It’s remarkable how time changes the relative position of musical innovation. When trombonist Grachan Moncur III appeared on the scene with a series of Blue Note appearances including his own Evolution and Some Other Stuff, as well as alto saxophonist JackieMcLean’s One Step Beyond, Destination…Out!, Hipnosis and About Soul, thankfully reissued recently as a Mosaic Select box, he was firmly entrenched in the emergent musical left. While not exactly the kind of free style that artists including Ornette Coleman were pursuing–his music had too much inherent structure–Moncur’s compositions demonstrated new ways to combine open-ended form with liberal improvisation, a more approachable avante garde if you will. Forty years later his work appears much closer to the centre. Listening to his ’60s work, one is immediately struck by the thematic richness of his compositions, even as artists including drummer Tony Williams, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and, most notably, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson found ways to blend angularity with smoother edges, the out with the in.
After more-or-less completely disappearing from the recording scene following ’74’s Echoes of a Prayer, Moncur devoted himself to music education and then a series of personal issues which saw him virtually disappear throughoutthe ’90s. Fortunately arranger Mark Masters of the American Jazz Institute, the man responsible for last year’s fine collaboration with Lee Konitz, One Day With Lee (Capri), has grabbed Moncur out of the arms of obscurity and created an album that is part homage and part triumphant return. Exploration finds Moncur in the context of an octet (sometimes nonet) that sheds new light on some of his best material, culled from his Blue Note sessions as well as his ’69 recording New Africa.
The largest ensemble ever to record Moncur’s ambitious – yet- accessible material with Moncur’s involvement, Masters’ arrangements brings out a richness that could heretofore only be imagined. Even on tracks like the ten-minute “New Africa” suite, which cleverly blends completely free ensemble passages with structured segments that incorporate African rhythms from bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Andrew Cyrille and lush, long tones from the horn section, Moncur, under Masters’ direction, demonstrates the blend of musical independence with more defined construction that makes his writing so compelling. And on “Love and Hate,” which finds the horn section substituting for Bobby Hutcherson’s dark vibraphone on the original recording from Jackie McLean’s Destination…Out!, Moncur continues to mine the deeper crevices between the notes, gradually evolving a solo that is as careful in its choice of notes as it is in its painstaking attention to tone.
If there’s any complaint with Exploration, it’s that there’s no new material from Moncur’s pen. Still, Masters’ arrangements and the welcome return of Moncur’s unique sound bring a new perspective to Moncur’s decades-old material, giving them a life and relevance that eliminates such concerns for now. Hopefully Exploration signifies a permanent return for Moncur, and on the next recording we’ll see what concerns have occupied him as a writer in the intervening years. Exploration: Reviewed by, John Kelman, Jazziz.
Explore indeed!! Composer Moncur takes us ”where man has seldom gone” with his superb originals…….and, the investigation is edifying. The octet plays Moncur’s music with an almost telepathic understanding of Grachan’s ideas, which gives the music’s Avante Garde’ quality a sure fire guarantee of it’s source and inspiration. As for the octet, they perform their music with a consistent high standard of technical excellence, confidence, and vigor. This disc is a wondrous meeting of utterly talented kindred spirits, accepting their creative challenge to reach their audience with a profound sense of artistic virility. Exploration: Reviewed by, George W. Carroll,The Musicians’ Ombudsman.
Trombonist and composer Grachan Moncur III made a memorable impact forty years ago with his challenging compositions and austere improvising style. He then maintained a very low profile for decades, teaching, recording only rarely, and encountering dental problems. Now he’s made a welcome return to recording with the absolutely stunning CD Exploration. In the 1960’s, Moncur’s trombone style was notable for breaking away from the then-prevalent model of J.J. Johnson. Rather than play bebop acrobatics, Moncur played spare lines characterized by his use of space. He still plays that way, but he sounds more relaxed. He plays with a great variety of phrase lengths and tonal approaches, from rueful lyricism on “Love And Hate” to a burry sound on faster pieces. But it’s his compositions that make this album so rewarding. Except for the short free improvisation “Excursion,” they’re all from the 1960s, using strategies such as changing time signatures (“Monk In Wonderland”) or multiple themes (“New Africa”) that were innovative at the time, coupled with striking, declamatory melodies. These performances, arranged in brilliant, even startling fashion by Mark Masters, don’t look back. The voicings, riffs, and interludes devised by Masters, along with the absence of a chordal instrument, give Exploration a sound that looks forward, as Moncur always does.
The arrangements are played with crackling intensity by this sterling octet, and the improvisations follow suit. Suffice it to say that every solo is impressive, but Bartz is especially good on “Frankenstein,” Harper on “Love And Hate,” and Clark shines on the title track. Drummond and Cyrille are an ideal rhythm team. They intertwine with the soloists even as they generate fiery swing; Drummond’s empathy with Moncur on “New Africa” is quite notable. Hearty congratulations are due all around, to Moncur, to the sidemen, to Masters, to everyone involved with the project. Exploration is a great record. Reviewed by, Marc Meyers, AllAboutJazz.
