Tia Fuller brings it all to the table. As a composer, bandleader, teacher and touring member of Beyoncé’s all-female band, the Colorado-born saxophonist wears many hats. Drawing on her experiences growing up in a musical household, Fuller shared the stage for the first time in a revamped quartet with her sister and pianist Shamie Royston, bassist Mimi Jones and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington. Feel free to take a walk down the gender road if you like, but you’ll have to do it alone. I’d rather step off that beaten way and just listen, for in the swelter of the moment their bodies were catalysts for a spontaneity blind to such things. For this kickoff to the Cornell Concert Series 2012-13 season, Fuller and company wore this energy like a smile: that is to say, beamingly.
Our leader took to the stage with soprano slung forward, following its inertia into the deep end of “Angelic Warrior,” the title cut off her new joint (due out Sept. 25 on Mack Avenue). Sporting a pair of high heels with enough sparkle to make Dorothy jealous, she and her robust tone cut through the grime of a tiring week with the power of dawn. This prime groove found Royston flying, while Jones rocked the house like a cradle on fire over comparably blazing timekeeping from Carrington. The latter proved to be a shining star of the set. A protégé of Jack DeJohnette and legend in her own right, Carrington carries a style that is palpable, organic and rich with color. She was her own 5-hour Energy, finding all the room she needed to bring her solos to bear across every tune (a rarity in some jazz settings, which only swing the spotlight a drummer’s way for the finale). The same went for all in what amounted to a truly democratic sound.
Ever the acrobat, Fuller switched over to her mainstay alto for “Descend to Barbados.” Here Royston’s pianism cascaded like the waters of the song’s namesake, leaving Jones to wring out an ocean’s worth of intimacy, heavy as the sky at midnight. Waters of a different kind reflected Fuller’s selflessness in “Katrina’s Prayer,” drawing us into a prayerful mood before “Ebb and Flow” brought on a catharsis in funk. If Jones’ syncopations were life in all its obstacles, then Royston (here tripping the keys electric) and Fuller showed us perseverance in spite of inertia. Combining the polish of a studio session with the raw immediacy of the most in-your-face venues, the band rolled on through a smattering of mid-tempo tunes to “Royston Rumble,” a clear winner that culminated in some enthralling crosstalk between reed and sticks.
Instrumentalists, we may concede, are storytellers whose challenge is to draw connections between themselves and listeners in the absence of words. Yet these four formidable fashionistas had plenty of key words to share in their celebration of honor, of life and of the divine in all of us. It was also a celebration of family, a point brought home as Tia welcomed her father Fred Fuller to the stage. The bassist brought a fluid sound to bear on his “Watergate Blues,” putting a timely cap on an evening brimming with rhythm and soul. There was not one pretentious star to be found in its galaxy, but only endearing music making, straight from their hearts to ours. The old with the new, the light with the shadow, the meek with the strong: These the angelic warrior embodies to the fullest, recognizing that creation is never one-sided. It was a message to carry forth as we wandered back into the world, leaving not just on a high note, but also on high.