TIA Fuller, the American jazz saxophonist, is surprised when I call on her in New Jersey as she’s getting ready to go out. “Holland, Belgium, Italy,” she says. And Edinburgh, Tia, you’re playing the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival. “Of course.
First time performing although I’ve visited before. It’s real quaint – do you call those houses bungalows? – and the people are real cordial and open to the music and other cultures, which is very refreshing for me.”
The face – and body – of the Jazzfest in the posters, Fuller is almost permanently on the road and last year spent a mere 36 days in this rented accommodation. I’m imagining the unintentionally minimalist trappings of the itinerant muso. “Oh it’s not too bad. I’ve got my abstract art and words on the walls which are real important to me: ‘Family, Love, Integrity.’ But yeah, when I got back from the last tour my fruit had all rotted out.” She apologises for the din but she wants to vacuum even though she’s hardly ever here. And she’s actually about to buy a place of her own even though “home” is an elusive concept. But maybe this is structure in her life, something she’s already brought to her music. And maybe the credit for that must go to Beyoncé.
Fuller, 37, was a jazzer before hooking up with the R&B supernova and she always will be. The New York Times calls her “a hardcore bebopper, a Charlie Parker kind of player”. When she gets to Edinburgh she’ll be showcasing tracks from Angelic Warrior, her fourth album. So determined is she to do her own thing now that another pop mega-tour was turned down because she’d already committed to the festival. But the Beyoncé experience has left its mark, no doubt about that.
“She’s taught me so much,” says Colorado-born Fuller. “For one thing, I learned about the importance of a concise setlist. In the jazz world we tend to see everything through a jazz lens. In the midst of our spontaneity and creativity we’ve got to be careful we don’t lose our audience. Beyoncé was inspiring as an artist, a bandleader and a performer – speaking to the audience, maintaining that connection, giving them something to hold on to. And for another thing, I learned about stilettos. How to choose the shoes that look the best – that are real high but don’t feel it!”
Fuller was five years a member of Beyoncé’s all-female band. Yet she never expected to get in. “I thought Beyoncé would be looking for players who were more contemporary. I came straight from my own rehearsals and so was pretty stressed. A friend was auditioning so I went to support her, and for the experience.”
Waiting her turn she got talking to other candidates. “I asked the girl next to me what horn she was playing. She said: ‘Oh this? I dunno, I just found it in my granddaddy’s basement.’ I was like: ‘Well, girl, I guess I didn’t have to worry about you.’ I hadn’t really learned Beyoncé’s music. When it came to me they said: ‘Play a G minor vamp.’ The song was Work It Out. I was like: ‘G minor? Good key!’ I played this solo and because of my stress it was an opportunity to just let everything out. Beyoncé must have liked it.”
Fuller often plays with her sister and brother-in-law and is the daughter of teachers who had a weekend jazz combo called Fuller Sound. As a kid she started out playing piano before moving on to flute. “But I wanted something with a little more presence that I could play louder. I got a saxophone from my grandfather and was fooling around with it in our loft. I hit a low Bflat and the whole house seemed to reverberate. Right away I knew it was the instrument for me.” While still at high school Fuller witnessed a Candy Dulfer gig. “It was great to see a woman up there playing saxophone but she was heavily influenced by David Sanborn and I didn’t want to be that contemporary.” Key albums for Fuller were Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else, Vincent Herring’s Secret Love and Wynton Marsalis’ Black Codes (From the Underground). Her parents wanted her to keep up with her theory and she gained a Masters in Jazz Pedagogy. Now she combines performing with a professorship at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
As one who takes her music very seriously was Fuller concerned Beyoncé’s all-female band might have been viewed as gimmicky? “Well, my own band is all-girl so I wasn’t thinking that. If you’d seen the auditions there were a couple of girls who in their dress were definitely trying to out-Beyoncé Beyoncé. But only a couple. Beyoncé was looking for the talent and I was happy that she got the best players. Some were jazz babies like me; others had a classical or Latin vibe. And if you look at us now we’ve all got our own projects going on.”
So what’s Beyoncé like? “Actually really shy. We all know about her as a performer and as a businesswoman, she’s a workaholic, but when she’s being professional she’s Sasha, her alter ego. When she’s Beyoncé she’s real quiet, which was a bit of a surprise, but of course very observant with it and very smart.” Fuller went right round the world a few times with her boss, sometimes by private jet. It was hard work – “12-hour rehearsals” – but there was time for play and she admits she over-indulged. “In the first year I was desperate to experience everything that being on tour with Beyoncé had to offer. The second year I was like: ‘Okay, time to slow down, girl.’”
There were dance moves to learn, and a masterclass in make-up. “I mean, I knew the basics already, but this was like super-advanced studies in hair and applying lipstick right. Beyoncé wanted to bring out the more seductive and more marketable sides of us all.” Did everyone get on? “Pretty much. Of course over five years, just like family, there were some disagreements. Once or twice the arguments got heated but, you know, that was exciting.”
Fuller loved those tours, loved that she was able to get some of her jazz into the show. She was always careful to practice her licks within earshot of the leading lady and eventually Beyoncé incorporated John Coltrane into the arrangements before taking on the Ella Fitz-gerald version of How High The Moon, complete with scat singing. “She’s receptive and that makes her more of a commodity. She doesn’t just function out of her own head; she listens to other people. That’ll keep her moving.”
Meanwhile, Fuller is moving, too – back to jazz, out of this barely lived-in house, on to the road again, destination Edinburgh. But if Beyoncé needs anyone to play alto sax again, she knows who to ask.
• Tia Fuller plays the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh on Friday as part of the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival. www.edinburghjazzfestival.com