Charles Tolliver’s big-band gig at Jazz Stan-dard should signal the resumption of a career that peaked in the 1970s. A trumpet player and composer who staked his claim as a rugged hard-bopper on two 1964 Jackie McLean LPs, he freelanced widely until 1969, when he formed the daring quartet Music Inc. Two years later he and pianist Stanley Cowell launched Strata-East, which issued many strong records, including a lavish, ignored 1975 orchestra album, Impact. Then, suddenly, the label and Tolliver vanished. Since re-emerging in New York, he’s kept a low profile, teaching at the New School.
At 61, Tolliver is ripe for Act II. His 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. His reeds compare with the dream team convened on Impact: Gary Bartz, Jesse Davis, Craig Handy, Gary Thomas, and Howard Johnson.
Tolliver has expanded the fast “Round Midnight” that capped his 1973 quartet set, Live in Tokyo; the orchestra arrangement blends bass and baritone lows with trumpet screeches, followed by a musing Tolliver-Cowell interlude, until unison brasses pick up the final two bars of the theme and throttle the tempo as Jesse Davis wails and Cowell goes on a two-fisted romp. Also impressive is an elaborate rethinking of “Mournin’ Variations,” recorded for Impact by big band and string octet; this time flutes, bass clarinet, and trumpet sing the Japanese-flavored theme up against fat dissonant orchestra chords. A succession of robust solos—Bartz was in clover—supported by exacting riffs, dominates the middle section, before a reprise of the opener, now expanded with a Billy Drummond drum break, for what Gerry Mulligan would have called a “capital E ending.” This band deserves a permanent home.