”Frankenstein” seems an odd name for a jazz tune, but then why not? The song title–and the song itself–captures the mood of Grachan Moncur III’s Exploration. It’s an arrangement that features an assertive–to the point of brashness, perhaps–ensemble interplay of a seven horns backed by bass and drums, sans piano or guitar. Two trombones, along with a French horn and bari sax, ensure the darker tone predominance with–on this particular tune–a stinging, free-ranging alto sax solo by Gary Bartz, followed by Moncur’s contained and very centered solo turn on his horn. Grachan Moncur III’s horn–for those of you who didn’t catch him on Jackie McLean’s Destination Out or One Step Beyond, or on any of his own bygone Blue Note sets–is the trombone. His is a distinctive voice: tight, terse, incisive (you won’t hear a wasted note from him), and within the roiling arrangements he seems to slide into an eye-of-the-storm mode, like a measured voice of reason in the center of slightly neurotic gales.
Mark Masters of the American Jazz Institute arranged these tunes and conducts the octet–actually a nonet when you count Moncur. He proves himself yet again–as he did on One Day With Lee (Lee Konitz) and The Clifford Brown Project, both on Capri Records–a masterful enabler/interpreter. He captures the essence of the musicians in the middle of his projects, with, in this case, arrangements full of coiled intensity and sharp angles and gleaming edges, reminiscent of some of the Melba Liston charts done for Randy Weston’s larger ensemble discs. Moncur’s songs are quirky in a Monk-ish sense, counterpointing harmony versus discord, restraint versus freedom, and the set is packed with searing solos alongside very measured and deliberate turns. Exploration makes up a consistently surprising set of sounds. I’ll pick “Love and Hate” as a highlight, but it’s probably just my precarious preference for a ballad today–any tune here on any given day could fill that bill. But the tune in question has a marvelously tight and taciturn Moncur solo that sneaks in and out some clean mainstream harmony, followed by Billy Harper–tenor sax—soaring on his horn. Grachan Moncur III has been out of the limelight for a couple of decades. Exploration is a fine and fitting welcome back. Reviewed by Dan McClenaghan, AllAboutJazz.com.
There is no doubt but what this is a nicely exploratory jazz CD. Moncur’s trombone jazz has more kick than many other giants of jazz ever thought of… he’s a big fan of Monk’s compositional style, & that certainly comes through in his pieces. There’s a true “big band” sound on most of the tracks, & the energy is fantastic! Probably when Grachan was doin’ free jazz in th’ ’60′s, the form (or lack of it) wasn’t as widespread (& thus more accessible) as it is today… I believe many artists from that era are surging back on th’ scene, simply because listeners are better able to deal with it. The title track is my favorite along those lines… constant movement, great interplay between brass, reeds & drums, & all with a totally clear sense of the direction they’re taking the listener(s) in. Cut 4, “New Africa”, is another favorite… takes me back to that sense of “exploration” many of us (as listeners and players) felt in the ’60′s & ’70′s. Some great rhythms boiling & surging down under, & solid voices (from the horns, in particular) singing sad & joyful together. This is an album that will be welcomed by jazz listeners across the generations, & gets our MOST HIGHLY RECOMMENDED! A beautiful album that is a guaranteed keeper! Reviewed by Dick Metcalf aka Rotcod Zzaj.
Capri Records has released EXPLORATION, the new CD by the GrachanMoncur III Octet which is arranged and conducted by Mark Masters of theAmerican Jazz Institute. EXPLORATION revisits Moncur’s classics from his Jazztet period, his Blue Note albums and his NEW AFRICA suite. The title track is an exceptional example of the trombonist’s ability to integrate elements of free jazz with more traditional jazz concepts and quotes from memorable jazz standards. Solos from trumpeter Tim Hagans, John Clark on flugelhorn, Billy Harper on tenor sax and Moncur incite the listener to revel in their personal statements and encourage the listener to “explore” the heights and depths of their own imaginations. The four part “New Africa” suite is the centerpiece of the recording and the ensemble takes the listener on an inspired musical journey that incorporates personal dignity, the blues, bebop and free jazz. Mark Masters demonstrates his masterful touch as with previous recordings with his big band and the Mark Masters Ensemble titled “The Clifford Brown Project” and “One Day With Lee.” EXPLORATION is by far an excellent collection of Grachan Moncur best compositions and should be in your jazz collection. Buy it today. Review – SoundsofTimelessJazz.com
Moncur, now 67 years old, hasn’t been in the limelight much since the ’60s when he was featured as leader (“Evolution” and “Some Other Stuff”) and more than occasional sideman with the likes of Jackie McLean (the recently reviewed “Destination Out”) on Blue Note. Later that decade he worked with Archie Shepp and, since then, only sporadic gigs with John Patton, Cassandra Wilson and the second edition of the Paris Reunion Band.
This brand new all-star date is the brainchild of Capri’s American Jazz Institute arranger, Mark Masters, whose other recent tributes have been to Clifford Brown and Lee Konitz. He and Grachan corresponded by computer and didn’t finally meet till rehearsal the day before the session. Masters has lovingly orchestrated some of Moncur’s most memorable originals, most of which are surprisingly melodic, including the heartbreaking “Love and Hate” (though Harper’s solo lacks the anguish of McLean’s original version), “Monk in Wonderland” (one of the highlights of “Evolution”), three titles from his BYG 1969 album “New Africa” and “Frankenstein”, the up-tempo tune from McLean’s “One Step Beyond”. The two most experimental tracks are the title tune and “Excursion”, which has the most “free” playing. Though a little ragged from lack of sufficient rehearsal, the band swings mightily throughout and there are excellent solos by all concerned, with special mention for those by Bartz (still such an underrated, harmonically original altoist), Harper, Smulyan and the still JJ Johnson-motivated Moncur, who makes every note count. Thoroughly deserves your support. Reviewed by, Tony Hall – JazzWise – UK