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Charles Tolliver: The Real Deal

AAJ Staff By

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The band worked like a well-oiled machine, firing on all-pistons.
Charles Tolliver is the real deal. The Charles Tolliver Big Band roared into Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola with both guns blazin' for a full week of hard-swingin' artistry in August. The elusive trumpeter/composer, Mr. Tolliver, offered a rare treat to this Big Apple audience, leading his band with confidence and solid playing.
Having had the opportunity to work with Mr. Tolliver over the phone in preparation for his week-long run at the club, then seeing the band in action at soundcheck, and finally getting a full-set Thursday night, I find its musicians like Mr. Tolliver that inspire. It's a wonder why its been so long since his early 1970s hard-boppin' contribution of the release Impact (his last studio release) on his own Strata-East label - that finally brings Tolliver's talent to a club.

As New York Times jazz reviewer Nate Chinen wrote (8/5/05): "The strength of this resurrected band at Dizzy's, and the relish with which Mr. Tolliver conducted it, begged the question of how he kept quiet for all those years. Of the performance, he explains, "Each improvisational space gave the impression of a proving ground, and each player handled the challenge with personality and poise. It was in those moments, with the spotlight on supporting players, that Mr. Tolliver's promise seemed fully renewed.
As a trumpet player, Mr. Tolliver's sound is strong, vibrant and lyrical. He truly deserves much recognition and respect as a musician. Add that talent to the myriad of aspects it takes to run a big band, and you've got a multi-faceted artist and composer.
With a rhythm section of seasoned veterans John Hicks on piano and Cecil McBee on bass, the young, hard-swingin' band were strong and right on target. It sounded great. This is what jazz is all about.

The band consists of: Charles Tolliver (trumpet/leader), Howard Johnson (baritone saxophone), Greg Tardy, Bill Saxton (tenor saxophones), Craig Handy, Sundar Viswanathan (alto saxophones), Keyon Harrold, David Guy, Chris Albert, David Weiss, (trumpets), Clark Gayton, Aaron Johnson, Barry Cooper, Joe Fiedler (trombones), John Hicks (piano), Cecil McBee (bass), Ralph Peterson (drums).

The band worked like a well-oiled machine, firing on all-pistons. Hicks' licks on piano were nothing short of amazing. Sax solos were strong and true. Trumpets a-blarin' in unison. Good stuff.

Dizzy Gillespie, when asked in a DownBeat magazine interview with Herb Nolan, "what trumpet players do you hear today whom you like?" Dizzy's reply was, "Charles Tolliver . . ." Tolliver, entirely self-taught, is a remarkable talent who has gained an outstanding reputation as a trumpeter, bandleader, composer, arranger, and educator. Born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1942, his musical career began at the age of 8 when his beloved grandmother, Lela, presented him with his first instrument, a cornet, and the inspiration to learn.

After a few years of college majoring in pharmacy at Howard University, and formulating his trumpet style, Charles began his professional career with none other than saxophonist Jackie McLean. After making his recording debut with McLean on Blue Note Records in 1964, Charles went on to record and/or perform with such renowned artists as Roy Haynes, Horace Silver, McCoy Tyner, Sonny Rollins, Booker Ervin, The Gerald Wilson Orchestra, Oliver Nelson, Roy Ayers, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and Max Roach.

In 1968 Charles Tolliver was voted as the Down Beat Critic's Choice in the Trumpet category. In 1969 he formed the quartet Music Inc that has become internationally respected for its innovative approach. Regarding The Charles Tolliver Big Band—it is a road less traveled, or an alternate vision. Tolliver and pianist Stanley Cowell formed Strata-East Records in 1971 and recorded two critically acclaimed big band records for the label that were a logical extension of the late 60s and early 70s scene, a period often overlooked because of the relative weakness of the jazz economy in those years. As a result of that weakness, this music has rarely been heard live in the USA and only a bit more frequently in Europe.

Be on the look out for the Charles Tolliver Big Band. From what I saw, this is one of the best working hard-bop big bands on the jazz scene today.

Photo Credit
Frank Stewart

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