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The Charles Tolliver Big Band
The Charles Tolliver Big Band
Mosaic Select MS-037

The Mosaic Select reissue of trumpeter-composer Charles Tolliver’s Strata East big band LPs restores some rip-roaring large ensemble hard bop to print along with a previously unreleased session featuring the NDR Big Band storming through Tolliver’s charts. Not only is the music a treat, but the three sessions, which span the 1970s, show how Tolliver’s ideas about large ensembles grew and changed.

By the time he made these recordings, Tolliver had honed his assertive, Coltrane-inspired style as a sideman with some of the more forward thinking hard boppers like Jackie McLean, Max Roach, and Andrew Hill. Then in 1969, he broke out as a leader himself with the formation of Music, Inc., which he co-led for several years with pianist Stanley Cowell. The subject of a previous Mosaic Select set, the Tolliver-Cowell edition of the quartet, with either Cecil McBee and Jimmy Hobbs or Clint Houston and Chris Barbaro doing rhythm section duties would release two albums on Strata East, the artist-owned and operated label established by Tolliver and Cowell. Music, Inc., was already one of the hardest hard bop units of its day by 1971, when they launched the label with the first of the sessions in this new Mosaic set – Music, Inc., and Big Band. Although he had also played in Gerald Wilson’s West Coast big band, there was nothing on record that indicated Tolliver’s powers as a big band composer and arranger prior to it.

The album’s title is truth in advertising; it’s a Music, Inc. session with the big band playing a supporting role. Tolliver doesn’t neglect the big band; far from it, he lavishes detail on arrangements that teem with detailed voicings, countermelodies, and punctuating riffs, but the big band is clearly secondary to the quartet. Tolliver and Cowell are the primary soloists with fewer but telling statements from McBee and Hopps; no one in the big band gets solo space, although they all play like their lives depended on it.

As if to emphasize the album’s status as a Music, Inc. session, the rhythm section jumps right into the uptempo “Ruthie’s Heart,” foreshadowing what’s to come on the rest of the album with their driving swing, lyricism, and muscle. The arrangement’s harmonies and orchestrations are rich and complex, leaning on the hot sound of the brass and the cooler deeper tones of the saxes, while Tolliver’s melody is catchy, economical, and upbeat. It’s a stirring first impression of a band that is impatient with slow tempos, and with even less regard for the emotional middle ground. They catch hold of the music and ride it upward.

The soloists are just as eager and inspired as the ensemble. Cowell develops his solos with a consummate sense of narrative flow. On “Ruthie’s Heart” and “Departure,” he uses short bluesy phrases as building blocks for melodic lines from which twisting ribbons of sixteenth notes jump out with jack-in-box suddenness. Gospel chords color his solo on the rocking “Abscretions” and his use of fourths on “On the Nile” recalls McCoy Tyner, although Cowell’s touch is lighter and more varied.

Tolliver’s jumps in logic are frequently more extreme than Cowell’s, but his solos still have a sense of unity. On “Departure,” his phrases are so emotionally precise and articulate that the result isn’t disjointed. He’s so clear about what he’s expressing that every change in mood seems logical, part of a narrative thread, even when he twists lines to give them unanticipated emotional shadings.

Cowell, McBee, and Hopps never give Tolliver or the band a moment’s rest, either. On “House of Saud,” Cowell’s crisp time and subtle sense of harmony and color goad Tolliver while setting off his lines to advantage. (McBee did some of his best recorded work with Music, Inc., and he’s a strong presence throughout the big band albums.) With this quartet, Tolliver planted his big band arrangements in swinging soil.

The band as a whole makes a bigger impression on Tolliver’s second big band album, Impact, which feels more like a big band album and less like a special project for Music, Inc. Tolliver’s arranging displays a greater range of color on the title track and “Lynnsome.” He expands his palette with some harmonically rich and unsentimental use of strings on “Mother Wit” and “Mournin’ Variations” as well. Countermelodies and call-and-response passages are nicely balanced on “Plight.” A tribute to drummer Max Roach, “Grand Max,” features a ridiculously fast and convoluted saxophone line and some affectionate wit in its use of Roach’s “Big Sid” riff.

He also opens the music up to other soloists. Alto saxophonist James Spaulding’s taut lines snake their way through the ensemble on the title track, while Charles McPherson’s more orthodox bop approach provides a foil for George Coleman’s knottier, muscular style. George Coleman is also the featured soloists on “Mournin’ Variations,” tearing his way through an intimidating fast tempo with swagger and cunning.

