On his Blue Note Records debut, With Love, Charles Tolliver presents his extraordinary big band charts and sui generis trumpet playing for the first time on a major U.S. label.
For the occasion, Tolliver recruited a pan-generational lineup of home-run hitter soloists including pianists Stanley Cowell and Robert Glasper, saxophonists Billy Harper, Craig Handy, and Howard Johnson, trumpeter Keyon Harrold, and a cohort of A-list section men, Cecil McBee and Victor Lewis, all of whom draw on all their resources to articulate Tolliver's vision with a bravura performance.
After hearing a reunion of the Tolliver-Cowell quartet in 2002, the trumpeter David Weiss decided to approach Tolliver about resurrecting his acclaimed big band. A fan of Tolliver's '70s big band records Music, Inc. And Big Band and Impact, both on Strata East (an independent label founded by Tolliver and Cowell in 1970), Weiss provided the spark that brought the band back to life.
"I told David the charts were collecting dust," Tolliver recalled. "David said that perhaps he could interest some of the venues in New York. After several months, the Jazz Standard agreed to have me for a couple of nights, and it was successful."
Reviewing that September 2003 engagement, Gary Giddins wrote: "[Tolliver's] trumpet retains much of its vigorous tone, diligent logic, and controlled fury. But his most powerful achievement is as a composer-conductor. At Jazz Standard, his dramatic semaphore directed intricate section work in long numbers with balanced pace, color tones, and excitement... This band deserves a permanent home."
"Charles is the culmination of his period," Weiss says. "He encompassed everything that happened in the '60s and early '70s, all the innovation and intensity, the highest level of harmony and rhythm and technique, and pumped it up even more."
Self-taught as an instrumentalist, composer and arranger, Tolliver seems constitutionally averse to doing things the easy way. "I like to rumble," he told DownBeat. "I take the most difficult routes for improvisation. It's easy to play a number of choruses effortlessly and never make a mistake, never break down. That's no fun. You need to get in hot water by trying something out right from the jump, get yourself out of that, and move on to the next chorus."
The 64-year-old trumpeter-composer was no stranger to Blue Note Records. Alto saxophonist Jackie McLean launched Tolliver's career in 1964 by hiring him as a sideman on his Blue Note album It's Time, used him on the subsequent albums Action and Jacknife, and made his composition "Right Now" the title track of a 1965 quartet date. As the '60s progressed Tolliver also appeared with Blue Note heavyweights Horace Silver (Serenade to A Soul Sister) and Andrew Hill (One For One, Dance With Death), as well as sessions for other labels with Max Roach, Booker Ervin, Gerald Wilson, and Gary Bartz. In 1969 he formed the innovative quartet Music Inc., which he documented on four albums for Strata East.
(NOTE: Tolliver was also a strong presence on Andrew Hill's triumphant return to Blue Note in early 2006, Time Lines.)
Born in 1942 in Jacksonville, Florida, Tolliver moved to Harlem with his family at ten and to Brooklyn's Fort Greene neighborhood, then a musical hotbed, in 1958. He matriculated at Howard University as a pharmacy major, but the pull of music was too strong.
"If I could have brought my classroom from Howard University to New York with me while I was trying to get into the scene, I probably would have done both at the same time," Tolliver says. "But I felt I was ready to try this thing, and there was no way to stay in Washington, D.C. and finish my studies. I was lucky to get in with Jackie McLean almost instantaneously when I got back to New York, so there was no need to go back to school."
That Tolliver doesn't have albums of his own in the Blue Note catalog is an accident of timing. "When I was in my twenties," Tolliver says, "Freddie Hubbard told me, 'Probably they're going to give you the New Star Award at DownBeat' as the next guy." He adds "Yes, they did [in 1968], but Alfred Lion was retiring when Woody and I showed up at the gate. I decided to make my own recordings."
Comprising seven Tolliver compositions, With Love makes up for lost time with a vengeance. "Alfred Lion and the musicians themselves put together different groups to play their own music," Tolliver says. "So the vocabulary that was developed through the Blue Note catalog was mostly repertoire - playing several compositions a season with a set group so that the group gets a chance to expound on it - played by great stylists. That's why the records last. My career started with Jackie McLean at Blue Note, and they're still at it, so why not go full circle?"
