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Sunday, September 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 56.0° F  Overcast
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Saxophone phenom Tia Fuller lights up the Sett with ebullient improvised jazz
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Tia Fuller brandishes a soprano sax during a jazz set at the Sett.
Credit:Ralph Russo

Though she's best known for being Beyoncé's saxophonist, Tia Fuller returned to her roots for an evening of straight-ahead, marvelously improvised jazz Friday at the UW Union South Sett. I caught the first of the evening's two Isthmus Jazz Series concerts, which proved why this 36-year-old musician is a rising star in the jazz world.

Fuller, who specializes in alto and soprano saxophones, was part of Beyoncé's band for two different world tours. Perhaps more impressively, she was hired as the musical director for the band of Grammy-winning bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding. Fuller brought her own band of pros to the Sett.

Fuller's technique and sound show the influence of three of the most inspiring saxophonists in jazz history: Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane (especially during her turns on soprano sax). Adderley-esque exuberance and swinging melodic drive fueled Fuller's improvisations on 'Lil' Les." These emotions were a pleasant surprise during her solos, given the song's more reflective nature. "Clear Mind," a Fuller original, highlighted many of the contours of her sax sound. There is nothing jagged, squawky or abrasive about Fuller's tone. Ornette Coleman she is not, much less Kaoru Abe. She instead pursues a very full, muscular, smooth and hard-edged sound. More than anything else, Fuller sounded strong and imaginative whenever she was jamming. "Decisive Steps" featured Fuller's best solos, as she continually made unorthodox musical choices. Her adventurous, flurrying phrases almost worked against the chords of the song at times, but she kept taking chances and succeeding.

Pianist Shamie Royston, Fuller's older sister, also shined. Her solo on "Clear Mind" was deeply elegant and ingeniously melodic, with stylistic hints of Herbie Hancock and especially Bill Evans with hints classical phrasing at times and plenty of subtly assertive swing. The mics didn't project bassist Mimi Jones' solos as well as they should have, which rendered some notes nearly inaudible during her otherwise beautiful and challenging solo on "Lil' Les.' Nevertheless, she provided impeccable accompaniment during the whole set. Otis Brown III's virtuosic and intelligent drumming was a pleasure to watch and hear. Make no mistake: This band knew how to play.

Unfortunately, there were two problems during the set. The jazz standard "Body and Soul" suffered from an underwhelming arrangement. Royston's switch to the Fender Rhodes, Brown's transition to a more standardized rhythm and the general lack of intensity all contributed to a performance that felt much too smooth and laid-back. There was no tension, release or notability to the band's performance during this song, not even when Fuller enlivened it with a very brief jazz vocal.

Also, there was also so much interaction with the audience that the music felt overshadowed at times. Fuller has a very engaging, charismatic and positive personality, but she spent entirely too much time trying to get the crowd to clap or snap along to the songs and explaining again and again her concept of an "angelic warrior." Angelic Warrior is the title of her newest album, but that doesn't necessarily mean that I needed multiple vague explanations of the idea that everyone's personality contains a cherubic side and a combative side. The music was eloquent enough to speak for itself.

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