He's been around for a few years as a member of the Turtle Island Quartet, but for some he's best known for his work on Stanley Clarke's welcome return to fusion, The Toys of Men (Heads Up, 2007). Either way, The Playmaker isn't the violinist's first release as a leader—that would be Speed of Light
(Self Published, 2008)—but it's the first to expand his trio, featuring
guitarist Mike Abraham and bassist George Ban- Weiss, to a more
powerful quartet with drummer Eric Garland. It also capitalizes on his
increased visibility over the last couple years, with some high profile
His sometimes employer, bass icon Stanley Clarke, guests on "The Contemplator," one of six Tolling originals that sit alongside covers of songs by Radiohead, Led Zeppelin, Pee Wee Ellis and Thelonious Monk, as well as a lyrical Swedish folk song dedicated to the memory of another influential bassist, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. Also featuring vibraphonist Stefon Harris,
"The Contemplator" is, in many ways, exactly the opposite of what might
be expected from a guest session with Clarke. Classical in tone, with
Harris' solo intro taking up a quarter of the song's brief four
minutes, it's a gently evolving piece of chamber jazz that features
Clarke's recognizable arco in a piece that's all about nuance and
interpretation, rather than chops.
Not that there isn't a prerequisite virtuosity required throughout The Playmaker,
but even when the violinist kicks up the heat, as he does on the
alternating reggae/higher octane "The Risktaker"—with another guest, Yellowjackets' keyboardist Russell Ferrante,
in tow—Tolling avoids excess. Ban-Weiss and Garland, in particular,
keep things relatively light, even on Radiohead's "Just," where
Abrahams' mix of finger-picked arpeggios, bluesy bends and overdriven
power chords make it an exciting opener to this stylistically eclectic
set. Ending with a raucous version of Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog"—which,
following a mainstream take of Monk's "Blue Monk," also demonstrates
the disc's inherent playfulness—the group expands on this somewhat
literal version by extending the brief inter-section drones for
Tolling's appropriately unfettered violin, referencing a hint of India
and the Middle East.
Ban-Weiss pays tribute to Jaco Pastorius
while avoiding direct imitation on Ellis' "The Chicken "—the departed
bass icon's signature tune. Still, with this version's reduced
instrumentation—no horns, and Abraham's Steve Cropper-
infected comping, in some ways more reverent to the original than
Pastorius' ever was—is, again, lighter in feel but weighty in substance.
six consecutive originals, almost all dedicated to friends or
influences past or present—crosses a wide swatch, from the buoyant
title track to the ambling "El Duderino" and higher velocity lobbies in
"Starmaker Machinery," appropriately dedicated to guitar legend John McLaughlin and featuring some of vibrant and inspired interplay between Tolling and Abraham.
Virtuosity may be a given on The Playmaker,
but what's most impressive is the sound of Tolling's quartet, which
drives the majority of the record and, based on the results, must be
thrilling live. For those who can, check out Tollings live; for those
who can't, The Playmaker is a great place to start.