A modern big band comes out punching.
The days of the flourishing big band, of course, are long gone. A few regular working bands remain in the US -- The Mingus Big Band, the Vanguard Orchestra, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, for example, in New York. At the same time, there has been no shortage of modern jazz players who have put together 15-20 piece bands to play intricate post-bop -- McCoy Tyner, Joe Henderson, Dave Holland. In mainstream jazz, however, it's also fair to say that the basic vocabulary of brass, reeds, and rhythm hasn't expanded in some time. Each new big band project seems to promise innovation, but...
Now arrives a revived big band led by Charles Tolliver, a journeyman trumpeter and pungent sideman with the likes of Jackie McLean, Horace Silver, and Andrew Hill. Last year Tolliver added piquant solos to Hill's Time Lines, but here he is much more than a soloist. With Love contains six Tolliver tunes and seven Tolliver arrangements. The leader is joined by a blast of a cast: James Zollar, Clark Grayton, Craig Handy, Billy Harper, Howard Johnson, Stanley Cowell, Robert Glasper, Cecil McBee, Victor Lewis, and others. No doubt: these guys are going to blow.
The band is blustery and rough -- with the kind of sophisticated but high-octane sound that Thad Jones and Mel Lewis once owned. Lead trumpeter David Guy properly screeches on the top, and Victor Lewis splashes, rolls, and thumps the bottom with muscle. Even on the title track, "With Love", where you might be expecting a ballad, the arrangement is busy and brass-hot, with saxophones playing fast and trumpets stabbing. "Mourning Variations" starts with flute and clarinets in a chamber-ish mood, but the tune shifts quickly into screamy modern big band style, via the Maynard Ferguson playbook. When this is followed by a free, modal groove section, the effect is less of variations on a theme than a sewn-together coat of many colors.
The individual voices of the players are often exciting. Handy, Johnson, and Harper all get in bold statements -- and they are players we need to hear more of. But Tolliver's own statements too often warble and mutter. Tolliver takes exciting chances, playing with the adventure of mid-'60s post-bop in his bloodstream, but his tone and intonation are uncertain rather than brash or "out".
His statement on "Round Midnight" is a good example. After the band blares out a variation on the classic Miles Davis arrangement, Tolliver plays the melody accompanied only by piano. Tolliver's phrasing is rhythmically abrupt and ragged, but the solo is not really adventurous. A tone that seemed fat and rich thirty years ago now seems diffuse, and the inevitable comparison to Miles is no help. When the band enters, the sense of overdrive and busy-ness is apparent. The charts for these arrangements are skillful and exciting, but they are like a living room with a few too many chairs: almost never elegant or relaxing. After a big band chorus, the track goes double time, which simply adds to the sense of clutter. It is a Red Bull of a "Round Midnight" (and therefore inherently fascinating), but the artistry seems more about making an impression than about serving the tune.
On some tracks, however, the push and insistence of the band -- and of Tolliver's highly vocal horn style -- wins you over. "Right Now" begins with a slow set of blues articulations by the band, then the tempo doubles for a punchy blues them. Before Tolliver solos, the low brass and bass set up a funky ostinato line over which the leader is able to mutter but also soar, sounding like he's been shot through with some old Freddie Hubbard for a moment. Howard Johnson's ensuing baritone solo has swagger -- as does the whole tune.
"Suspicion" gives Tolliver his best showcase as both a player and an arranger. Though it starts with an unaccompanied bass solo for McBee, the track soon unites around a three note bass figure for trombone and McBee -- on top of which Tolliver a contrapuntal Latin groove for the horns. The first solo features Tolliver over Victor Lewis only, with Lewis dancing and dodging in what is very nearly a second improvisation of equal imagination. Once the horns join, then a modal-sounding piano and bass, Tolliver has already established a wide-open tone for the track. Ched Tolliver (the son?) contributes a guitar solo that starts slow and simple but builds toward some downtown delight, followed by a logical piano solo articulated mostly in improvised octaves then expanding into Tyneresque squalls and knots.
It's certain that his big band could rip the roof off a club or even concert hall in concert. The charts are fast and blaring, with sax lines like serpents and a great drummer to launch the trumpets sky-high. The recording, however, offers a swinging sameness in a bunch of places. For example, the swinging drive of "Hit the Spot" is great, but it seems like we've heard it all before. Another "Round Midnight", and Miles-ian at that? Without question, it is a boffo treat to have Blue Note signing late-career standouts like Charles Tolliver -- and to see the big label agreeing to the expenses of a big band, at that. Mega-kudos, Michael Cuscuna and Bruce Lundvall -- keep it up.
Ditto to tireless Charles Tolliver. Next time out, I can hear the band playing fresher more varied charts, perhaps, to capture the other half of my imagination.