Lockdown Preview: Charles Tolliver

Trumpeter-composer Charles Tolliver secured legend status many years ago. He was a co-founder of the iconic Strata-East label in the ‘70s as well as a member of epochal groups led by such as Andrew Hill and Max Roach, and his grade-A career is far from over. Tolliver has recently led an excellent big band, but is set to release a fine small group session, Connect, on the London-based Gearbox label later this year.
Here’s a preview of what he had to tell us – courtesy Echoes’ Dep. Ed. Kevin Le Gendre. Pic by Pete Gardner.

Echoes: Do you have to ‘reset’ your thinking when you move from a big band to a small group?
CT: “Sometimes it makes me think along minimalist lines… don’t play or expound on a lot of notes, but pick and choose for the coloration of the piece. It’s interesting because one of my heroes is Thad Jones. I wasn’t aware early on my career that he had this sort of double thing, where he was a great trumpet player but his composing and arranging skills for large ensembles were great. I slowly gravitated to enlarging my small group, not on purpose, just to humour myself really. And the small group is my love because that’s what I grew up listening to as a kid.”

Echoes: British saxophonist Binker Golding guests on the album. How did the collaboration come about?
CT: “Yes, it was at the suggestion of the Gearbox CEO. It just didn’t happen overnight. I had to listen to his delivery. I thought, ‘Yeah, he has something to say’, and that it would be interesting to enlarge the group to a sextet on certain songs, so it worked out fine.”

Echoes: Do you remember playing at Ronnie Scott’s as a member of Max Roach’s band?
CT: [At Ronnie’s in Frith street 1967]. “It was, I think, the first time he’d played in London. And it was a double bill: Max Roach Quintet and Bill Evans. Sometimes we’d share a taxi going back to the President hotel. Every night was an adventure. That’s when I fell in love with London. After Bill Evans, we did two weeks with Vi Redd, the saxophone player. I met this wonderful drummer Ken Gordon, who’d show up every night after his gig. David Redfern would take pictures.”

Echoes: One of your significant early sideman gigs was with Andrew Hill in the ‘60s. What do you remember about that?
CT: “I learned a lot working with Andrew Hill. I met him when I first broke in and he put me on two or three records. His music was structured, but loosely. There were chord changes, but he didn’t expect you to run them verbatim. He always wanted a loose rhythm section feel in most of his output and it was dangerous, because on the one hand he gave you the freedom to be loose, but there was a form there, so you had to keep that in mind as well.”

Echoes: There were other legendary bandleaders who were instrumental in your development. Tell me about them.
CT: “I wouldn’t be in this artform had it not been for Jackie McLean. After that Booker Ervin, Gerald Wilson, Oliver Nelson, and Max Roach. That was a dream come true. I grew up listening to Max Roach and Clifford Brown [in the ‘50s], after all. Prior to working with Max I was with Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, replacing Lee Morgan in that period [mid-‘60s]. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to make a record. During that time I was also with Horace Silver’s quintet.”

Echoes: You also set up Strata East with Stanley Cowell. How did you meet?
CT: “When I began to work with Max at the first rehearsal, Stanley Cowell was there. We became inseparable right up ‘til now. Then we started doing our own thing, made a big band album with Music Inc, and decided that we’d go for broke with Strata East, a label we created. It was a magnet for a lot of musicians who were not given a chance to have a regular industry deal. It was like a hobby to come off the road, run the label, then go back on the road! It got to have some kind of cult status. It was a really a conduit for like-minded artists who wanted to get into the market place.”

Charles Tolliver’s Connect will be released by Gearbox in summer 2020.