The Charles Tolliver Big Band Marches On



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Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews Emperor March — Live at the Blue Note, the new album from the Charles Tolliver Big Band.

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Trumpet player Charles Tolliver made some big band recordings in the 1970s and played his arrangements with a few European jazz orchestras. In 2003, he revised his Big Band for gigs in New York, and later then made an album for Blue Note. In February, Tolliver's band recreated the charts for Thelonious Monk's 1959 "Town Hall Concert." They now have a new live album out. Jazz critic, Kevin Whitehead says the band is hitting its stride.

(Soundbite of album, "Emperor March: Live at the Blue Note")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Charles Tolliver's Big Band playing the blues and diving headlong into the cheerful exuberance of the big band's birthright. Tolliver came up in the 1960s among musicians who took their cues from John Coltrane's splashy, high-energy modal jazz, where players would stretch out a while on a single chord or scale. Tolliver's Big Band honors those groups.

(Soundbite of album, "Emperor March: Live at the Blue Note")

WHITEHEAD: Marcus Strickland, stirring the cauldron on tenor saxophone. That's from the Charles Tolliver Big Band's "Emperor March," recorded live last year in New York. Most every big band smacks of urban bustle, trafficking in horn riffs and counter riffs. Tolliver's mass trumpet, saxes and trombones call out to each other like friendly rivals who are on the same side.

(Soundbite of album, "Emperor March: Live at the Blue Note")

WHITEHEAD: Few musical formations build excitement like a big band when everyone piles on like that. You can hear what these leviathans get from the polyrhythmic energy in Cuban orchestras, even when the material is not officially Latin.

(Soundbite of "Emperor March: Live at the Blue Note")

WHITEHEAD: There are plenty of good soloists here, including trumpeter Charles Tolliver himself, and saxophonists Bill Saxton and Billy Harper, who's featured on a favorite ballad of Coltrane's, "I Want To Talk About You." But above all, big bands need forceful drummers. This one is Gene Jackson who patches those Latin inflections and lays down a size EEE broad beat.

(Soundbite of album, "Emperor March: Live at the Blue Note")

WHITEHEAD: Even when horns melt away to let the rhythm trio run, they play like 16 players are still at their backs: Bassist Reggie Workman was in Tolliver's 70s Big Band. Anthony Wonsey is on piano.

(Soundbite of album, "Emperor March: Live at the Blue Note")

WHITEHEAD: The Golden Age of big bands is long gone. But in truth, most modern bands don't come close to matching swing era orchestras for precision or playing in tune, though they are many worse offenders than this one. Charles Tolliver's album "Emperor March," shows why a few idealists continue to mount these high overhead, lucky if we break even ensembles of a dozen and a half players.

(Soundbite of album, "Emperor March: Live at the Blue Note")

WHITEHEAD: They're a lot of fun to write for, and to play in, and to listen to.

(Soundbite of album, "Emperor March: Live at the Blue Note")

(Soundbite of applause)

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is currently on leave from teaching at the University of Kansas. And he's a jazz columnist for He reviewed "Emperor March: Live at the Blue Note" by the Charles Tolliver Big Band.

Coming up, why we can't stop eating foods rich in sugar, fat, and salt, and why there's so much of those ingredients in fast food and processed food.

This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.