Charles Tolliver & Music Inc, Ronnie Scott’s, London – review

Charles Tolliver confronts the strenuous demands of late-1960s modern jazz with full-blooded commitment and a trumpet sound slightly fragile at the edges. The style is complex, harmonically rooted and compresses a raft of influences into coherence. At this gig Tolliver took it by the scruff of the neck. Multiple mood themes morphed from ballads and modal soul to acerbic modern jazz while his solos flowed over twist-and-turn structures. As good as his band were, it was Tolliver’s long angular lines, sustained trills and moody muted balladry that delivered the highlights.

The first composition set out the band’s stall with a runnel of riffs followed by a melodic line dripping with soul. “Copasetic”, we were told in a gravelly voice, means “it’s cool”. Tolliver also let us know that he first appeared at the club in 1967, playing with drummer Max Roach. Tolliver was then in his mid-twenties, and playing in Roach’s band launched his solo career.

Such informal apprenticeships are at the bedrock of modern jazz and Tolliver’s Music Inc keeps the tradition alive. Devin Starks is strong-toned, unassuming and firm-fingered on double bass, but moved out of the holding role when the rhythm section took a turn. Pianist Theo Hill is a bag of tricks who bobs and nods in time to his rhythm. He has a muscular modal jazz core, but on “Effi”, a first-set waltz, he moved impressively from light-touch romance to full-on thumps.

Established musicians completed the line-up. Plectrum-style guitarist Bruce Edwards fuses harmonic adventure with George Benson licks; drummer Gene Jackson is a percussion virtuoso who has mastered the idiom. His solos are genuinely original statements that build from simple fragments to a mesh of cross- rhythms, rolls and off-kilter grooves.

Tolliver let each musician interpret the full span of each theme and then came back roaring once all had taken a turn – not surprisingly, there were only four tunes in each set. The trumpeter finished by “going a little crazy”, a euphemism for a fast finale. Here Tolliver took centre stage, his brittle angular lines winning a deserved encore, a poised reading of “Round About Midnight”.

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