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Charles Tolliver

With his bold tone and adroit harmonic ideas, trumpeter Charles Tolliver has distinguished himself as a forward-thinking performer, often straddling the line between hard bop lyricism and avant-garde exploration. Following his initial emergence in the 1960s as a member of altoist Jackie McLean's group, Tolliver came into his own as a leader, on par with his trumpet contemporaries Woody Shaw and Freddie Hubbard. Collaborating regularly with pianist Stanley Cowell, he moved from small group dates like 1969's The Ringer to expansive big-band albums such as 1975's Impact, featuring his Music Inc. ensemble. Along the way, he and Cowell also founded Strata-East Records, releasing a string of boundary-pushing albums by Gil Scott-Heron, Pharoah Sanders, Billy Harper, and others. Following a period out of the spotlight and teaching, Tolliver re-emerged to regular activity with 2007's Grammy-nominated big-band album With Love. He has remained a vital presence, moving from big-band dates like 2009's Emperor March: Live at the Blue Note to hard-hitting small group sessions like 2020's Connect. Born in 1942 in Jacksonville, Florida, Tolliver became interested in music at a young age while listening to his parents play Jazz at the Philharmonic albums on their Victrola. Around age eight, his grandmother bought him a cornet he had seen in a local pawnshop, and he began practicing diligently. It was around the same time that he moved with his family to New York City. There, living in Harlem, his uncle introduced him to albums by Miles Davis and Clifford Brown. Tolliver also gained further fluency playing trumpet in his high school concert, marching, and dance bands. While music was his passion, he first studied pharmacy at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he spent his off-hours practicing trumpet and developing his jazz skills. Returning to New York in 1963, he began sitting in at local clubs, playing with rising luminaries like Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette, Larry Willis, and others. Tolliver caught the attention of Jackie McLean and made his recorded on the altoist's 1964 album It's Time, alongside pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Cecil McBee, and drummer Roy Haynes. Along with continued work with McLean, Tolliver branched out, recording with Booker Ervin, Roy Ayers, Andrew Hill, Max Roach, and Horace Silver. In 1965, he contributed to the landmark concert album The New Wave in Jazz. Recorded live at the Village Gate, the record showcased leading cutting-edge players of the era, including John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Grachan Moncur III, and Albert Ayler. Tolliver's group, which featured vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, tenor saxophonist James Spaulding, drummer Billy Higgins, and bassist McBee, played a cover of Thelonious Monk's "Brilliant Corners" and the trumpeter's original "Plight." In 1966, Tolliver went on a West Coast tour with percussionist Willie Bobo. At the end of the tour, he stayed in Los Angeles, eventually joining Gerald Wilson's big band. He remained with Wilson for a year, recording an album with the group. Upon receiving an invitation to join Max Roach's band, he returned to New York, where he played with the drummer for two years, working alongside fellow avant-gardist Gary Bartz. Tolliver also made his official debut as leader with 1968's Paper Man, a hard-hitting session featuring pianist Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Joe Chambers. Around the same time, he recorded a session for Black Lion under Charles Tolliver & His Allstars before returning to the label for 1969's The Ringer, with pianist Stanley Cowell, bassist Steve Novosel, and drummer Jimmy Hopps. In 1970, Tolliver and Cowell launched the Strata-East Records label, a loose outgrowth of Detroit pianist Kenny Cox's Strata Records. Along with their own albums, including 1971's Music Inc., the debut from his and Cowell's innovative ensemble, they released a string of highly regarded, avant-garde-leaning albums by Pharoah Sanders, M'Boom, Billy Harper, Gil Scott-Heron, and others. Tolliver continued to tour regularly, appearing often with Cowell and Music Inc., which eventually expanded into a large big band featuring players like James Spaulding, Charles McPherson, Clint Houston, and others. It was this group that appeared on their 1975 Strata-East album Impact. During the '80s and '90s, Tolliver kept an increasingly low profile. That said, he kept performing, appearing with various incarnations of Music Inc. and touring Europe, where he was featured alongside many top jazz orchestras. He also taught, working at the New School and continued to manage the Strata-East catalog. In 2007, he burst back into the spotlight with the big-band album With Love. Nominated for a Grammy, the album garnered widespread critical acclaim and helped reintroduce Tolliver and his harmonically sophisticated brand of post-bop. He was also presented with the award for Best Large Ensemble of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association. Tolliver returned two years later with another big-band date, Emperor March: Live at the Blue Note. More accolades followed, including receiving an Award of Recognition at the 2017 FONT Festival of New Trumpet. In 2020, he released Connect, his first small group album since the 1970s. Recorded by Tony Platt at London's RAK studios, it featured alto saxophonist Jesse Davis, tenor saxophonist Binker Golding, pianist Keith Brown, bassist Buster Williams, and drummer Lenny White.
© Matt Collar /TiVo
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