Still, it’s Tolliver and Cowell who make the biggest impression as soloists. On “Impact,” Tolliver is at his cagiest playing with time. Sometimes, he holds back on a note letting it drag against the groove, then hurries a concluding phrase, sprinting ahead of the beat, crowding up against it to create tension. On “Plight,” his phrases skip and arch like a flat stone on water one moment, then describe irregular curved motions, like the leisurely path of a falling leaf. Cowell gets solo space on four of the six pieces.

The final session, a radio broadcast with the NDR aggregation, is an early recorded example of the repertory jazz orchestra phenomenon that emerged in the 1970s. The NDR big band plays the charts with precision and emotion, but the performance feels less lived in than the ones by the New York home team bands. Tolliver, however, is in excellent form on “Mother Wit,” “Plight,” and “Rejoicing.” Alto saxophonist Herb Geller rips off a fiery solo on the title track, and drummer Alvin Queen is a joyful presence on “Grand Max.”

Tolliver’s big band work is some of the best of his career and any understanding of his art in incomplete without these vital sessions.
–Ed Hazell


Ricardo Villalobos + Max Loderbauer
ECM 2211/12

In 1969, composer, writer and environmentalist R. Murray Shafer coined the term “schizophonia”, which describes how sounds had become separated from their sources.  Shafer wrote that, “sounds have been torn from their natural sockets and given an amplified and independent existence.” That same year, German producer Manfred Eicher founded ECM. ECM recordings eschewed the more familiar lock-step, in-the-pocket nature of much recorded mainstream jazz music. Instead, they unveiled an approach to jazz that, while not avant in those late 60’s Chicago-St. Louis-Los Angeles ways, reflected a more elastic approach to compositional structure. Just over four decades later, ECM has provided sound producers Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer with the opportunity to further Shafer’s dictum. Villalobos is a Chilean-born, German-based producer and DJ who has collaborated with Depeche Mode, Beck, and Plastikman, among others. Loderbauer (nee Daimler Max), is a founding member of Fischerman’s Friend and Sun Electric, and collaborator of Moritz von Oswald. ECM gives them access to their deep and rich vault of master recordings resulting in the 2-CD Re: ECM.

Though most beat and sound excavations are done stealthily, this isn’t the first time that DJ-based artists have been granted full access to a label’s recorded riches. One of the more recent and prominent was producer Madlib’s creative pillorying of the famed Blue Note vaults for his 2003 Blue Note release, Shades of Blue: Madlib Invades Blue Note, on which he manipulated classics from the likes of Donald Byrd, Wayne Shorter and Horace Silver. Using jazz music as his recording’s foundation, Madlib still maintained a sound palette that was prominently Hip Hop beat-oriented.  

But where Shades of Blue was solidly in Hip Hop’s boom boom bap terrain – a foundational rhythmic structure that can be found in drummer Trevor Gale’s contributions to early work by Orange Crush and Jimmy Spicer – Re: ECM, in contrast, is often more oom oom ap. Pavlovian expectations of instrumental flow are constantly foiled. Even on the more beat-prominent selections, beats are more often only implied, such as on the bouncy “Recat” and “Redetach;” both draw on recent work by keyboardist Christian Wallumrød’s Ensemble, the former skipped along by a repeated call and response steel drum-like line, while the latter rests lightly on fleeting percussion. 

The eeriest offering is “Retimeless.” What sound like shards from Gangstarr’s groundbreaking 1994 “Mass Appeal” are actually fragments from guitarist John Abercrombie’s Timeless recording, released exactly two decades earlier. The Alexander Knaifel-based “Reblazhenstva,” is offered slightly dub-style, buoyed by marching drums. And on “Reannounce,” reedist Louis Scalvis’ music does a Hari Krishna happy dance, spinning out on a layering of hand drums. Other sampled ECM artists include bassist Miroslav Vitous and saxophonist Bennie Maupin.
–Bobby Hill


Greg Ward’s Phonic Juggernaut
Greg Ward’s Phonic Juggernaut
Thirsty Ear THI 57199.2

While based in Chicago, alto saxophonist Greg Ward was a key member of ensembles led by local luminaries like Ernest Dawkins, Hamid Drake and Mike Reed; he has also collaborated with a vast array of musicians, ranging from rapper Lupe Fiasco to electronica artist Prefuse 73. Since moving to New York City two years ago, Ward has begun to exert a strong presence, as demonstrated by Phonic Juggernaut. The record’s acoustic trio format is far more indicative of his talents as an improviser and composer than previous projects, due in large part to his rapport with bassist Joe Sanders and indefatigable drummer Damion Reid.

