Charles Tolliver's Big Bands


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One of the finest jazz trumpeters around today who began his career during the 1960s Blue Note period is Charles Tolliver. If you're familiar with Jackie McLean's It's Time (1965), Action Action Action (1967) and Jackknife (1975), then you know the blistering sound of Tolliver's horn. His career as an album leader began in 1968 with Paper Man (Freedom), followed in '69 by The Ringer, also on Freedom.

But his finest recordings began in 1970 on Strata-East, a label he co-founded that year with Stanley Cowell and is still around today. Strata-East recorded a range of excellent albums by top artists, including Clifford Jordan, M'Boom, Cecil Payne, Sonny Fortune, Shirley Scott, Harold Vick and others. Gil Scott-Heron's The Bottle (1974) was perhaps Strata-East's biggest hit.

Tolliver recorded six excellent albums for Strata-East, two of which featured big bands. For these albums, he composed, arranged, soloed and conducted, which is a remarkable given the size of the bands.

The first was Music Inc., recorded in November 1970. The band featured Charles Tolliver, Richard Williams, Virgil Jones, Larry Greenwich and Danny Moore (tp); Garnett Brown, Curtis Fuller, John Gordon and Dick Griffin (tb); Jimmy Heath and Bobby Brown (as,fl); Clifford Jordan and Wilbur Brown (ts,fl); Howard Johnson (bar,tu); Stanley Cowell (p); Cecil McBee (b) and Jimmy Hopps (d). Most of the solos were by Tolliver and Cowell. They are exceptional.

The tracks are Ruthie's Heart, Brilliant Circles, Abscretions, Household of Saud, On the Nile and Departure.

The second big-band album by Tolliver was Impact, recorded in January 1975. The band included Charles Tolliver (tp,flhrn,arr,comp,cond); Jon Faddis, Richard Williams, Jimmy Owens, Larry Greenwich and Virgil Jones (tp); Garnett Brown, John Gordon and Kiane Zawadi (tb); Jack Jeffers (b-tb); Charles McPherson (as); James Spaulding (as,sop,pic,fl); George Coleman (ts); Harold Vick (ts,sop,fl); Charles Davis (bar); Stanley Cowell (p); Cecil McBee (b on track 1), Reggie Workman (b on track 2) and Clint Houston (b on track 3); Clifford Barbaro (d); Warren Smith (perc on track 4,chimes on track 5); Billy Parker (perc on track 1); Big Black (cga track 1); plus strings: Gayle Dixon, Noel daCosta, Winston Collymore and Noel Pointer (vln); Ashley Richardson and Julius Miller (viola), and Akua Dixon and Edith Wint Porter (cello).

The tracks are Impact, Mother Wit, Grand Max, Plight, Lynnsome and Mournin' Variations.

It's hard to understand why these albums aren't better known and celebrated today. During the 1970s, so much great black jazz was recorded by micro labels as mainstream labels with massive marketing budgets and powerful distribution pipelines abandoned jazz for disco and rock. This shift was unfortunate for artists like Tolliver, since the money dried up. But if there's a bright side now, the music recorded on Strata-East (and Black Jazz, for that matter) was pure and uncompromising by commercial producers hungry for hits. Strata-East was art-focused and spiritually significant. [Photo above of Charles Tolliver]

More than 40 years later, the music speaks for itself. Like all great art, the jazz on these albums has held up well and will remind you of the 1970s, when black jazz flourished.

JazzWax clips: Here's the complete Music Inc....

And here's the complete Impact...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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