Emperor March Reviews

Another Great CD From Charles Tolliver
As I wrote in my previous review of the Charles Tolliver big band album, 2007’s “With Love”, Mr. Tolliver is one of those “overnight success” stories who has taken decades to be recognized.  Tolliver was born in 1942, started playing trumpet (or cornet) at 8 and became a professional musician in the early 1960’s.  That was an unusual time for jazz in that the there were several competing styles including bop, hard bop, and modal not to mention the still popular traditional jazz.

Charles played trumpet for with several jazz greats including Jackie Mclean, Hank Mobley, Max Roach, and Horace Silver.  He also started composing and arranging jazz for a variety of groups including his own group Music, Inc. which he co-founded with pianist Stanley Cowell in 1970.  Over the next 30 plus years, Charles stayed busy and was recognized as a great, if underrated, trumpet player.

The liner notes for this CD by Michael Cuscuna point out that Tolliver’s arrangements “are difficult to master because they flesh out the nuanced twists and turns his compositions possess and build systematically with layer after interlocking layer.”  But, somehow, Tolliver manages to succeed with these difficult arrangements.

Of course, the musicians playing the arrangements have to be top-notch and this 16 piece orchestra certainly qualifies in that category.

Tolliver plays trumpet on the album but he’s joined by four fellow trumpet players including Cameron Johnson, Michael Williams, Keyon Harrold and David Weiss.  There are five trombonists and six woodwind players (many of whom play multiple instruments).  Gene Jackson is the drummer and Reggie Workman plays bass.  Anthony Wonsey plays most of the piano solos with Stanley Cowell appearing on one song.

All of the songs except one are composed by Tolliver who also arranged all of the music.

The CD opens with “ON THE NILE” which was a modal composition first performed in 1965 by Jackie McLean.  While Tolliver is a master of creating twisting and turning sectional music, he also appreciates and utilizes great solos.  The song opens with a huge brass fanfare but quickly includes a wide range of flutes, saxes and rhythm instruments which seem, at first, to be “searching for a theme.”  The opening is almost classical in style but gradually slows down before opening up again with a more definite, if complex, theme.  The first solo is by tenor sax player Marcus Strickland who Cuscuna points out “builds in ideas and intensity with reverent echoes of John Coltrane and Joe Henderson.”  At times, Strickland’s playing is almost frantic as though he’s racing to some imaginary point in the distance.  Tolliver gives his soloists plenty of time to stretch out his ideas.  Cowell then brings a more subdued, very middle-Eastern, style with his piano solo but he also explores some wildly divergent modal chords.  The final solo on the song is by Tolliver on trumpet.  He has a powerful tone that harkens back to the Louis Armstong strength.  This is a remarkable opening number before a very enthusiastic audience at the Blue Note in NYC.

The next song by Billy Eckstine, “I WANT TO TALK ABOUT YOU”, again shows Tolliver’s inventive arrangement ability.  It opens with a quiet muted horn section intertwined with flutes and saxes with occasional ultra-low notes by Aaron Johnson on bass trombone.  Then, Billy Harper brings his “Texas tenor” solo which is, in itself, an amazing contrast with the complex ensemble arrnangement.  Harper’s tone is gorgeous and fairly straight-forward.  He’s backed by Wonsey on piano, Workman on bass and Gene Jackson on drums on some great pure jazz playing.

The almost 14 minute “EMPEROR MARCH” was inspired by a documentary on Emperor penguins.  The rhythm mimics the walking of the birds with a “gentle unhurried march” style.  Tolliever again features flutes and trombones in the opening before Todd Bashore plays a gorgeous alto sax solo which is alternately fast and slow but builds in intensity.  As his intensity increases, it contrasts all the more with the steady rhythmic play.  Mike Dease follows with an almost introspective trombone solo (at least at first).  He too builds to a state of frenzy.  The final solo is by pianist Wonsey and is truly beautiful.  Amidst all three superb solos, the arrangement by Tolliver of the entire band provides a mesmerizing background.

Ever inventive, Tolliver opens the next song, “CHEDLIKE” with muted trumpets and flutes.  Composed for his son, Tolliver plays the only solo on the song with flights of rapid sound flowing from his horn over his complex arrangement.

