I've just "discovered" still another great jazz musician who has been recognized for his excellence since 1964. Charles Tolliver is a self-taught trumpet player, composer, arranger and band leader. His most recent CD, "Charles Tolliver Big Band With Love" is not his first big band album. In the 1970's, he recorded several records for an independent label, Strata. "With Love" features Tolliver's first album for a major jazz label, Blue Note.
Born in 1942 in Florida, he received his first trumpet at the age of 8 but never had any lessons. His love for jazz exceeded his desire to stay in college and, in 1964, Tolliver got a big break when noted sax player Jackie McLean asked him to be a sideman on a McLean-Blue Note record. Over the next few years, Tolliver played with a number of jazz greats including Horace Silver, Max Roach, Gerald Wilson, McCoy Tyner and Sonny Rollins. He fronted his own big band for a few albums in the 70's and was recognized as one of the best jazz men around by the pros.
On this CD, Tolliver plays lead trumpet, composed and arranged all of the songs on the album (except one) and generally creates some totally original Big Band jazz. I like what Tolliver has said about his favorite music:
"Jazz is about theme, melody, call and response, counterpoint if you want but not overly done, and always improvising."
While his trumpet playing is still top-notch (his early influences were Clifford Brown and Freddie Hubbard), Tolliver's real calling is found with what he does with his other "instrument", i.e., his band. This music is truly innovative and challenging.
Tolliver is joined by some of his oldest friends in the business: bassist Cecil McBee, pianist Stanley Cowell and baritone sax player Howard Johnson. Tolliver points out that his music is always heavily dependent on the drummer and the excellent stick man Victor Lewis performs that task here. The excellent liner notes include a feature that I really like: soloists are listed for each cut.
Here's my take on the music:
1. REJOICIN' 6:19
Tolliver briefly describes this as "an up-tempo 3/4 waltz celebration to 'open up the book' so to speak. And, man, does the book open with excitement. Tolliver and his band member seem to jump right into the middle of a complex arrangement with the woodwinds and brass sections playing off of each other before Tolliver takes the first solo. At 64, his power on the trumpet is amazing and he soars over the band. Todd Bashore has the next solo on alto sax. Bashore opens with a wild array of notes before settling into the main theme. Robert Glasper then plays a rocking piano solo over Lewis' pounding drums. This is unlike almost any "waltz" I've ever heard but it certainly does "open the book".
2. WITH LOVE 9:24
The title cut starts off quietly with some fine section work from the reeds and then the brass. While the sections trade fours, Bill Saxton plays a solo on tenor sax that is over the entire band. Tolliver again has a fine solo in which he features his higher register at a rapid tempo. The length of the song gives each soloist time to stretch out. While his "solo" continues the rhythm pattern switches and the rest of the band joins in for a few bars. Stanley Cowell then plays a great piano solo and Victor Lewis is right there on drums in what Tolliver calls an "8/8 rhythm". For most the song, the tempo is smooth but the band moves into a fever pitch for the last several bars.
3. 'ROUND MIDNIGHT-Monk 9:08
Tolliver calls this Monk tune "one of THE quintessentials of our music." Tolliver's unique arrangement moves slowly into the song with hints of the main theme before he states that theme beautifully on a soulful trumpet solo that mirrors the lyrics. Cowell's piano is the only instrument playing with him for several bars and the mournful feeling of the song is emphasized for almost 3 minutes. Then, the entire band explodes into competing statements between the brass and woodwinds. Tolliver is back at a fast pace with bassist McBee and drummer Lewis flying along with him. There are occasional bursts from the band over this second solo before Cowell comes in at the same pace on piano. McBee and Lewis don't miss a beat as they continue to race along with Cowell. Once again, the entire band blasts back in until, once more, there is a major tempo change, this time downward. Tolliver, McBee and Cowell revert to the soulful opening tempo with a poignant beauty before again ending with a flourish.
4. MOURNIN' VARIATIONS 10:55
In an amazing change of pace, Craig Handy is featured on a beautiful, simple flute solo of a sort. There is also a clarinet playing. The tempo is slow, the theme is repeated. Instead of "mournin", it seems more like "morning" to me. And then the sun rises! The entire band takes off like a rocket with variations on that simple opening theme. Cowell is on piano and Howard Johnson plays a funky baritone sax solo. One of the amazing things about Tolliver arrangements is that, although there are great solos. they are often played over a wild array of instruments underneath those solos. Stafford Hunter virtually "groans" a solo out on his horn (again over a number of instruments). Tolliver is back on trumpet with this same powerful accompaniment by the entire band.
For the sake of time, I'm only going to list the last three songs. What sets the album apart from most "big band" records are not only the incredible arrangements and musical talents, but the energy level of the entire band.
The last three songs are:
5. RIGHT NOW 6:29
Tolliver wrote this for his McLean small group album and the song keeps a tight feeling even with the big band
6. SUSPICION 8:36
Tolliver also wrote this song for a smaller group featuring a guitar. His son, Ched, plays a fine solo here as does bassist McBee. This song reminds me very much of some of the music of Leonard Bernstein, especially "West Side Story."
7. HIT THE SPOT 8:06
"Closing the Book" with another up-tempo song which has drummer Lewis in the spotlight with echoes of his drumming played by the band
While Tolliver may not be a household name in jazz like Ellington or Basie, he deserves a seat in the house of jazz innovators. He is innovative, original, energetic and daring. His music is not your run-of-the-mill big band jazz. With elements of Kenton, Gillespie, and Ellington, Tolliver's music has both the beauty and power to keep an audience yelling for more.