Mosaic Select 20: Charles Tolliver
In the early 1970s, trumpeter Charles Tolliver trafficked compellingly in the overlap between hard-bop and the avant-garde, leading an unconventional big band and an exploratory quartet called Music Inc. He documented both groups on his own self-sustaining label, Strata-East. This limited edition three-disc set, only available from mosaicrecords.com, eschews the big band material for a pair of live quartet engagements previously heard on three Strata-East LPs, now unfortunately out of print. It's a vital document for anyone who admires the crackling mid-to-late-'60s aesthetic of Jackie McLean, with whom Tolliver apprenticed, and Freddie Hubbard, to whom he's reflexively compared.
The set's first disc chronicles an evening at Slugs' Saloon on Manhattan's Lower East Side--May 1, 1970, to be exact. Tolliver is backed by his longtime compatriots Stanley Cowell and Cecil McBee, on piano and bass, respectively; and by the less-familiar drummer Jimmy Hopps. The vibe is intense, especially on Tolliver's gatecrashing opener, "Drought," which alone would justify his inclusion among the era's standout trumpet dramatists. Abstract lyricism prevails as well, most effectively on Cowell's "Orientale." And on "Our Second Father," Tolliver spells out his indebtedness to the modalities--and, one suspects, the stamina--of John Coltrane.
Disc two, originally issued as Music Inc. Live in Tokyo, consists of a concert performance on December 7, 1973, in that city's Yubinchokin Hall. Cowell is the lone holdover here; Clint Houston fulfills bass duties and Clifford Barbaro plays drums. Tolliver begins again with "Drought," although Barbaro seems less comfortable than Hopps with the tune's brisk tempo. The band sounds better on Cowell's waltz "Effi," and on a fervently insistent version of Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight." But uneven sound quality, and the relative shortcomings of the rhythm section, slightly mars this date.
Previously unreleased selections from both live recordings comprise the third disc of the set. Perhaps predictably, the three tracks culled from Slugs' are stronger than the three captured in Tokyo: "On the Nile" is a dramatic polyrhythmic waltz; "Ruthie's Heart," a modal churner; and "Repetition," a winning Neal Hefti number arranged with a Latin-bop feel. But the Tokyo recordings are powerful too--especially "Impact," a groove anthem that would later serve as the title track for a brilliant Strata-East big band LP. It's possible that album, too, will get the reissue treatment, as Mosaic cofounder Michael Cuscuna hints in his liner essay. One can only hope so, as Tolliver's music emphatically deserves to be heard.