The final two songs on the CD continue the excellent ensemble and solo work of the band.  “IN THE TRENCHES” is pure bop and Tolliver points out that “this work is where I come from-Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and their great ‘worthy constituents’ as Bird put it.”  It’s really amazing to hear the modern big band playing such great bop material.  The final song, “TOUGHIN'” features almost every musician in the band on solos.  Opening at a fast tempo and staying there, the song is a triumph of big band play which nevertheless gives each indidual a chance to shine.

Man, would I love to see and hear Mr. Tolliver and his big band in person.  As the liner notes finish, his band really kicks a$$.


– Mike Holmes, Epinions.com
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With Love Reviews

New York Times:
“The trumpeter Charles Tolliver started his career in the early 1960s, playing with Jackie McLean, Art Blakey and others; he became known as a bandleader later in the decade, after John Coltrane died. At that shaky moment in jazz Mr. Tolliver was an exciting, undefinable force in its mainstream, holding fast against abstraction and electric music, pushing out well-balanced phrases with the ferocious zeal of late Coltrane.

“Mr. Tolliver started writing big-band music for a few years in the early ’70s, then stopped and became less visible in general. In 2003 he formed his 20-piece group and jumped back in with gusto. His new big-band record, “With Love,” sounds like the work of a man who has been in storage for a long while and is ready to fight.

“The band, performing at the Jazz Standard tomorrow through Saturday, is brash, powerful and immediate, with blasts of high brass and sharp drum fills. Mr. Tolliver’s arrangements are reasonably complicated but direct; you can almost hear his furious conducting gestures.

“His music here represents a time when jazz wasn’t so tricked-up and self-doubting. Instead there are modern-jazz basics, done earnestly and energetically: quartal harmonies, call-and-response arrangements and a slug-it-out rearrangement of Monk’s ” ‘Round Midnight,” taking the song through different moods and tempos.

“With Love” has a comparatively old-school rhythm section in the bassist Cecil McBee and the drummer Victor Lewis; a young, iconoclastic pianist in Robert Glasper (whose improvisations in “Rejoicin’ ” and “Right Now” are squirrelly, hyperactive, exciting things) and a brilliant lead trumpeter in Mr. Tolliver, whose bright, almost shattering sound takes over in several solos.

“There’s something strangely manifesto like about this album. It isn’t preservationist or pedantic. It isn’t protecting anything; it’s having too much fun for that. But it demonstrates what we may be missing if we completely abandon the viscerally exciting qualities in jazz big bands that were important not so long ago.”
Ben Ratliff, New York Times
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Village Voice:
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.)
Francis Davis, Village Voice
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Time Out New York:
“Even while hunting for the next Norah Jones, Blue Note thankfully continues to honor its legacy by recording jazz elders. The label started ’06 strong with a stirring Andrew Hill disc that featured a fellow veteran, trumpeter Charles Tolliver. And the New Year brings Tolliver’s Blue Note debut as a leader, an exuberant big-band release teeming with inspired solos.

“Tolliver’s large ensemble has garnered raves in recent live appearances, but it’s been three decades since his last big-band recordings (on Strata-East, a label he cofounded). With Love effectively erases the interim; now as then, the trumpeter favors hectic yet hard-grooving arrangements. “Suspicion,” a reworking of a tune that dates to the ’70s, features a brisk, Latinish piano backbone and blasts of piercing brass. As with much of the record, the track’s ensemble sections are bombastic, but their density nicely sets off the sinewy improvisations. Later in “Suspicion,” Tolliver engages drummer Victor Lewis in a high-wire duet that showcases the trumpeter’s trademark tone—robust yet slightly blurred—and funky rhythmic flow.

“The leader plays brilliantly throughout, but his costars nearly upstage him. The alternating piano soloists are on fire: Tolliver’s longtime associate Stanley Cowell displays his blues-drenched virtuosity on “Mournin’ Variations,” while the young Robert Glasper builds to a head-spinning prismatic climax on “Rejoicin’.” These maverick voices balance out the flashy charts, yielding a rare example of a comeback session that truly crackles.”
Hank Shteamer, Time Out New York
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Time Out Chicago:
“It’s been more than 40 years of sideman gigs and poorly distributed albums for Charles Tolliver – a recipe for a footnote in hardbop history. But on the pedal-to-the-floor theme of “Rejoicin’,” the opening cut on his swaggering Blue Note debut, the trumpeter and arranger reintroduces himself in spectacular fashion.

