Saturday, October 31, performance by US trumpeter and band leader Charles Tolliver with the orchestra

Aaron Flower and Charles Tolliver
Band leader Charles Tolliver is attentive during an Aaron Flower solo.

It’s funny how little things can so easily sway us. On the final night of this festival, a while after the last gig, I was on my way back to the motel to start writing a festival review and happened to be walking behind some musicians. I won’t name them, and I did not really try to eavesdrop, but the import of their discussion was clearly that Charles Tolliver had been a tad pernickety, demanding that certain requirements be met by the organisers, and seeming to be unimpressed by the JM Orchestra. Who knows whether there is any skerrick of truth in this – it would not be the first time a headline muso had acted ornery – but it seemed totally contrary to the impression I had while watching the band under Tolliver’s direction.

So I may have a totally wrong take on how things were, but I saw signs of Tolliver’s empathy with the band, and of him being supportive and enthusiastic (he had good reason to be) about the performance of the 18-piece ensemble. It pleased me to see Tolliver rest his hand briefly on the shoulder of Aaron Flower en route to the front during the set-opening In The Trenches from the bandleader’s Emperor March album. The piece was a rousing way to start.

Layers of horns built to a crescendo in Tolliver’s I Want to Talk About You, which included an energetic tenor sax solo by Matt Keegan. Tolliver then challenged the audience, saying, “When we finish I’m going to ask everyone in the audience to tell me what the song is.” After a moving trumpet soliloquy, Tolliver quick as a flash turned to conduct.

Charles Tolliver
Charles Tolliver flies solo.

His tone in solos was at times piercing, with notes driven by a relentless flow of air or being pumped out in staccato fashion. The piece was, of course, Round Midnight.

David Theake reeds the mood perfectly.
David Theak reeds the mood perfectly.

Tolliver again introduced Emperor March with a mention of the penguin, saying “no other creature can endure what that does only to have a little one”. David Theak’s soprano sax solo seemed to evoke the harsh conditions in Antarctica. As we heard a trombone solo from Danny Carmichael, then brief flute and clarinet interludes before deep notes from “dem ‘bones”, it felt like a journey. The slow build-up at the end, with melodic repetition, created a great atmosphere.

In closing piece Toughin’, Tolliver cheerfully announced “everyone’s going to solo, and they did. When Phil Slater popped up last in the line of trumpets, it struck me how talented the orchestra was to have such musicians quietly keeping a low profile in the band.

Along with the Bennetts Lane Big Band, the Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra is likely to win over anyone who does not think big bands are their cup of tea. And that’s because it’s not all about blasting away, though that sometimes happens, but also about playing with sufficient feeling to move those listening.

Aaron Flower
Aaron Flower in a chord with proceedings.

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