Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Big Band With Love

Big Band with Love
Charles Tolliver
Blue Note/Mosaic Records

Actors yearn to direct according to the old cliché. Leading a big band seems to hold a similar allure for jazz musicians, regardless of the accolades they may have already attained in their careers. Charles Tolliver did indeed lead one of the more acclaimed big bands of the 1970’s, and he was recently convinced to revive it with a multi-generational ensemble of musicians. The culminating release With Love testifies to the power of Tolliver as a trumpet soloist and as a chart writer.

Power is the key word to describe With Love. “Rejoicin’” sets the pace from the start, with Victor Lewis’ drums swinging the band, and Tolliver’s preaching solo building the intensity. The title track starts as more of a mid-tempo groover. It is a lithe swinger, featuring pungent statements from Bill Saxton and the leader, before concluding with a passage of stimulating ensemble interplay.

The sole standard in the set is Monk’s “’Round Midnight,” but Tolliver’s pen makes the familiar classic sound fresh. Tolliver’s frequent collaborator, Stanley Cowell takes a fleet solo that avoids Monk imitations, before the trumpeter takes over again on rich arrangement that blends equal parts power and delicacy.

“Mournin’ Variations,” adapted from the spirituals of James Weldon Johnson, starts with the pastoral sound of flutes and reeds, before the brass and drums come roaring in around 1:53. It is another intriguing arrangement that takes listeners through twists and turns, as Billy Harper on tenor, Stafford Hunter on trombone, and Tolliver contribute fiery solos.

From his notes to the album, it is clear Tolliver took tremendous satisfaction from “Suspicion,” as it featured his son Ched on guitar. Introduced by Cecil McBee’s bass, the addition of guitar gives “Suspicion” a funkier feel, while Tolliver trumpet solo and Lewis’ drumming build a nervous energy throughout the tune.

With Love is also notable as the first original production from Mosaic Records, the venerated reissue label, released in conjunction with their corporate cousin Blue Note Records. The resurgence of Tolliver as a big band leader and the resulting With Love attracted an impressive array of musical and production talent. Cowell and rising star Robert Glasper trade off in the piano chair. The reed section includes Harper, Saxton, Craig Handy, and Howard Johnson. Gil Noble, a well regarded broadcaster in New York (and past host of Jazz Foundation benefit concerts), contributed an introductory note. Tolliver’s muscular charts and inventive solos, and the efforts of his impressive band of musicians, make With Love a very rewarding and entertaining big band session.