Whenever people ask me my top 10 favorite jazz albums, Charles Tolliver's Paper Man is always on that list. I first heard it when I was in college, and I'm still not tired of it. It's one of those magical lineups that is in some ways expected, but in this case, produced something extraordinary. Charles Tolliver is well featured and well recorded on trumpet, and all the compositions are from his pen. The one and only Herbie Hancock plays a piano which, for my ears, sounds almost like an upright at times, and perhaps not a well maintained one. Whatever the case, it's relevant for no more than a split second, because Hancock's playing seems extra inspired throughout the session. The great Ron Carter plays some rhythmic and harmonic ideas that are downright shocking. And the amazing Joe Chambers adds a superbly sensitive rhythmic foundation with his supple drumming. My former employer Gary Bartz appears on three tracks and is in great form as usual.
If you have Paper Man in your collection, I hope the following writing will inspire you to dig it out and listen along. If you don't have it, it's really hard to find. ( It was also released as Charles Tolliver and his All Stars on the Black Lion label.) For some weird reason, this masterpiece is not available on Itunes. What a shame!
The first track, "Earl's World", is a bold opening statement, a combination of heavy and light all at once. The tune is half 12/8 riff, half medium swing. I love tunes that get right to the point, and this one does. And it's a great vehicle for solos. Tolliver comes out with powerful ideas, and his solo is perfectly shaped, driven by the enthusiastic comping of Hancock and Chambers. Hancock's solo begins introspectively, with slick interpolations of 12/8, shifting into some ultra-slick metric modulations.
(One thing you'll notice about this recording is that the piano is one one side of the stereo image, and the bass is on the other. The trumpet and drums seems to be spread evenly. There is great clarity in the recording, and it only adds to the enjoyment of the interplay.)
Hancock ventures into 20th century impressionism, reminiscent of his work with Miles Davis. Hancock's approach to rhythm is so multi-layered. (Sometimes I almost laugh when I read something like "Jazz Rhythm is primarily eighth notes." Whomever takes that to heart would be highly confused by this Herbie Hancock solo.) Ron Carter brings us down to nothing while Hancock and Chambers sound as if they are faraway ghosts.
"Right Now", the third track, is a composition that originally appeared on a Jackie McLean recording(entitled Right Now.) I also recorded this tune on my third CD for the Steeplechase label back in the 90's. The form is basically a diminished scale line over an almost New Orleans type of syncopated rhythm. The bridge is a release into Bud Powell-like Bebop. This tension and release built into the structure makes it endlessly fun to improvise over. The melody statement in Tolliver's hands has a bold clarion call , like a call-to-arms, or maybe in this case, a call-to-play-some-jazz. Hancock's solo, combined with Carter's disruptively inventive hemiolas, and Chamber's perfectly swinging beat, is a thrill ride. Carter, quite a sober man personally, is almost comical in his comping here; at times, he almost sounds like he's in another room, it's that adventurous. This conflict continues on Tolliver's solo, building into a short but sweet Chambers drum solo. And the battle continues all the way to the vamp out.
"Household of Saud" is a song dedicated to pianist McCoy Tyner, and this fourth track is where Gary Bartz makes this a quintet. This is one of my all-time favorite tracks; the melody is almost a Tyner lick harmonized in 4ths and made into a composition. It's hard swinging and intense. Tolliver sounds strong. Bartz's solo has a nonchalance about it; he's a master of sounding relaxed over intense rhythm sections.
"Lil's Paradise" is a rather inventive tune, very expansive. It uses long pedal point sections over a relaxed jazz bossa type groove. Again, the musical teamwork is great. Bartz takes a lyrically beautiful solo.
The title track, "Paper Man," is one of those sort of bluesy boogaloo tunes with a catchy riff. It's a great way to end the album. I'm listening to this and again wondering why this album is not widely available. If anybody finds a link or something, please let me know. Meanwhile, here is a link to Mr. Tolliver's website. http://charlestolliver.com/