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Music series presents uncommonly good Jazz, kicking off with Tia Fuller

By Elizabeth Wu · August 6th, 2008 · Music
Cincinnati is in for a treat. The open-air Jazz concert series known as It's Commonly Jazz will be celebrating its 23rd anniversary, this Thursday by moving to Eden Park's Seasongood Pavilion. The concert series, taking place every Thursday evening in August, is kicking off with the musical equivalent of a freight train -- the Tia Fuller Quartet embodies power and motion and will take the listener to far-away places.

If you think you don't like Jazz, think again. Especially if you've ever dug Beyoncé. If you have grooved to a Beyoncé hit any time over the last two years, you have already danced to Fuller's music -- she's the sax player in Beyoncé's12-lady touring band.

Fuller brings her own all-female ensemble to the Commonly kickoff, leading the group on alto and soprano sax. Her group features her sister Shamie Fuller-Royston on piano, Miriam Sullivan on bass and Kim Thompson on drums.

When asked whether she has encountered challenges being a woman instrumentalist in the Jazz world, Fuller responds, "There are some challenges, but I try not to look at the challenges, I just look at them as opportunities. People automatically have this gender-specific role that directly correlates with playing the saxophone or being a female.

And if they hear somebody that's playing the saxophone or any sort of non-traditional gender-specific instrument it's gonna be, 'Oh, well you sound like a guy playing that instrument.' Or they automatically assume that you might be homosexual."

Fuller is referring to instrumental stereotypes -- assumptions that soft instruments like flutes are for girls and stronger instruments like drums are for boys. In some Jazz circles, women tend to be pigeonholed into strictly vocal music -- which is not to say that vocal music is less important than instrumental music. But in the Jazz world, there is a certain amount of respect that is reserved for those who can navigate complex harmonies and "make the changes" -- something that lends itself more to instrumental playing than singing.

"You run into the challenge of immediately, when people see you, they automatically think you can't play," Fuller continues. "It's interesting -- through the years I've dealt with those things, but I think I've come to a place now that I'm able to be extremely comfortable with who I am as a person and what I'm able to contribute to the music, not as a woman and not as a female musician, but as a musician, period."

Fuller has been touring for the past two years with Beyoncé's band. They've been on a temporary hiatus, but will start back up in September. Despite her deep Jazz roots (her parents and sister are Jazz musicians and she has a master's degree in Jazz Pedagogy and Performance) she says she has enjoyed her work in the Pop world.

"It's definitely given me a lot of insight into how that side of the industry works and how I'm able to integrate it with the Jazz community and the Jazz world," Fuller says. "It was extremely different. There was a different level of discipline (with Beyoncé) ... every night we were pretty much playing the same thing. The show was a performance that, from start to finish, you had to play the same notes, you had to do the same moves and there was really very little room for creativity or improvisation or spontaneity. After eight months of being on tour, that was a discipline I had to develop. That was challenging for me."

This show-based performance regimen is quite a contrast to Jazz, in which no song is ever played the same way. This is especially true with the focus on improvised solos. The standard structure of a Jazz song includes a melody and then allows for musicians to spontaneously create their own melodies over a repeating set of chord progressions called "the changes." This makes a good Jazz performance a seat-of-your-pants experience; you truly do not know what will happen next, and neither do the performers.

Fuller brings a unique, dynamic sound with her quartet, which has an integrated, ensemble feel with hints of Coltrane and Kenny Garrett. They play mostly originals and their style can be described as contemporary, energetic, assertive and innovative.

When asked to define what Jazz is to her, Fuller says, "I would say that Jazz is an expression of ultimate freedom. It's a platform of infinite possibilities. You can touch so many people through Jazz and you can touch so many people through writing that you wouldn't be able to touch -- to me -- in any other kind of music because it's a non-verbal language, so it's universal. Anybody that listens to it can get a message from it, but it will be a completely different message from somebody else. So it's an individual experience as well."

In the short-term, Fuller plans to continue performing and recording, but her long term plans include starting her own Jazz school. For her, music is not just a profession; it's also a mission.

"I think music, for anyone (who is) a musician, should be a reflection of their life and their purpose as an individual," Fuller says. "Stemming from that, I think that my reason for being here on this earth is to be a light for others so that hopefully people can look at me or listen to my music and it can enhance their life in some way, whether it give them a sort of peace or a place of refuge, or whether it's some sort of inspiration that they can get from seeing my work or listening to my music."�

TIA FULLER kicks off the "It's Commonly Jazz" (itscommonlyjazz.com) series at 6 p.m. Thursday at Seasongood Pavilion in Eden Park. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.



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