Charles Tolliver ‘Charles Tolliver and his All Stars’ 180g Vinyl (Pure Pleasure) 5/5

Few debut sessions as leader can have had such a chequered history as this latest Charles Tolliver re-issue from Pure Pleasure Records. The recording itself occurred in July 1968 at a New Jersey studio but the first issue wasn’t until 1971 on the Black Lion label based in the United Kingdom. It took even longer for this music to get a US release as Paper Man on the Freedom imprint in 1975. In between times, Tolliver’s second session as leader had overtaken it and been released in 1969 under the title The Ringer and the trumpeter had co-founded the much-vaunted Strata-East Records with pianist Stanley Cowell.

Perhaps the hiatus between the recording and release of this first session was in the back of Tolliver’s mind when he and Cowell launched Strata-East in frustration at not being able to interest any New York record companies in their Music Inc material? At over 50 years’ distance, it seems almost incredible that a date boasting Tolliver backed by the firepower of a rhythm section comprised of Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Joe Chambers plus Gary Bartz guesting on alto should sit unreleased for so long.

This re-issue preserves the running order of the six tracks of the original record and manages to find space for a, previously unreleased on vinyl, additional tune on Side B (though it has previously appeared on CD). The programming scores on two counts: the first obvious one being the extra music in the form of a quintet version of Repetition; the second that the logical split of the music features the Tolliver-led quartet for all of Side A while Side B is devoted to the quintet created by the addition of Bartz. Throughout, the blend of continuity and variety that typifies Tolliver’s live and on-record identity is already present.

The continuity comes from the selection of material that the trumpeter has continued to revisit and remould over the course of his career. ‘Right Now’ was first recorded when Tolliver was a sideman on Jackie McLean’s 1966 Blue Note date of the same name; ‘Household of Saud’ reappears on Music Inc’s debut Strata-East album; and the bonus cut, Repetition (Take 2), remains a live favourite (Tolliver opened his recent Camden Jazz Cafe date with it) and is captured on the Music Inc double LP Live At The Loosdrecht Jazz Festival. These three tracks alone offer variety from ‘Repetition’ and it’s strong bebop roots via its association with Charlie Parker to the “New Thing” feel of ‘Right Now’.

Jazz trumpeters rarely record whole LPs as the lone horn supported by just a rhythm section: Lee Morgan’s Candy, Kenny Dorham’s Quiet Kenny and Blue Mitchell’s Blues’ Moods spring to mind. All these proved to be one-offs such is the pressure of the responsibility of being a one-man front line for prolonged periods. Tolliver is almost unique in that he frequently recorded in a quartet format. So it should come as no surprise that he was able to anchor all of Side A with a strength of purpose, a stream of ideas and technical excellence. The centrepiece of this side, indeed of the whole record, is the nine-minute deep dive of ‘Peace With Myself’. This majestic number sweeps back and forth with Tolliver demonstrating control across the full range of his instrument from low growling notes through to rapid high-pitched trills.

Bartz joins the group on Side B and if like me, your familiarity with his work is based on the Harlem Bush Music records, then there’s something different to enjoy here. Bartz’ alto sounds rich, smooth and unflustered – almost the inverse of the sharp tone of Tollver’s early mentor Jackie McLean. That, allied with the presence of Carter and Hancock, leads to moments when you can be lulled into thinking you’re listening to the Second Great Miles Davis Quintet. Then the spell evaporates to be superseded by an entirely different kind of magic. For instance, you could easily be forgiven for thinking that a mid-Sixties Lee Morgan outing like Cornbread or The Sixth Sense was on the turntable during ‘Paper Man’.

Perhaps such versatility is both Tolliver’s greatest strength and his most obvious weakness: in him you can hear Miles Davis, Lee Morgan and Woody Shaw influences to name but a few. Tolliver assimilates elements of all their styles with ease but sometimes that seems to obscure his own identity. He deserves to be credited as one of the finest jazz trumpeters to emerge towards the end of the 1960s and had few serious challengers in the 1970s yet he is not as well known as others on his instrument.

The mastering at Air Studios was done from high-resolution digital files rather than directly from the original analogue master tapes (apparently they’re too precious to cross the Atlantic) but I’d challenge you to spot the difference on many HiFi systems. Even if its sound seems a little “off” to begin with, Hancock’s piano is a constant presence throughout the record whether he’s propelling things forcefully or teasing out subtle prompts. Carter and Chambers are less obvious in the mix and that is perhaps the one area where the digital source falls a little short.

Overall, though, this re-issue is the best option for anybody interested in hearing the genesis of Tolliver’s career as a leader. I hope it attracts new interest in Tolliver and it’s a pleasing thought that this, his first leadership date, has come “home” in some sense by virtue of finally being bestowed with a Strata-East catalogue number and matching labels!

Martin Kelly