Blast From the Past


Though not nearly the desperate days for jazz some would have you believe, the 1970s were nonetheless a foolhardy decade in which to launch a big band—a luxury even when times are flush. And to an indifferent public for whom “big band” still signified a bygone style and era rather than strength in numbers, a hard-bop big band must’ve seemed like an oxymoron. But Charles Tolliver wasn’t going to let anything stop him, even if he had to start a musicians’ cooperative label to do it.

The trumpeter first turned heads as a Jackie McLean sideman on Blue Note in the ’60s, his solos and compositions balancing harmonic complexity and forthright expression in a way that virtually defined hard bop even as they incorporated free’s angled rhythms and exotic colorings. For 1971’s Music Inc. and 1975’s Impact, released on his and pianist Stanley Cowell’s own Strata-East label, Tolliver extended those concepts by calling together a tribe of like-minded young hard-bop soloists whose enthusiasm for section work belied their lack of big-band experience. Whether this band ever performed live, I can’t say. But the likelihood that these two Strata-East LPs are all that remains of that era—underscoring the sheer impracticality of Tolliver’s endeavor—only adds to their allure.

Tolliver drifted in and out of view after Strata-East suspended operations, his periodic comebacks marred by uncertain chops. But when he resurfaced for good a few years ago fronting a new big band—his earnings as an instructor at the New School subsidizing a night here or a week there at various local clubs—his upper register was back, and so was his ’70s book in all its glory. The headlong drive of vintage pieces like the modal “On the Nile” and the 5/4 “Right Now” kept them from sounding dated, and the newer charts acquired urgency from the sense that updating and refining hard bop was an ongoing process—Tolliver’s interrupted life’s work.

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.)

The lion’s share of the solos go to the leader, whose edgy ideas carry him along even on those rare occasions when his intonation is suspect, as on the opening “Rejoicin’,” a waltz taken at a punishing tempo. But regardless of style, a big band is only as good as its role players, and this one’s overlooked heroes are lead trumpeter David Guy and bass trombonist Aaron Johnson, who approach their utility roles with panache. And even with tenor saxophonist Billy Harper contributing a typically spellbinding moment—a pentatonic incantation on Tolliver’s spiritual-based “Mournin’ Variations,” with drummer Victor Lewis subdividing three into four, like Elvin Jones pushing Coltrane—the soloist who grabs you every time he steps up is young pianist Robert Glasper, whose pouncing octaves on four tunes make you wonder why he’s been so timid on his own CDs. Chalk it up to big-band alchemy, I guess.

All told, I like With Love better than anything else I’ve heard since compiling my 2006 Top 10, and yet it can’t compare to hearing the band live again at Jazz Standard last month, on a night so frigid we patrons reminisced about when winters were that cold without fail. A drawback to the recorded version is an in-your-face mix that puts soloists and the full ensemble on the same level, with no dynamic shadings. Not a problem live. Though the Jazz Standard set was every bit as loud, it left you exhilarated afterward—so does With Love, but it also leaves you a little exhausted. The difference was “Truth,” a dissonant Tolliver ballad dating back to his debut with McLean, on which he soloed all the way through live, edging through massed horns and finally soaring
alongside them. As spiky and hard-hitting as “Rejoicin’ ” and “Right Now” (the all-out assaults bracketing it), “Truth” was just bittersweet enough to count as a change of pace.
With Love‘s only comparable moments are too brief: the lovely and suspenseful reeds-and-woodwinds chorale that opens “Mournin’ Variations,” and a prayer-like duet between Tolliver and Stanley Cowell (who alternates with Glasper) on Monk’s ” ‘Round Midnight”—the lull before the storm in an otherwise novel uptempo arrangement.

Maybe all I’m saying is, this is a band you owe it to yourself to hear live. But who knows how long we’ll have that option? I’ve got a hunch I’m going to be as grateful for With Love someday as I continue to be for those ’70s Strata-Easts—I just hope we still have winters then.

Whitney Balliett, 1926–2007

Whitney Balliett’s synesthetic metaphors and similes defied imitation (I learned the hard way), but not parody: In Donald Barthelme’s “The King of Jazz”—a 1977 short story that I doubt I was the only person to read as one New Yorker lifer’s inside joke on another—a character likens a trombone’s roar to “polar bears crossing Arctic ice pans,” “a herd of musk ox in full flight,” “male walruses diving to the bottom of the sea,” and on and on for a few paragraphs. Along with Nat Hentoff and Martin Williams, Balliett—who died from cancer on February 1—reinvented jazz journalism starting in the 1950s. Hentoff introduced a sociopolitical element, whereas Williams brought to the subject an analytical rigor borrowed from Edmund Wilson and the New Critics. Balliett’s contribution was his shapely prose style, his concern for poetic image and cadence. When he and Pauline Kael happened to appear in the same issue of The New Yorker, the magazine’s back pages whistled with tension. In Kael’s case, the tension was between the magazine’s genteel sense of itself and its readership on the one hand, and the unruliness of the movies she championed and her perceptions about them on the other. Balliett on jazz was as perfect a match for the magazine’s sensibility as Herbert Warren Wind on golf—but as with Roger Angellon baseball, the tension resulted from taking such a mannerly (and mannered) approach to a music born on the wrong side of the tracks. Even so, coming out from under the influence of Balliett’s exquisite word-pictures of a typical (or maybe just idealized) Ben Webster or Doc Cheatham solo has been a rite of passage for all of us forced to write about music impressionistically, from a layman’s perspective. And those of us also hoping to detail musicians’ lives have no better model than his flinty profiles. In his own way, he was as imposing and grand as Coleman Hawkins or Art Tatum, as peculiar and sui generis as his beloved Mabel Mercer and Pee Wee Russell.