Favoring intimate dialogues devoid of unnecessary efx, the trio foregoes the heavily amplified fusion-inspired excesses of Ward’s 2010 quartet debut, South Side Story (19-8 Records). Sanders’ pliant basslines and Reid’s palpitating shuffles provide multi-hued backgrounds for Ward’s serpentine cadences. Sanders augments his plucky fretwork with a sonorous arco technique that reinforces the harmonious nature of Ward’s writing while Reid’s virtuosic polyrhythms inspire some of the leader’s most animated playing. During the album’s most introspective passages, Reid’s equally supple touch offers a textbook example of nuance and restraint.

Underscored by his sidemen’s empathetic support, Ward’s plangent lyricism prevails as the session’s unifying factor. On the melodious opener, “Above Ground,” his lithe interpolations of its lilting theme draw from a wellspring of influences – updating the post-Coleman/Coltrane landscape with an accessible air akin to the early efforts of Branford Marsalis and Kenny Garrett. The title track features a bittersweet motif that remains in one’s memory long after the song is over, confirming Ward’s talents as a tunesmith as well as an improviser. Epic meditations like “Leanin’ In” and “Velvet Lounge Shut-In” encompass a wide range of approaches; the former seamlessly incorporates sinuous variations with a vigorous, M-Base-inspired foundation, while the later modulates from melancholy introspection to ritualistic severity. Throughout the date, Sander’s elastic lines and Reid’s precise trap set ruminations ebb and flow in pursuit of the leader’s varied melodic contours, converging in rich three-way exchanges.

The organic flow of the album’s unadorned acoustic setting is unfortunately compromised at the end of the set on Andrew Bird’s atmospheric “Sectionate City.” Ward’s plaintive glissandi and Sander’s bittersweet arco provide a humanizing element, but Reid’s robotic drum ‘n’ bass-inspired rhythms are so heavily processed that the overall effect sounds as dated as the ‘80s synthesizer tones that hampered Ward’s first album. Other than this one misstep, Greg Ward’s Phonic Juggernaut is a solid set, balanced between coiled tension and melodic ingenuity.
-Troy Collins


Jürg Wickihalder European Quartet
Intakt CD 194

We’re in an age where there is arguably too much scholarship and too little connoisseurship in jazz, where the emphasis on nailing down the tick-tock of a venerated artist’s history and learning his or her literature by rote can slow a young artist’s ability to savor a history-making oeuvre, to freely associate its particulars within a wider context, and to extrapolate it to new ends. The music of Steve Lacy is an imposingly enormous labyrinth in this regard, one in which a young artist can wander for decades before coming out the other end as a fully realized artist informed by Lacy’s work. Swiss soprano saxophonist Jürg Wickihalder has done exactly that, spending the proverbial 10,000 hours learning first from recordings and later first-hand from Lacy himself. At some point, an aesthetic switch was thrown, and Wickihalder ceased being a student of Lacy and became a connoisseur.

To be a connoisseur of Lacy’s music, one must also be a connoisseur of Monk, Mal Waldron and many other artists, including poets and painters. Conveying that connoisseurship in original music is a risky proposition, as it is really easy to come off as too clever by half. Wickihalder has deftly sidestepped such snares on his previous recordings and does so again with Jump!, the first CD with his European Quartet featuring pianist Irène Schweizer. In the first moments of the album’s opener, “Triple Rittberger Exercise,” Wickihalder evokes Lacy’s work with Waldron with a spiraling soprano line that is punctuated by a thumping left hand in the piano; the piece also features a slight alteration of “Criss-Cross” and a meaty quote from “I Mean You.” Were it not for Wickihalder’s natural swing, Schweizer’s ability to provide both gravitas and rollicking energy, and the sure-footed pace established by bassist Fabian Gisler and drummer Michael Griener, this piece would be merely precocious; instead, it is exhilarating.

Something of the same can be said of the album’s next to last piece “6243D (armstand double back somersault 1.5 twists free position),” which contains savory references to “Skippy,” “Thelonious” and “Jackie-ing.” However, there are sustained bursts of intensity on this piece that far exceeds Monk’s, one comparable to blazing European free jazz of the mid to late ‘60s – Schweizer simply kicks ass and takes names. It’s important that this edge – undoubtedly inspired in part by Schweizer and her contemporaries – is a major component of what “European” signifies through this quartet’s music. Too often, “European” means jazz that is introspective, ambivalent and archly Romantic. None of that here; to the contrary, American antecedents occasionally seep into the music: Schweizer evokes the Ellington-Monk-Ibrahim trajectory in her lengthy unaccompanied introduction to “Red Light Jumping Friends;” there’s a tinge of latter-day Shorter in the contours of the balladic “Last Jump;” and Griener has a Max Roach formality in the solo that launches “High Wire Dancer,” the simmering closer.

Although it is heavily studded with references that the connoisseur will savor, you don’t need 10,000 hours of listening under your belt to dig Jump!
–Bill Shoemaker

Rich Halley on Pine Eagle Records

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