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The soul of Tia Fuller

Musician, composer and inspiration for sax playing animated character in Pixar’s ‘Soul’

Scott Haas
The soul of Tia Fuller
Saxophonist and composer Tia Fuller. PHOTO: DAVE GREEN

Saxophonist, composer and Berklee College of Music Professor Tia Fuller is well known as being the model for the character of Dorothea Williams in the Pixar movie “Soul.” The physical features of that animated figure and the music played derive from Fuller, and that presence and artistry embodies her oeuvre. As a performer, she has toured with Beyoncé and Esperanza Spaulding; as an academic, she works with youth to tap into their strengths. Her most recent recording, with Mack Records, is “Diamond Cut.” The Banner caught up with Fuller last week.

Banner: What recording and composing work are you engaged in and planning for 2022?
Tia Fuller: I just finished writing about five songs for a new album that premiered at Birdland in New York in mid-January. I’m calling the album “Intersections,” and it’s got a little bit of funk and groove, and a guitar, bass drums, piano and trombone. I’m celebrating the intersections as we move through life. Looking, too, for more intersections and greater abundance. The group will perform at the Atlanta Jazz Festival on May 28.

You were part of the all-female touring band with Beyoncé, and you also performed with Esperanza Spaulding — such different artists!  Are there any common features you observed in them as artists and as people?
Both women are powerhouses: strong leaders and visionaries. They are very clear about, and very capable of, articulating their visions. It was transformational to work with them, to see what it’s like to be a leader. Esperanza toured with a big band. And Beyonce had about a 100-member team. Both Beyonce and Esperanza have crystallized visions, and neither takes “no” for an answer!

Tia Fuller with Berklee College of Music’s Bruno Mars Ensemble. PHOTO: DAVE GREEN

You played the sax as the character Dorothea Williams in the Pixar movie “Soul.” Tell us about that.
It was an honor to be chosen to be that figurehead, to be part of a new movement: young girls and boys not just seeing me, but [seeing] a woman, and a woman of color. It was so impactful for me. I saw the importance of the work we’ve been doing for the next generation to deconstruct this patriarchal perspective of what jazz looks like. In terms of the actual character in the movie, Dorothea’s body movements — the exact fingers on the sax, her face, her body — they were all modeled on how I play and move.

You’re a professor at the Berklee College of Music. What does that entail?
I lead eight ensembles, both jazz and pop, and I’m the artistic director of the ensemble department. On April 15, The Berklee Beyoncé Ensemble will perform at the Berklee Performance Center in homage to Beyoncé’s 2018 Homecoming tour. And starting in the fall of 2022, we’re launching an exchange program with Spelman College, my alma mater: Two Spelman students will go to Berklee, followed by two Berklee students going to Spelman.

What can ordinary lovers of music do to promote more authority for women musicians?
They can expose their children to the music. Live performances and general support. Exposure is key.

Who are you inspired by musically these days?
I’ve been listening lately to Nate Smith, Lahla Hathaway, Jumanji, and Bruno Mars’ new album.

Boston has an odd mix of musical education and the birthplace of great artists, but what’s missing?
It would be nice if there were more jazz clubs, such as Scullers!