Alto saxophonist and composer Tia Fuller is a veteran jazz player with five dates as a leader under her belt. The latest, Diamond Cut, is a heavyweight session featuring two super-A-list rhythm sections and the brilliant Adam Rogers on guitar. With half the tunes propelled by bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette and the other half by the bass/drums team of James Genus and Bill Stewart, well, you know that Fuller is a serious player.
Diamond Cut is probably her best recording, not just because of the talent backing her up but also because the tunes (eight original compositions as well as the Buddy Johnson classic “Save You Love for Me”, Mal Waldron’s “Soul Eyes”, and a Cole Porter standard) are arresting and arranged with a balance of groove and swing. The aesthetic of this work fits nicely into the identity of her label, Mack Avenue, which generally presents contemporary jazz that is neither “smooth” nor without a soulful center. Fuller’s 2006 gig with Beyonce’s all-female back band certainly qualifies her as a saxophonist with a sense of how to groove, and her 2012 stint with Esperanza Spalding’s Radio Music Society horn section sat in this space too. (It’s also notable that Fuller has long employed a piano trio featuring three African-American women—drummer Kimberley Thompson, pianist Shamie Royston, and bassist Miriam Sullivan.) But Fuller’s straight ahead jazz chops are equally up to snuff.
You can hear a good dose of soul, for example, on the original “Delight”. Fuller uses her soprano saxophone here to trace a highly tuneful and long-form theme against Holland, DeJohnette, and Rogers’s most tasteful bouncing groove. Holland takes the only solo, but it is a pure pleasure. “Save Your Love for Me” is straight up sexy, with a quiet storm sheen that doesn’t take away from the melodic strength of the tune or Fuller’s way of caressing it throughout, including on a hip, blues-rich alto sax improvisation over the tune’s key four-chord sequence. Fuller’s arrangement is smart and cool, giving guest organist Sam Yahel a soothing role and composing a set of cool chords and figures for Genus and Rogers to play on bass and guitar that lifts the tune to a bit more sophistication.
More of Diamond Cut, however, is straight-ahead jazz that, sure, features hummable melodies but is in no way compromised by commercial concerns. The opener, “In the Trenches”, puts the rhythm to great use with a tricky pattern built on an irregular time signature. Fuller and Rogers lock in on sharp unison runs and some harmonized melody and then—whoosh!—Fuller is improvising over the pattern as DeJohnette converses with her in polyrhythmic splendor. Rogers, however, solos over a fast strolling bass line and slipstream ride cymbal. “Joe’n Around” begins with a relatively open two-minute dialogue between just alto and drums—not exactly Coltrane and Elvin Jones, but very free and expressive—before Holland jumps in with an elastic bass line that gets everyone driving forward. The melody itself little more than a creative gesture, and Fuller proves utterly capable of building a fascinating solo on her play with this motif.
Fuller’s “The Coming” is tricky tune built around a grooving but irregular rhythmic pattern (6-6-4) that again uses Yahel to create more texture and layering. A similar circle of figures that are hard to “count” are in the foreground of “Fury of Da’mond”. Here, Rogers takes the first solo using his stinging, slightly chorused tone, creating a rubbery but fusion-ish feeling. Stewart’s drumming is essential here: keeping time perfectly but also coloring every turn in the road with unruly cymbal splashes, particularly on Fuller’s fine, searching solo. Though she can sell a soul melody as well as anyone, here she sounds in the same camp with, say, Kenny Garrett or Steve Wilson. Respect.
The ballad work on Diamond Cut is also strong. The original “Crowns of Grey” is a rich, slow ballad that allows the Fuller to carry things like a leader—Rogers stays well in the background, almost like a watercolor scrim. “Tears of Santa Barbara” is even better, a feature for Holland’s bowed bass at the start, then joined by Fuller on soprano for a unique counterpoint. Once Holland begins plucking his instrument, the conversation grows more urgent, and every note of it is imbued with grace and wit.
Cole Porter’s “I Love You” is taken at mid-tempo, using a grooving bass figure that Rogers doubles on guitar. The band keeps it busy all the way, even moving into a fast walking swing for a while, but Fuller manages to improvise across the ballad-style changes despite the tempo. “Queen Intuition” is another mid-tempo piece that begins with Fuller playing only with DeJohnette’s drums before the band kicks into the sensual minor theme, colored beautifully by organ and guitar. “Soul Eyes” gets a Latin treatment that is subtle but insistent. Genus plays in the forefront here, goosing every note from Fuller and Rogers.
Fuller is originally from Colorado, where she got her masters in jazz pedagogy and performance, and she currently work as a Professor at the Berklee College of Music when she isn’t touring. She is the kind of hero and role model we all need in a music that hasn’t been open to women—and has recently been even harder on women of color. Diamond Cut shows that she is respected by the most impressive musicians in the music and that we should all respect her sound, her soul, and her vision. Tia Fuller is not a cutting edge factor in the New Jazz. She’s not a maverick, and she’s not obviously an innovator, though her music is decidedly modern.
But the music needs great, smart, soulful players more than ever, and Tia Fuller is that, to the brim. Diamond Cut is a clean statement of purpose.