Jazz pianist Larry Fuller, who plays at The Side Door in Old Lyme on Saturday, chose Stevie Wonder’s 1985 hit song “Overjoyed” — the story of an as-yet unrequited love — as the title song for his new album, which offers of mix of Wonder, Wes Montgomery, George Gershwin, Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown and a few original compositions.
Fuller said the song is emblematic of one of his goals as a musician — to bring joy to the audience.
“What I try to do when I play music is just to bring joy,” said Fuller. “Sometimes music and especially jazz music can become such an intellectual process.”
Fuller said he wants people to leave his concerts feeling better than when they walked through the door.
“Ultimately, I feel that’s our real mission as musicians is just to uplift people’s spirits and bring some joy into their life, even if it’s only for that one hour or two hours that they’ve come to hear you play.”
Fuller remembers being attracted to Jazz from a young age. As a child growing up in Toledo, Ohio, he said he would go to the local public library and listen to jazz records.
“Back in those days, they had turntables and you could just pick out a record off the shelf and put it on the turntable and put the headphones on, or you could take an album home or a cassette home,” he said. “I remember hearing for the first time the Count Basie Band and Oscar Peterson and just this infectious, joyous music, this sensational rhythmical feeling that they generated. It would just kind of give me goosebumps. I just loved it so much.”
As a teenager, Fuller was mentored by saxophonist Floyd “Candy” Johnson. He later went on to play alongside some of the greats in jazz music — vocalist Ernestine Anderson, drummer Jeff Hamilton, double-bassist Ray Brown and guitarist John Pizzarelli.
Fuller said that Brown taught him a key tenet of his own playing — making sure the music he played was accessible for the audience.
“You know, a lot of times in jazz the music is so complicated that it really … doesn’t really reach an audience because there’s not much that they can really understand or grasp onto. And with Ray, it was always about swinging and playing the blues and making people feel good while at the same time playing music that was at an extraordinarily high level,” said Fuller.
In classical music, Fuller explained, the musician is interpreting a composer’s composition. Jazz music, he said, more akin to composing on the spot — taking a skeletal harmonic structure and then superimposing one’s own improvisations over it.
“You’re telling your own story every time you play, you know?” he said. “So I just loved all that. It was just, like, magical to me and still is.”
Fuller generally performs now in a trio — on piano, accompanied by a bassist and drummer. He said that he takes a lead, but tries not to overly dictate how the performance should go.
“I try to keep it at a level where there’s equal interplay, and we’re all obviously vital to the music,” he said. “I don’t like to approach music like ‘I’m the leader and just follow me’ — that’s not fun for other musicians.”
In a live performance, Fuller said, the audience is a protagonist and becomes “a member of the group.”
“It’s just palpable. It’s just an energy that you feel, or you visually can see the expressions on people’s faces,” he said. “The music just rises to another level when you have a live audience and they’re supporting what you do.”
What makes Fuller joyful?
“I just find joy in all the blessings of life, really — having a nice home to live in and a lovely, supportive wife, and health,” he said.
And then, of course, there’s his music.
“I have so many wonderful relationships and friendships with musicians … and when you connect with people that are really committed to the music on such a deep level, that’s a really joyous thing to me,” he said.Fuller will be performing at The Side Door in Old Lyme on Saturday, September 18 at 8:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online.