“Tolliver’s reemergence at the tender age of 64 shouldn’t exactly be a surprise. For one, he’s gigging again, thanks to his rediscovery by a younger generation, some of whom no doubt are his music students at New York’s New School. Anyone familiar with the collectible records he played on with everyone from Horace Silver to Gary Bartz knows Tolliver was a ubiquitous, ball-busting sideman, endlessly ratcheting up the intensity with his combative, intellectual playing. A clue to his resilience lies within his own instrument: In much of the music he made for the label he founded, Strata East (subsequently reissued on indie jazz labels like Black Saint, Mosaic Select and Enja), Tolliver has a defiant voice – even at a young age, you knew he simply wouldn’t go quietly into the night.

“But for clarity of sound, With Love, for which Tolliver assembled a big band to play his charts, is his best yet. Like his playing, his charts jab and duck like a boxer, punctuating the air with horn blasts and quick drum fills. Adroit drummer Victor Lewis deserves some credit for this, as do pianists Stanley Cowell and Robert Glasper (who, at 27, actually is still emerging), who both toy with the keys like an abacus, rearranging melodies on the fly. It’s good to see Tolliver as nimble as ever – and great to have him recording again.”
Matthew Lurie, Time Out Chicago
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Vibe Magazine:
“For the last thirty years, gifted hard-bop trumpeter Charles Tolliver has been a cipher; after his last album, 1975’s Impact (Strata-East), he disappeared from the public eye.  Now, just as suddenly, he’s returned: The nimble With Love is a triumph.  Tolliver has resuscitated not only his incisive trumpet playing but also his high-octane big band, with the help of longtime compatriots (like pianist Stanley Cowell) and ferocious youngbloods (like Robert Glasper, also on piano).

“Right from the opener, “Rejoicin’,” the music crackles with intensity and purpose.  Tolliver is a groove-minded composer, given to blaring horn repetitions and tumbling rhythm-section vamps.  This strategy works especially well on the calypso overdrive of “Suspicion” and the feints and surges of “Hit the Spot.”  He’s also expanded his style, writing longer and more linear themes for the epic “Mournin’ Variations.” which begins with a draft of woodwinds before swerving into post-Coltrane heroics.  As a trumpeter, Tolliver is no longer the terror he was in his prime, but With Love proves that he’s still got a sense of bravura command and that his instincts, especially as a bandleader, are as sharp as ever.  Which raises the question: Why did he keep it so quiet for so long?”
Nate Chinen, Vibe Magazine
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JazzandBlues Blogspot:
“Trumpeter, composer and arranger Charles Tolliver is one of the unsung heroes of modern jazz. Tolliver made his debut with Jackie McLean in the mid 1960’s and ever since, he has investigated the intersection of composition and improvisation as a leader, sideman and educator. Tolliver’s profile has been on the rise lately with his excellent sideman appearance on Andrew Hill’s Time Lines LP and a short residency for his big band in New York. So, he really makes an appropriate choice for the first collaboration between the Blue Note and Mosaic labels in newly recorded music (they have collaborated for years on re-issues.) There are some wonderful musicians making up the band: saxophonists Billy Harper and Craig Handy, pianist Robert Glasper and drummer Victor Lewis among many others. The music is extraordinarily exciting, beginning with the blasting original chart “Rejoicin” which features an excellent solo from the leader and very good ensemble playing. The title song, “With Love” builds slowly to an explosive conclusion with the entire group whipped into a ferocious swing. Next up is a very interesting re-arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” with Tolliver leading the way with some excellent trumpet soloing. The great tenor saxophonist Billy Harper gets an excellent solo spot on “Mournin’ Variations” which Tolliver originally wrote for a Max Roach project. The music starts off in a meditative fashion before evolving into a Mingus-like holy rolling swing. The recording is rounded out with performances of the originals “Suspicion” and “Hit the Spot.” The first has a bit of a different feel thanks to Tolliver’s son Ched, who contributes some fine electric guitar, and the final tune is a blow out for the whole band that is nearly head spinning in its power. This is an astoundingly good progressive big band album, with great charts and superb playing. Kudos all around but especially to Blue Note and Mosaic for taking a chance on this startling music. Very highly recommended.”
Tim N, JazzandBlues.blogspot.com
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