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Extended Analysis

Grachan Moncur III: Exploration

By Published: January 16, 2005
Grachan Moncur III Octet
Capri Records

After a lengthy absence, trombonist/composer Grachan Moncur III returns with his first album as a leader since 1977's Shadows (Denon Jazz). The trombonist is best known for his particiation on two Jackie McLean albums, One Step Beyond and Destination Out! , in 1963. On the latter Moncur contributed two of the five tunes and on the former, three of four. In addition to appearing on numerous Blue Note dates as a sideman, Grachan Moncur III also recorded Evolution and Some Other Stuff for the label in 1963-'64. There follows a period of inactivity which Moncur says stemmed from his decision to retain the publishing rights to his original compositions, which may have alienated record companies including Blue Note.

During the late 1960s, Moncur was drawn further into the avant-garde scene and collaborated with Archie Shepp, among others. During the 1970s and 1980s he worked as a musical educator in Newark, New Jersey and worked only sporadically in the 1990s.

This project was the idea of Mark Masters of the Los Angeles-based American Jazz Institute. Coming off of the success of critically received tributes to Lee Konitz, Clifford Brown and Jimmy Knepper, Masters' skills as an arranger of original material of these artists inspired him to contact Moncur.

These eight tracks have a significant history and allow Masters to revisit the compositions from various periods of Moncur's recording career. The biggest question for the prospective listener might involve the presence of free jazz playing on this album. I can report that it is a minimal part of this album. A brief "Excursion" presents a dissonant taste of the avant garde jazz of the era, and the opening title track presents the melody line in a jagged free jazz style, but the bulk of that composition is played as straightfoward post bop from trumpeter Tim Hagans, in a fiery solo, as well as trombonist John Clark, tenor saxophonist Billy Harper, and Moncur.

The Jackie McLean sessions are represented by "Love and Hate," which involve solo performances from Moncur and Harper with Mark Masters' richly textured horn arrangement adding much to this ballad. "Frankenstein," which was written in response to a science fiction influence, reflects the loping gait of a cinematic creature of the night.

"Monk in Wonderland," taken from Moncur's Evolution album, presents, as the title promises, a Monk-like theme stirred up by Gary Smulyan's baritone sax and Gary Bartz's angrier-than-usual alto sax. "When?", recorded in 1969, concentrates on the solo work of Moncur, Bartz, Clark and Andrew Cyrille (who was the drummer on the 1969 session). Again, the Masters arrangement contributes so much to this track.

Although I haven't heard Grachan Moncur in some time now, his playing seems similar to the 1960s Blue Note period, with a burry tone that I might liken to that of Julian Priester. Billy Harper, whom I've only heard in a post-Coltrane series of recordings, is here the very model of melodic and swinging tenor saxophone playing. As usual, Hagans presents a strong trumpet voice, and bassist Ray Drummond gets an effective solo in "When?". I would have liked to hear more of Gary Smulyan, but on a Mark Masters album, the ensemble is the featured attraction, not the players.

Tracks: Exploration, Monk in Wonderland, Love and Hate, New Africa, When?, Frankenstein, Excursion, Sonny's Back!

Personnel: Grachan Moncur III, trombone; Mark Masters, arrangements; Tim Hagans, trumpet; John Clark, French Horn; Dave Woodley, trombone; Gary Bartz, alto sax; Billy Harper, tenor sax; Gary Smulyan, baritone sax; Ray Drummond, bass; Andrew Cyrille, drums.

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