Blast From the Past

An ambitious big-band project comes to fruition 30-plus years later

Though not nearly the desperate days for jazz some would have you believe, the 1970s were nonetheless a foolhardy decade in which to launch a big band—a luxury even when times are flush. And to an indifferent public for whom "big band" still signified a bygone style and era rather than strength in numbers, a hard-bop big band must've seemed like an oxymoron. But Charles Tolliver wasn't going to let anything stop him, even if he had to start a musicians' cooperative label to do it.

The trumpeter first turned heads as a Jackie McLean sideman on Blue Note in the '60s, his solos and compositions balancing harmonic complexity and forthright expression in a way that virtually defined hard bop even as they incorporated free's angled rhythms and exotic colorings. For 1971's Music Inc. and 1975's Impact, released on his and pianist Stanley Cowell's own Strata-East label, Tolliver extended those concepts by calling together a tribe of like-minded young hard-bop soloists whose enthusiasm for section work belied their lack of big-band experience. Whether this band ever performed live, I can't say. But the likelihood that these two Strata-East LPs are all that remains of that era—underscoring the sheer impracticality of Tolliver's endeavor—only adds to their allure.

Tolliver drifted in and out of view after Strata-East suspended operations, his periodic comebacks marred by uncertain chops. But when he resurfaced for good a few years ago fronting a new big band—his earnings as an instructor at the New School subsidizing a night here or a week there at various local clubs—his upper register was back, and so was his '70s book in all its glory. The headlong drive of vintage pieces like the modal "On the Nile" and the 5/4 "Right Now" kept them from sounding dated, and the newer charts acquired urgency from the sense that updating and refining hard bop was an ongoing process—Tolliver's interrupted life's work.

Charles Tolliver (with trumpet) exhilarates (but doesn't exhaust) at the Jazz Standard
Cary Conover
Charles Tolliver (with trumpet) exhilarates (but doesn't exhaust) at the Jazz Standard

Details

Charles Tolliver Big Band
With Love
Blue Note/Mosaic

With Love, the new year's most eagerly anticipated jazz album on the strength of the band's live press notices and Tolliver's stellar contributions to Andrew Hill's 2006 record Time Lines, doesn't disappoint. Although he reined himself in somewhat with Hill, making do with very few notes but leaning on them hard in the interest of thematic development, Tolliver's usual modus operandi as an improviser, on display here, is more prodigious—technical as well as emotional, with the emotion coming from the pleasure he takes in bounding registers and juggling multiple chords and scales simultaneously. As for his new cohorts, big bands inevitably reflect the personalities of their leaders, and Tolliver's joins him on the high wire. As was true of the '70s band, this one's signature sound is that of a small group regularly breaking free from a much larger one—a hard-bop big band without contradiction, in other words, with individual soloists wailing over the rhythm section after the opening theme. The full complement of horns first emerges on those themes, returning for occasional fanfares and harmonic pyramids between choruses, not to mention behemoth bursts at the end. (For these guys, closing on a diminuendo would be taking the coward's way out.)

The lion's share of the solos go to the leader, whose edgy ideas carry him along even on those rare occasions when his intonation is suspect, as on the opening "Rejoicin'," a waltz taken at a punishing tempo. But regardless of style, a big band is only as good as its role players, and this one's overlooked heroes are lead trumpeter David Guy and bass trombonist Aaron Johnson, who approach their utility roles with panache. And even with tenor saxophonist Billy Harper contributing a typically spellbinding moment—a pentatonic incantation on Tolliver's spiritual-based "Mournin' Variations," with drummer Victor Lewis subdividing three into four, like Elvin Jones pushing Coltrane—the soloist who grabs you every time he steps up is young pianist Robert Glasper, whose pouncing octaves on four tunes make you wonder why he's been so timid on his own CDs. Chalk it up to big-band alchemy, I guess.

All told, I like With Love better than anything else I've heard since compiling my 2006 Top 10, and yet it can't compare to hearing the band live again at Jazz Standard last month, on a night so frigid we patrons reminisced about when winters were that cold without fail. A drawback to the recorded version is an in-your-face mix that puts soloists and the full ensemble on the same level, with no dynamic shadings. Not a problem live. Though the Jazz Standard set was every bit as loud, it left you exhilarated afterward—so does With Love, but it also leaves you a little exhausted. The difference was "Truth," a dissonant Tolliver ballad dating back to his debut with McLean, on which he soloed all the way through live, edging through massed horns and finally soaring alongside them. As spiky and hard-hitting as "Rejoicin' " and "Right Now" (the all-out assaults bracketing it), "Truth" was just bittersweet enough to count as a change of pace. With Love's only comparable moments are too brief: the lovely and suspenseful reeds-and-woodwinds chorale that opens "Mournin' Variations," and a prayer-like duet between Tolliver and Stanley Cowell (who alternates with Glasper) on Monk's " 'Round Midnight"—the lull before the storm in an otherwise novel uptempo arrangement.

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