Take the Coltrane

Trumpeter Charles Tolliver brings ‘Africa Brass’ to MSU


A mighty roar is coming to the MSU College of Music’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration this year, courtesy of an American jazz legend.

Make that two jazz legends.

Charles Tolliver, the clarion trumpeter and composer who coruscated across the jazz scene in the 1960s, will conduct MSU’s powerhouse Jazz Octet Sunday in his own arrangement of the landmark John Coltrane album, “Africa Brass,” as the centerpiece of a multi-faceted celebration of King and his legacy.

By crude medical standards, Coltrane is no longer with us, but he’ll be there, too.  

The chance to hear “Africa Brass” live is rarer than a total eclipse. The 1961 album was unique, even in Coltrane’s mind-blowing run of quantum leaps — a stampede of trumpeting elephants, drumming out the cosmic unity of mankind and music and the deep African roots of both.

“This work probably would have been a memory on record, had not Reggie Workman in 1998 asked me to see if I couldn’t transcribe it,” Tolliver said in a phone interview. (Workman was Coltrane’s bassist in 1961 and plays on the original “Africa Brass” album.)

A formidable phalanx of horns, trumpets and trombones unfurl a bird-of-paradise extension of Coltrane’s classic quartet, rumbling like a volcano and glowing with harmonic and textural sophistication.

“The story goes that the original arrangements, by alto saxophonist Eric Dolphy and pianist McCoy Tyner, were lost in a fire at Dolphy’s mother’s home during the Watts riots,” Tolliver said. “Nothing had been done with it from 1961 until 1998.”

The Tolliver arrangement premiered at Lincoln Center’s outdoor Damrosch Park and a handful of universities, then sat on the shelf until 2011, the 50th anniversary of “Africa Brass,” when Tolliver brought it to the Frankfurt Jazz Festival, with no less a soloist than powerhouse tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp.

“I mean, it’s really all about the tenor solo,” Tolliver said, savoring the understatement.

Most of the original “Africa Brass” arrangements are credited to Dolphy, who also plays on the album. But in Tolliver’s view, the ringing, joyous chords favored by Coltrane’s pianist, McCoy Tyner, are the big bangs that power the big band. 

“Eric was looking over McCoy’s shoulders and used those grand harmonic voicings McCoy had,” Tolliver said. “It’s very uplifting. To see it performed, viscerally, it’s really grand.”

Tolliver worked on the arrangements for three solid months.

“I was faithful to the original music on the record, note for note,” he said. “I didn’t want to fool with this grand idea. The instrumentation is exactly as it is on the record.”

Workman suggested that Tolliver add a choir. That took another four months.

“The choir makes it a spectacular event,” Tolliver said. 

Tolliver premiered the choir-enhanced version of “Africa Brass” Dec. 4 at the University of California at Santa Cruz, as the climax of a three-month-long residency there.

Unfortunately, the current COVID surge makes it impossible to include a choir Sunday at Fairchild Theatre.

“Hopefully, when things quiet down and this scourge is a thing of the past, maybe we can do it with a choir, as Reggie Workman originally envisioned it,” Tolliver said.

Tolliver had no trepidation about recreating a jazz masterpiece, nor does he doubt MSU musicians will live up to the legacy Sunday.

“When it premiered, I was satisfied with it,” he said. “It sounded like the record. As long as there are good performers, it’ll be OK. Rodney Whitaker has a wonderful program there.”

Tolliver, who turns 80 in March, will have some priceless stories to share with MSU jazz students. Born in Jacksonville, Florida, Tolliver got his first instrument, a cornet, from his grandmother. He went to pharmacy school at Howard University, but the trumpet’s clarion call drew him to New York. Biographies usually say that his first gig was with cutting-edge alto saxophonist Jackie McLean (dig their Blue Note CD “Action”), but that’s not quite true.

“My first gig with professionals was with Ike and Tina Turner, with backup singers, dancing, the whole revue,” he recalled. “Students of today don’t get schooled in these kinds of bands.”

When Tolliver hit the scene in New York in the mid-1960s, jazz was exploding with the avant-garde concepts of Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman and other sonic alchemists that dissolved the music’s formal and emotional boundaries and opened portals into interstellar space.

Tolliver likes to remind his students that these musical gods were just people.

“Coltrane was still playing when us kids were coming up,” Tolliver said. “You could go see him, see the quartet. He was accessible. After he left the stage, he would either be in the dressing room, still playing, or quietly reading a book and smoking his favorite brown cigarillos. I had a chance to say hello to him.”

Tolliver absorbed and distilled the innovations of the early 1960a into his own muscular sound, open to wild side journeys yet always grounded in the greats that came before. In epic tracks like “On the Nile” (a worthy companion piece to “Africa Brass”), his trumpet bursts with rapid-fire fanfares and urgent calls to arms that shoot like contrails over rolling mountain ranges of rhythm. 

“It’s called the king of the instruments, but it’s also the most dangerous,” Tolliver said. “It’s totally unforgiving. Any mistakes are quite evident.”

Tolliver and pianist-composer Stanley Cowell were among the first jazz artists to take ownership of their music, forming the Strata-East jazz label in 1971.

Today, Strata-East recordings by Tolliver’s dynamic combo, Music Inc., are thrilling a new generation of listeners on glorious vinyl.

“It was a labor of love,” Tolliver said. “We did it, not thinking it would succeed or survive. It was in the moment, and once we did it, it took on a life of its own.”

Tolliver thinks the big labels should have stuck with vinyl all along.

“As a young person, you went to the music store, went through the bins, and you could pull out this 12-by-12 inch album, look at the beautiful artwork, take that vinyl out and put it on your turntable,” he said. “Then we got to this small, little CD package. Beautiful as it’s been done, it’s not the same. No question that the industry was going to have to come back to vinyl at some point.”

Tolliver has played with many jazz icons, from saxophonist supreme Sonny Rollins, drum legends Max Roach and Art Blakey to brilliant pianists like Herbie Hancock and Andrew Hill. Still, there are a few musicians he missed, and would have loved to encounter. 

“I would love to have had an audience with Fats Navarro,” he said.

Navarro, a blindingly fast bebop pioneer, died in 1950, when Tolliver was 9. The mind immediately conjures up an imaginary, cross-generational trumpet battle, but that’s not what Tolliver had in mind.

“No, no,” he said. “Just to sit in a corner while he’s practicing, just listening.”

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