7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 25 through Saturday, April 28, Jazz at the Bistro, 3536 Washington Avenue, 63103. $25 Wednesday and Thursday, $30 Friday and Saturday, $10 for students with ID. 1-314-534-1111.
Tia Fuller's musical identity was formed long before she joined the all-female backup band of hit-making singer Beyoncé. But Fuller, a saxophonist, flutist and composer who opens a four-night engagement at Jazz at the Bistro tonight, did manage to pick up some ideas on stagecraft during her time on the pop princess' "Sasha Fierce" and "Beyoncé Experience" tours.
"After performing with Beyoncé, I saw how she communicated with her audience and brought them into the music," said Fuller. "It's affected my presentation tremendously. Being on tour with Beyoncé - she has a set list that doesn't change from night to night; it's almost like a Broadway show." Though jazz places a premium on musical spontaneity, working with the singer led Fuller to believe that "there's nothing wrong with having a premeditated way of presenting your music so that it's seamless, and creates some sort of a storyline so that you connect one song to the other. You're drawing your audience in."
Fuller's own storyline began in Aurora, Colorado (near Denver), where she grew up the daughter of two musically inclined schoolteachers/administrators. Her father Fred plays bass, her mother Elthopia sings, and her older sister, Shamie Royston, is a talented pianist who, when her schedule permits, gigs with Fuller's band.
Fuller played piano and flute before taking up the saxophone as a teenager, drawing early inspiration from hard-bop alto saxophonist Vincent Herring. Digger deeper into the jazz canon, she quickly came to appreciate and be influenced by Herring's stylistic predecessor, the legendary Cannonball Adderley, as well as tenor saxophonists John Coltrane and Joe Henderson.
She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Music from Spelman College in Atlanta, and then got a Master's in Jazz Pedagogy and Performance from the University of Colorado at Boulder. "When I went to grad school to get my Masters, I realized that I truly enjoyed teaching. Before then, I thought I just wanted to play," Fuller said. "I really enjoy seeing the light bulb come on. (Teaching) was something that was almost genetically passed down, that I couldn't get away from even if I wanted to." Though her current performing schedule precludes a regular teaching post, Fuller has stayed involved in education while touring by guest lecturing and teaching ensembles and master classes at universities and jazz festivals.
Moving to New Jersey in 2001 with the intent of breaking into the New York jazz scene, Fuller found work hard to come by in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but did the usual assortment of small gigs and eventually got her foot in the door. In the decade since, she's worked with a number of well-known jazz musicians, including drummers Ralph Peterson and T.S. Monk, trumpeters Jon Faddis and Sean Jones, bassist Rufus Reid, singer Nancy Wilson, and trombonist Wycliff Gordon. Most recently, Fuller has collaborated with Grammy Award winning bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding, performing with Spalding during her appearance last month on Late Night With David Letterman.
Fuller also has recorded three CDs as a leader, and will release her fourth, Angelic Warrior, later this year on Mack Avenue Records. The album features special guest performances from bassist John Patitucci, who serves as a second lead instrument on several songs while Fuller's regular bassist Mimi Jones holds down the bottom, as well as singer Dianne Reeves and drummer Terry Lynne Carrington. Carrington also produced a track, what Fuller calls "a very non-traditional version" of the evergreen "Cherokee" featuring two live drummers playing over a third, pre-recorded drum track. "It's a lot of drums," she said with a laugh.
St. Louis audiences will get a chance to hear some of the material from Angelic Warrior during Fuller's gig at the Bistro, where she'll be backed by Jones, drummer Darrell Green and pianist Rachel Eckroth, and will deploy some of the pacing ideas gleaned from Beyoncé.
"I usually start off the show pretty much the same, laying the groundwork so people can have a sense of expectation," said Fuller. "From there, I try to seamlessly create a sequence of songs that basically creates an arc." Fuller said she's also looking forward to the additional musical flexibility offered only by a multi-night run. "To play four nights in a row is almost unheard of these days. I take it as an opportunity to really dig deeper into the music that we're playing, and to take chances within the music."