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 Jackie McLean'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 pursuinghis music had too much inherent structureMoncur'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 throughout the '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.
Track Listing: Exploration; Monk in Wonderland; Love and Hate; New Africa: Queen Tamam, New Africa, Black Call, Ethiopian Market; When? Frankenstein; Excursion; Sonny's Back!
Personnel: Tim Hagans (trumpet), John Clark (French horn), Dave Woodley (trombone), Gary Bartz (alto saxophone), Billy Harper (tenor saxophone), Gary Smulyan (baritone saxophone), Ray Drummond (bass), Andrew Cyrille (drums), Grachan Moncur III (trombone)