and pressure a diamond must endure in order to reach the earth’s surface, and how the term “diamond cut” refers to the amount of light a diamond reflects after being shaped and polished. To Fuller, the two correspond to the pressure she put herself through to get where she is as a musician and to the mentors who shaped her to reflect their light.

“I have this thing where if I’m coming up with a concept for an album, if I’m tearing up and getting emotional, I know that spirit is speaking,” she says. “And the more I thought about this title, Diamond Cut, the more that it resonated. This is what it’s about: celebrating the diamonds in our community, our legends, Jack and Dave. But also us being diamonds and creating that cycle of light.”

Growing up in Aurora, Colorado, Fuller’s earliest mentors were her parents. Fred and Elthopia Fuller were educators, each working their way up from teaching positions to retire as assistant principals in the Denver Public School District. But they were also musicians, he a bassist and she a singer, and they formed a band called Fuller Sound that eventually would include Tia’s elder sister, Shamie, on piano, Tia on saxophone and flute, and Shamie’s future husband, Rudy Royston, on drums. (Younger brother Ashton Fuller, Tia’s junior by 11 years, also sometimes played drums.)

Tia began piano lessons at age 3 that continued, at her mother’s insistence, until she was 12. Her first instrument of her own choosing was flute, but when she noticed there wasn’t much call for flute in jazz, she took up saxophone as well. Fuller recalls a couple of early inklings that she wanted to play saxophone professionally. She describes having had a vision of doing so after spinning herself dizzy on a kitchen chair around age 11 or 12, and tells of her father once approaching her with a video-camera around that same time and asking what she wanted to do for a living. “I looked right into the camera and said, ‘I’m going to play saxophone,’” she says. “But that was way before I knew what it really took.”

She decided she would be a professional musician for real as a senior in high school, and that her next step toward achieving that would be to study music at Spelman College, the historically black liberal arts college for women in Atlanta. She had discovered The Cosby Show spinoff A Different World, which was set in a fictional historically black college. The environment looked appealing, and Fuller’s research revealed that Spelman was among the top-ranked colleges in the country for black women. It also had a jazz ensemble. She made a campus visit and met Joe Jennings, the ensemble’s founder and director, who asked her to play something for him.

“He had on this John Coltrane hat in his office,” she recalls. “We had been working on ‘Donna Lee’ in my high-school jazz band, and I just ended up playing the melody; I really wasn’t soloing back then. But after I played it, he said, ‘Alright, you have potential.’ The ironic thing is, all throughout my senior year at Spelman, that’s what he would say. It would never sound good; it was just like, ‘You’re coming along, Tia, you’re coming along.’ And I’m grateful for that.”

That Jennings set a high bar reinforced her own inclination toward serious practice, a fact her classmates reminded her of at their reunion. During her college years, Friday afternoons had meant students coming over from Morehouse, the historically black men’s college, and everyone hanging out together. “It was basically a big old party,” Fuller says, “with vendors outside, music, and all the step team. I would be out there until 3 p.m., and my classmates remembered that every Friday I’d say, ‘I’ll see you guys, I’ve got to go practice.’ They were like, ‘Tia, all I remember is you going and being in that practice room by yourself. We would just hear the saxophone. And we see how it has paid off.’ I was just trying to do what I needed to do, because I wasn’t at a Berklee School of Music, I wasn’t at a conservatory. I was trying to create my own conservatory, in my brain.”

Fuller graduated summa cum laude from Spelman in 1998, then went on to earn a master’s degree in Jazz Pedagogy and Performance from the University of Colorado before moving to the New York City area in September 2001, two days before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. She landed her first gig within two weeks, at a fish fry in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and worked her way up from weekly gigs at a church to playing in septets led by T.S. Monk, Rufus Reid and Ralph Peterson.

An early session in Manhattan with drummer Kim Thompson at the Manhattan School of Music led Fuller to form her own quartet. “Everybody was saying, ‘You sound like Kenny Garrett, she sounds like Tain [Jeff Watts], you guys need to meet,’” Fuller recalls. Through Thompson, Fuller met bassist Miriam Sullivan, now known as Mimi Jones, and the three of them began working regularly together, the piano chair passing from Fuller’s then-roommate Rachel Eckroch to Miki Hayama and eventually Fuller’s sister, Shamie Royston. Fuller’s first three albums featured a version of that all-female band (occasionally augmented with folks like Sean Jones or Christian McBride). As they were preparing to record the second of them, Healing Space, Fuller heard that Beyoncé was holding auditions for an all-woman band of her own. She and Thompson auditioned, and were both hired on Father’s Day 2006.

Fuller stayed with Beyoncé through June 2010. In January 2013, Beyoncé’s management called asking her to commit to another full year of touring that would include that year’s Super Bowl halftime show in New Orleans. At this point, Fuller had completed two residencies at Berklee, set up by then-ensemble department chair Ron Savage. Within a day of Fuller receiving the offer from Beyoncé, Savage phoned to ask if she would be interested in joining Berklee full-time.