Adamant that "small group is my first love," Tolliver cites Gillespie-Basie arranger Ernie Wilkins' arrangements for Sonny Rollins' 1958 album The Big Brass [Verve] as a formative big band influence. "I got hold of an arrangement from that record, and analyzed how Ernie Wilkins placed the horns and left the space to get a small group sound," he relates. As the '60s progressed, Tolliver studied Thad Jones closely at his Monday night Village Vanguard sessions; during a sojourn to California around 1966, he played and recorded with harmony masters Gerald Wilson and Oliver Nelson.
After Tolliver and Cowell presented their early charts on the 1970 recording Music Inc. And Big Band, Max Roach commissioned Tolliver to write a long suite to be performed at the 1972 Montreux Festival. "That's when I started to really get into writing," Tolliver recalls. "For both Stanley and I, the idea was to write for big band and keep the small group energy inside it somehow."
Tolliver continued to evolve his concept through the '80s and '90s on various engagements as a soloist with European radio orchestras; after the 2003 rebirth of the big band, he resumed writing and arranging full force.
"Big band jazz is not about over-writing to the point where all these different sections are playing in different time signatures and all that nonsense," Tolliver says. "It doesn't have to sound like you're writing for a symphony. After all, we are playing this so-called thing named jazz. Jazz is about theme, melody, call-and-response, counterpoint if you want, but not overly done - and always improvising. If you take away improvising and swing, then it seems to me that you are removing two of the prime elements that allow us to call ourselves jazz musicians. You know what jazz is because of the way the drummer plays. I take careful consideration in selecting the drummer, and anything I write will be drumcentric."
From the opening refrain of "Rejoicin'," the up-tempo 3/4 waltz that launches the session, to the concluding drum hits on "Hit The Spot," Victor Lewis - in constant synch with bass giant Cecil McBee, a Tolliver bandstand companion since the '60s - propels the proceedings to perfection.
"I tailored the melody to give the drummer an opportunity to use all of the elements of jazz drumming," Tolliver says of the finale. "When he makes the fills, Victor quotes, in his own way, Art Blakey, Philly Joe, Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones and Kenny Clarke. He's an original, with an amazing ability to give you what you're looking for in his own way."
On "Rejoicin'," Tolliver does something similar with the language of bebop, crafting complex opening passages that reference Gil Fuller's futuristic arrangements for Dizzy Gillespie, before declaiming a spectacular, white-heat solo.
He finds fresh pathways through American Songbook forms on "With Love," underpinned by Lewis' ebullient 8/8 dance feel, and on an arrangement of Thelonious Monk's "Round Midnight," which Tolliver describes as "the absolute essential song of jazz, no matter how many branches it has come to since the early '40s."
Ditto on "Mournin' Variations," an adaptation of the James Weldon Johnson spiritual "Singin' Wid a Sword In Ma Han', Lord" commissioned by Max Roach in 1972, and first documented thirty years ago on Impact, on which Tolliver scored the plaintive spiritual beginning for string octet on the original recording. Here he assigns it to the woodwinds, before referencing the sword in the title with orchestra blasts, and commencing dissertations by the soloists - Harper on tenor saxophone; trombonist Stafford Hunter; Tolliver and Cowell - in a long metered blues format before the concluding prayer recitation by the woodwinds.
Almost forty years after McLean debuted "Right Now," Tolliver reworks the line, adding an introductory fanfare, ratcheting the tempo, and presenting a baritone saxophone solo by Howard Johnson. On "Suspicion," which was written in the '70s for a piano-less quartet, Tolliver draws on a rhythmic motif as the starting point. The soloists on this elaborated 2005 arrangement are Tolliver, his son, Ched, McBee and Glasper.
Throughout the proceedings, Tolliver plays with the energy of an 18-year-old and the accumulated wisdom of fifty years of high-level improvising. "I refuse to ever consider myself as less fresh and new than the first time I realized I could do this," Tolliver told DownBeat. "It's not in my psyche to back off from the kind of energy we bring to the plate every time, even if I'm eligible to collect my Social Security check. What we were doing in the '60s is still so alive and well that it's fresh and new whenever you work on it. Anything coming in at this point can't supplant that."