Jazz Album of the Week: Overjoyed Says It All About Larry Fuller’s Joyful Approach

Jun 17, 2019

June 17, 2019. Pianist Larry Fuller is a guy who’s truly just happy to be here. This is not to suggest complacency—quite the opposite, actually. It suggests perspective. Taking nothing for granted and treating the opportunity to play music for a living as a privilege—that’s what comes through with the utmost force when learning about Larry Fuller and listening to his music.

His latest, Overjoyed, is no exception and encompasses perfectly, in that one word title, how Fuller feels about the chance to spend his life playing music.

Raised in what he once called “Toledo’s white ghetto,” where the idea of becoming a professional musician was a “pipe dream,” Fuller has spent most of his career in the shadow of other, more famous, musicians. He’s accompanied and arranged for Ernestine Anderson, John Pizzarelli, and was the Ray Brown Trio’s last piano player before the legendary bassist passed away. He’s long had the bonafides and talent; the question seemed to be weather he’d have the gregarious personality, the flare for self-promotion, that leading one’s own band can require.

With Overjoyed, he’s got some help from his friends. And not just Lewis Nash and Hassan Shakur, who are both wonderful on drums and bass, respectively. I’m talking about friends like Stevie Wonder, Wes Montgomery, and Fuller’s mentor Ray Brown, whose compositions here are most thoughtfully and artfully rendered.

Leading off and playing centerfield, a guitar-less, slightly fast-motion take on Wes Montgomery’s bluesy “Fried Pies” that’s short and fun and played with exceptional precision.

In the two-hole is the title track, a beautiful arrangement of the great Stevie Wonder tune. Sometimes a jazz arrangement of a pop tune can struggle to communicate the message of the original, especially, for obvious reasons, when it’s an instrumental arrangement. This is not one of those cases. In fact, musically, this version of the tune might communicate the emotional essence of this Stevie tune (about trying to show an unrequited love how great life would be if only she would love you the same way) better than the original, as blasphemous as that sounds.

In Bryce Harper’s three-hole, we appropriately find a traditional power-hitter—Fuller’s take on Ray Brown’s “Lined with a Groove.” And this one certainly is—lined with the requisite groove, led by Shakur, who’s out in front with his bass like an all-pro lead blocker, paving the way for his speedy musical backfield to break out into open terrain and dazzle.

Elsewhere on this 12-track album, there’s a beautiful original composition titled “Jane’s Theme,” a latin-inflected tune that must, in part, be a send-up to Chick Corea’s “Armando’s Rhumba.”

Fuller’s solo piano treatment of Gershwin’s “How Long Has This Been Going On” also brings to mind Corea’s similar treatment of Gershwin on Expressions, though Fuller’s take here is a little more populist, a little less epic.

For your morning drive to work, when the attitude may require adjusting, try Fuller’s original composition “The Mooch,” (not to be confused with the Duke Ellington tune spelled with an “e” at the end). It might just bring you the type of perspective Larry Fuller’s brought to his music all these years.