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Charles Tolliver Big Band / Sam Rivers Rivbea Orchestra - Charles Tolliver Big Band / Trilogy

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Artist: Charles Tolliver Big Band / Sam Rivers Rivbea Orchestra

Album: Charles Tolliver Big Band / Trilogy

Label: Mosaic Select

Review date: Sep. 23, 2011

Throughout the history of music too narrowly called “jazz,” big bands and smaller groups have moved in dance-like dialectic, spurring each other to new heights of improvisation and composition while maintaining, to varying degrees, the traditions from which their leaders emerged. The two most recent Mosaic Select box sets highlight two big bands, led by two veterans of both larger and smaller aggregates, both still living, quite active and pushing boundaries. Despite differences in style and compositional approach, there is a lot that unifies the work, as presented here, by these two master big band leaders. Neither is willing to sacrifice tradition for dogmatic freedom, but neither will be placed in chains in the service of that tradition. The result is first-class music that embraces multiple styles, but which also has an irresistible exploratory edge.

Tolliver’s box set documents the early big band projects on his own Strata-East label. He founded the label in 1971 with pianist Stanley Cowell, a member of Tolliver’s quartet, as well as a mainstay of the big band’s rhythm section. Indeed, Tolliver and Cowell take most of the solos on the band’s first album, Music Inc.. The tunes are mainly of an older vintage, some having been composed and recorded during Tolliver’s tenure with Jackie McLean.

Much of the music on Music Inc. exudes post-John Coltrane modality, as do some of the Strata-East small group projects of the period. The big band’s 1975 effort, Impact, is more daring in every way. The title track explodes into existence, Tolliver’s cutting and growling utterances supported by a battery of percussion courtesy of Warren Smith. The album is a study in texture, some of the tunes using a tasteful string section, like the wistful “Mother Wit.” The soloist’s roster expands, making room for the incomparable work of saxophonist and flautist James Spalding. His alto playing on the title track is extraordinary as he traverses the registers with ease and invention.

The third disc is a previously unreleased session from 1979, featuring the NDR big band and recorded in Germany. It features material from Impact, but the personnel is completely different, with solos by alto saxophonist Herb Geller and pianist Wolfgang Dauner, among others. The German big band demonstrates remarkable feel for the mainly uptempo and often dissonant music.

The Sam Rivers box set, Trilogy, consists entirely of newly released material. Until now, the only documentation of Rivers’ post-New York City work of his Rivbea Orchestra was the album Aurora, recorded in 1999, so what we have is essentially three new albums, each having its own title. The live sets on the first and third discs, Offering and Edge, respectively, are driven by funk-influenced rhythms similar to the Tolliver unit, but Rivers favors more counterpoint and even more complex arrangements.

The vigor Rivers musters during these sessions is amazing. The octogenarian’s soprano work on “Perkin” is beautiful and concise, as are most of his solos. In fact, most of the solos in the set are as compact as solos can be. This is necessary, as space is limited, and many of these tunes move very quickly. Again on “Perkin,” Steve Smith’s trombone solo seems to pick up where Rivers left off, he and trumpeter David Jones exploring similar material as their solos fly by. Even the slow burner “Ganymede” has a slightly frenetic feel as it moves from solo to solo, through constantly morphing ensemble passages.

The music on the second disc, Proginy is calmer on the surface, but there is always a multitude of melodic ideas in play. The counterpoint pervading the head of a track like “Monique” tells the story. Again, solos are brief but pithy, and special mention must go to bassist Doug Mathews and drummer Rion Smith, who keep everything focused while the soloists have their uniformly excellent say.

Special mention must also be made of Kevin Whitehead’s excellent notes for the Rivers box set. Unlike Francis Davis, whose conversation with Tolliver is illuminating but short on musical detail, Whitehead presents some very nice analysis in language that remains accessible. For a label that generally unleashes the power of past accomplishments, Whitehead sheds light on the underappreciated present.

By Marc Medwin

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