“This was all in a 24-hour span,” emphasizes Fuller. “It was almost like God was testing me, because I had been praying for something more stable. I knew I had a lot to give with the experience I had. I prayed about it, talked to my parents about it. I was kind of at a crossroads. This is where you have to be careful of ego. Because one side of me is like, ‘Tour with Beyoncé!’ And the other side of me was like, ‘Tap into your purpose, Tia. You prayed for this and now you have an opportunity to choose.’ So after weighing one with the other, I was like, ‘I’ve played with Beyoncé.’”

Her years doing so provided Fuller with lessons applicable to her solo career. “All of those things have really impacted my performance as a musician, and how I put my shows together,” Fuller says. “Of course how to walk in heels and do my makeup, but also to see how she functions as a businesswoman and how she never really accepted ‘no’ for an answer, but she would always try to find the ‘yes.’” How Beyoncé presented herself when performing also left an impression, from how she kept the stage lighting primarily on herself to lesser details. “Even down to making sure that you’re dressing like you’re supposed to be on the stage and not in the audience.”

That night at the Regattabar, that meant changing from the perfectly lovely green dress she’d worn to soundcheck and dinner into a snazzier black-and-white leopard print wrap dress she bought at Newport. And she no longer feels like it’s a serious gig if she isn’t wearing heels. Pre-Beyoncé, she says, “it was a struggle for me to figure out how to present myself. I knew that I’m a girly girl: I like dresses, I like sandals, I like heels, I like makeup. I remember in the beginning I had some male friends who were saying, ‘Tia, you don’t need to be wearing all that. You want to try to blend in, so that people won’t focus on what you’re wearing, they’ll focus on what you’re playing.’ And so for the first three or four years of being in New York, I would wear loose slacks with suit jackets most of the time. It definitely was not what I’m wearing now. I think being on the Beyoncé tour helped me to embrace my womanhood.”

These days Fuller is helping other women musicians embrace theirs. She and Carrington both belong to the 14-member collective We Have Voice, which is pushing for more equitable treatment of women and nonbinary musicians. And the dismissive attitude that some women report receiving from male professors and fellow students isn’t an issue in Fuller’s classrooms. But Fuller’s presence also counteracts the flip side to that dismissiveness: that male professors sometimes neglect to push their female charges hard enough. “They’re letting them off the hook because they’re a woman,” Fuller explains. “Whereas I can actually put the fire up under these young women, and say, ‘Yo, this is not cool.’ I feel like I have more freedom to do that because I am a woman, which is important.”

Fuller’s new album sets a high bar as well, demonstrating how an artist’s life can be mined to compose music with meaning. The ballad “Crowns of Grey” is a tribute to Fuller’s parents, spun off from standards she played with her father and ending in waltz time to conjure them dancing together.

Two other standouts are inspired by mentors Fuller met while at Spelman. Joe Jennings is one of four Joes honored by “Joe’n Around,” the others being Lovano, Henderson and drummer Joe Dyson. It’s the only tune on the album that gets the sax-bass-drums lineup that Fuller initially contemplated for the album. Carrington talked her into adding a harmonic instrument on most of the others, but rather than a pianist, as on Fuller’s previous albums, she recommended guitarist Adam Rogers.

“I just felt like some of the songs, we should use the harmony,” explains Carrington. “Guitar was closer to the sound we were looking for, because the piano frequencies pick up a certain amount of space and guitar doesn’t pick up quite as much space.”

Rogers is used to especially good effect on “The Coming,” a piece inspired by Daniel Black’s novel of that title imagining the horrors experienced by slaves on the Middle Passage. Rogers’ guitar mimics a thumb piano in spots, and Carrington is added on percussion and Sam Yahel on organ. Black, like Joe Jennings, is a mentor from Fuller’s undergraduate years. A professor of history and African-American studies at Clark Atlanta University, Black founded the Ndugu-Nzinga rites of passage organization that Fuller joined while at Spelman. When her quartet performed “The Coming” at the Atlanta Jazz Festival, Black read a passage from his book as part of the performance, which also included African dancers and drummers.

Other Fuller compositions on Diamond Cut are more personal. The disc’s final track, “Tears of Santa Barbara,” like its opener, was spawned by pressures experienced while transitioning to her life at Berklee. On a tour stop with the Mack Avenue SuperBand, she found herself “literally crying in back of the stage, all by myself. I was playing soprano, and that’s the melody that came from that moment.”

On the album, the track is entirely Fuller’s soprano and Holland’s bass. She explains her choosing to preserve that moment of sadness by citing a word she recently came across: artimacy. “The intersection of art and intimacy — artists being vulnerable and transparent and allowing that to serve as the fabric of our music.”

As a package, Diamond Cut’s mix of tunes referencing Fuller’s mentors and her more recent travails honors the title’s theme of intense pressure and reflected light.

“She’s found that balance between who we are and what we know from our past and what we are experiencing in our present,” says Carrington. “Her writing has grown but still maintains her signature, and the same with her playing. That’s what we’re all supposed to do.” —Bill Beuttler

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