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Charles Tolliver was a relative unknown when jazz scenester Jim Harrison first heard him during a jam session at the Blue Coronet in Brooklyn. Harrison, the president of saxophonist Jackie McLean’s fan club, urged the young trumpeter to get in touch with McLean, who was so impressed with Tolliver that he put him on his next three Blue Note recordings, beginning with 1964’s It’s Time. Tolliver would go on to record with jazz heavies including Andrew Hill, Oliver Nelson, Gerald Wilson and Max Roach. His 1968 recording, Paper Man, is a modern-jazz classic, featuring peers Gary Bartz, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Joe Chambers. In 1971, he and pianist Stanley Cowell launched the Strata-East label, which was active for more than a decade and still extant.
After a lengthy recording hiatus, the Florida-born, New York-raised Tolliver, 78, has released a new album, Connect, for the London-based Gearbox label. We spoke by phone with the trumpeter at his home in Yonkers, New York, where he was toughing out the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in late July. Connect is your first new recording in 11 years. Was connecting with Gearbox a matter of serendipity? No, it was planned to coincide with the tour. Since we were coming through London to perform, we had a small window to do it — a day, actually. You recorded two of the songs on the album, “Emperor March” and “Suspicion,” with your big band on previous albums.
All my songs are created for a smaller group, and sometimes they get translated into a big band. Even when I was doing the big band stuff, it was always the small group first and then the big band. Do you have a history with bassist Buster Williams and drummer Lenny White? Well, with Buster. Lenny, I never thought that we’d actually get an opportunity to perform together on stage. It was because of Buster. Buster started to do a couple of [50th anniversary] celebration things of my first commercial recording [Paper Man] in 2018. Then, after that, Buster said, ‘Hey, Lenny and I have been playing together for years,’ so that’s how Lenny arrived into the quintet. What about the other players on the album? [pianist] Keith Brown, who’s relatively new, he’s the son of [pianist] Donald Brown. And [alto saxophonist] Jesse Davis, I had used him when I first started doing the big band years ago and always remembered how great he was as a soloist, so I put him on this tour. And young [tenor saxophonist] Binker Golding was added on a couple of tracks when we got to London. There’s some real excitement on the current London jazz scene. Oh yeah, London’s always been a great incubator of this art form. So I wasn’t surprised that someone like a Binker Golding would emerge. You first recorded “Paper Man” with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra. Can you explain its evolution as the title track to your first small-group recording as a leader? I was living in L.A. from 1966 to 1967. And I got in with Gerald through another Floridian who was in Gerald’s band at that time, a trumpet player named Freddie Hill. And I had been tinkering around with big band [writing] just to see if I could do it. So I said, “Gerald, I have this song that I’ve written for big band.” And I brought it in and the band played it and he said, ‘OK, we’re gonna record this.’ So that’s how I got on Live and Swinging at Maty’s on the Hill, a big venue during those years. And then, a couple of years later, I decided to put it on this first commercially issued under-my-name record. Your recording debut was on Jackie McLean’s 1964 album It’s Time. Were you nervous? Shaking in my boots. It required real concentration because at that tender age, getting such an opportunity, I had to lock my knees and get at it. It was my first recording and still one of my favorites.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xVl5G-gxndM McLean must have been impressed with your compositions. I wrote half of the album. To bring in a brand-new person and also let them have songs on your album is quite extraordinary. I learned from him and a whole bunch of iconic original creators [to develop young players], so that’s what I do, as well. Was your Strata-East label related to the Strata label out of Detroit? The original guys who had the name Strata, Kenny Cox and Charles Moore, were way ahead. And they were wonderful musicians, as well. They, right away, went to work on a corporate structure for what they were doing. But their main thing, when I first met them, was presenting concerts. So they were putting on concerts, and [pianist] Stanley Cowell knew them very well, because he’s from Toledo, Ohio, which isn’t that far from Detroit. We went there with the first edition of our Music Inc. quartet, and I got a chance to check out what they were doing. And they said, “Why don’t you guys become a part of Strata?” They gave us all the papers.
[caption id="attachment_31788" align="alignleft" width="770"] Charles Tolliver at RAK studios, London, UK. (Courtesy Gearbox Records)[/caption]
But when we got back to New York, I wasn’t even thinking about that. And Stanley came over and decided for us to do a big band recording around the quartet, which eventually would be the launching LP to start Strata-East Records. Once we had done it, I said to myself, ‘Hmm, what am I gonna call this if we put it out ourselves? Oh yeah, these guys got the Strata name in Detroit.’ So I hyphenated it and called it Strata-East. On Connect, you have a composition titled “Copasetic.” Can you explain its derivation? This was considered one of the hip words in our colloquial usage. I’ve always known, from the time I was a child, if I heard an adult say, “copasetic,” they meant, “everything is good, everything is good to go.” So “Copasetic” is written with a Charlie Parker-Dizzy Gillespie-Bud Powell-Kenny Clarke-Max Roach in mind. What was your reason for including “ghost lyrics” to songs in the album’s liner notes? It gives an insight into what I was thinking about as I harmonically and rhythmically and melodically created those songs. So there are three lyrics on there. There are lyrics to “Blue Soul,” to its beat, and “Emperor March” — actually a symphony could have been written about the Emperor penguin and that incredible documentary [March of the Penguins]. There’s no other animal in the world that could suffer what it suffers through just to procreate. And there are lyrics to “Suspicion.” If you put a hip-hop beat underneath that, that would go right now in that genre. It must be challenging to release an album during a global pandemic. Well, maybe that’s good for the music world. As Art Blakey said, “[Music] washes away the dust of everyday life.” Connect is available for streaming and purchase. For more info on Charles Tolliver, visit the trumpeter's website.