By Ken Waxman
Grachan Moncur III had strong associations with the Jazztet, alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, and tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp. An East Coaster, he brought a variety of sophisticated colors to his compositions using different instrumentation than the standard sax/brass/rhythm section of the hard bop combo.
However, the trombonist has had a very low profile in recent years. Moncur recorded frequently in the '60s, including several sessions under his own name, but by steadfastly holding onto his publishing rights, he was soon estranged from the so-called jazz business. When the jazz recession hit, he concentrated on music education in Newark, then in the '90s, recurring dental problems curtailed his playing. Hearing him solo alongside the collection of heavyweights assembled for Exploration, the first album under his leadership since '77, proves that his chops are back to being as strong as his pen.
Arranger/conductor Mark Masters gives a new musical face to Moncur's best-known tunes. But Masters, an academic, who has done similar work on the oeuvre of the late trombonist Jimmy Knepper and with alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, has a tendency to make things a little too clean and overwrought. He occasionally voices the octet to sound as overbearing as a Stan Kenton big band. Also, there are sometimes a few too many short solos.
Overall though Moncur's strong writing and playing shine through. For instance "When?", first recorded in '69, here becomes more mainstream than it was initially, with an arrangement that seems to reference Miles Ahead. Still it provides a showcase for the composer's distinctive rubato sliding and stopping. Moncur's hearty, burry tone also roughs up the chromatic line that is "Love and Hate." Behind him, tenor saxophonist Billy Harper concisely smears out a solo, becoming abstract without being atonal.
Much more illustrative of Moncur's compositional gifts are "Monk in Wonderland," initially recorded in '63, and the four-part, nearly ten-minute "New Africa," another line from '69. The former replicates in sound the sort of wobbly gait associated with Monk's individuality, and is given more depth in its larger ensemble recasting. Andrew Cyrille and Ray Drummond never drop a beat in the background, as both baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan, who has anchored many New York big bands, and alto saxophonist Gary Bartz, who was a later Miles Davis sideman, turn in characteristic stentorian and systematic solos. Finally the bassist wraps things up with a spectacular display of triple-stopping before the head is reprised.
The most audacious piece on Exploration, "New Africa" again builds on the double-stopping strings and cymbal clatter of the masterful bassist and drummer. The key point is the tempered blending of the other horns into a choir, as Harper expresses his Texas roots with an eddying, curling workout that would have made Booker Ervin proud.
Personnel: Tim Hagans: trumpet; Dave Woodley, Grachan Moncur III: trombone; John Clark: French
horn; Gary Bartz: alto sax; Billy Harper: tenor sax; Gary Smulyan: baritone sax; Ray
Drummond: bass; Andrew Cyrille: drums; Mark Masters: arranger/conductor.