Pop goes the jazz

American saxophonist Tia Fuller will perform in the upcoming ‘Jaffa Jazz Festival’ next week.

(photo credit: JERRIS MADISON)
It isn’t easy getting a new cultural venture established on the domestic entertainment scene. But Amikam Kimmelman has clearly managed that, as he prepares to launch the fourth annual Jaffa Jazz Festival. Over the years Kimmelman, a veteran saxophonist and jazz educator himself, has brought over a slew of artists from all over the world, often to join forces with some of our own front-row professionals, and generally to perform tributes to iconic musicians.
This year’s bash, which will take place at the Nissan Nativ acting school on Jaffa, October 4-6, incorporates 17 shows over three days, in addition to jam sessions after the official staged shows are over. The roster takes in artists from Austria, the US, Romania, Sweden, Cyprus, Brazil, Switzerland, France and Finland, in addition to leaders from the home jazz front, with the likes of Swedish trombonist Karin Hammar, Brazilian trumpeter Jesse Sadoc, Austrian pianist Oliver Kent and American saxophonist Tia Fuller putting their improvisational bent to good use with material audiences may well know from different musical domains.
The musical substratum of this year’s festival comprises songs popularized by legendary pop and rock singers, such as Michael Jackson, Elton John, Pink Floyd and Joni Mitchell. Fuller, who is arguably the best-known artist in this year’s lineup, has gone for the legacy of soul, R&B, pop and gospel queen Aretha Franklin. Sadly, Fuller’s tribute proved to be a timely gesture, as Franklin died a couple of months ago, at the age of 76.
Fuller says she is moved by the opportunity to offer her own readings of Franklin’s timeless numbers, and so soon after her death.
“It’s hard to speak of her in the past tense,” she notes, adding that, for her, Franklin means more than just peerless emotive and artistic delivery. “Like jazz, Aretha Franklin was a constant. We didn’t play a lot of her in the household, but I am realizing how much she existed in the multifaceted worlds of jazz, gospel and R&B. She truly is a queen and is a role model in caring for family and general humanity.”
Like Franklin, whose mother was an accomplished pianist and vocalist, Fuller also grew up in a musical home. That continues to impact on the 42-year-old saxophonist, both as an artist and in other walks of life. “Growing up in a musical home allowed me to see and feel the importance of music and art in a household. It wasn’t just music but we grew up going to see plays, museums, swimming, riding, bikes, etc. I would say it largely influenced my career, in that I knew being a musician was an option, if I chose it.”
Fuller chose it, and has been doing the rounds of the global circuit for over a decade and a half, putting out five albums as leader in the process. The most recent Fuller offering, Diamond Cut, featuring seasoned artists 71-year-old bassist Dave Holland and 76-year-old drummer Jack DeJohnette, came out earlier this year. She is also on the teaching staff of the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Fuller is also a strong believer in going with the flow and being attentive to where life is taking her. That laissez-faire mind-set has led her straight up her musical garden path.
“I feel that the saxophone chose me,” she observes. “At three I played piano, and at nine flute, up until I was 12,” she recalls. ”There was a certain pull to the saxophone. I was excited by the idea of it and the sound.”
The teenager went the whole instrumental-aesthetic hog. “I then started wearing saxophone earrings, necklaces, other paraphernalia, until I started playing. And at one point I remember turning around in our kitchen chair, stopping, and my dad asked what I want to play, and I looked right into his VHS camera and said ‘the saxophone.’ It’s been no turning back ever since.”
Considering Fuller’s dad is a bass player and her mom sings, the early musical bent discovery was hardly a revelation.
Although Fuller was drawn to jazz, inspired by the likes of reedmen John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley and Joe Henderson, and singers Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, she has always kept at least one ear trained on more contemporary-commercial sounds, too.
“When I was a teenager,” she says, “I used to fight over the car radio with my dad. I would turn it to the local R&B/hip-hop station, and he would say ‘Don’t touch that knob, unless you’re paying for this car.’ So up until about 11, I didn’t really care for jazz; it was a by-product of my environment.
“I loved [R&B bands] Boyzs to Men and New Edition, [R&B, hip-hop soul act] Guy, and [rapper] LL Cool. I later got into some Latin, [Brazilian singer-songwriter] Milton Nascimento, and classical music.”
Fuller prefers to take a well-rounded approach to music and art general. “I think that it provides my art with a ‘front and a back.’ I have the jazz knowledge, foundational aesthetic, but I also know the importance of something intertwined in the music that allows for your head, shoulders and body to rock. These are all elements of the music that I enjoy listening to and try to incorporate in my compositions as well – essentially maintaining the element of dance.”
BESIDES PUSHING her own work out there, Fuller has accrued stage time as a member of the instrumental lineup for stellar singer-songwriter Beyoncé.
While jazz purists may be appalled by an improvisational artist mixing it with commercial acts, Fuller has nothing but praise for the megastar and how her time with Beyoncé has influenced her own take on her craft. “My experience working with Beyoncé was life-changing and transformational for me. There were many aspects of that gig where I was able to enhance being a band leader and businesswomen to more successfully navigate through the jazz world. She is all about minutiae, from making sure the presentation of your wardrobe is congruent with the quality of the music you are playing, and being proactive and strategic about aligning yourself with your big picture.”
Fuller has performed with a number of top female acts over the years, including stellar jazz drummer Terri Lynne Carrington and bassist Esperanza Spalding. The saxophonist says she gets a lot out of working with members of her own gender.
“I feel that women can bring something different to the bandstand and creative process. Since I was a sophomore in college I had this philosophy due to our innate biological makeup. Men have a tendency to play more in ‘straight lines’ and women have a tendency to exude more ‘elasticity.’ Of course, this is just a generalization, which has the full spectrum of gradients on both sides, but to me our sexual organs as men and women have a direct effect as to how we innately approach the music.”
Then again, it is not always a clean-cut division. “Not only that, but [there’s] the socialization component of feminine vs masculine – what sounds feminine and what sound masculine? This concept really depends on one’s cultural and social background and what is defined as male and female.”
At the end of the day, regardless of whether you are performing original scores or adding your own input to oft-played numbers, Fuller says, an artist has to address the core of the music while bringing herself to the fore.
“It’s all about embracing the evolution of a tune, while honoring the spirit of the melody. To rework a tune just to make it sound as little like the original as possible isn’t the point. The reworking of the tune has to be honest, meaning that it’s not just an exercise, but you can actually hear parts of the arrangement in your spirit. Then you continue to build upon it, whether it be a groove, bass line or reharmonization – as long as you are honoring your true self in what you hear.”
For tickets and more information: www.hotjazz.co.il