Grachan Moncur III: Evolution
Originally released in 1963, Evolution was the leader debut of trombonist and composer Grachan Moncur III, who had previously worked with tenor saxophonist Benny Golson's Jazztet, and was the regular "cool" foil for brimming-hot Jackie McLean in the alto saxophonist's quintet. Moncur was characterized by critics of the day as a player with measured intellectual calm, in heady contrast to the slushy tailgate of Roswell Rudd. Moncur's phrasing is comparatively deft, a bugle-flick that's easily aligned with post-J.J. players like Curtis Fuller. It's probably no coincidence that Evolution's cover art recalls a slightly earlier Reid Miles/Francis Wolff sleeve design, the purple hue of Curtis Fuller Volume 3 (Blue Note 1583, 1958).
To those familiar with the trombonist's other collaborations with McLean from the periodDestination Out! (Blue Note, 1963) and One Step Beyond (Blue Note, 1963)the lineup here might not be too surprising. Vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson lends his glassy strike to the proceedings, while a seventeen-year-old Tony Williams is the drummer and Bob Cranshaw is featured on bass. The ringer is trumpeter Lee Morgan, making his only appearance with Williams on record and certainly the most vanguard recording session in his book (apparently Moncur's original choice for brass foil was Prestige recording artist Webster Young). There are four pieces here, all of which come from the trombonist's pen.
Moncur's compositions, especially from this period, tow a line between near-stasis and jaunty modal climbs; such pieces as "Ghost Town" and "Love and Hate" (from his dates with McLean) are tense, meditative tone-poems, imagist and evocative yet with a delicate swing. It is in more abstract, free-flowing canvases such as "The Intellect" from 1965 that wavering stasis has reached its pan-tempo conclusion.
Evolution's title track is a step in this direction, long tones set into bedrock by alto, trombone and bass, with a heartbeat-pulse (tock) in single brass and vibraphone notes. With an exhalation, these tones are punctuated by snare rattle and spiraling, uncoiled solo statements. McLean expounds with tart, keening and bluesy phrases, curled bursts of energy clambering out of a taut horizon. Morgan follows with punchy arpeggios and half-valve calls; he approaches the net of obliquely dissonant drone with the rich lines of a balladeer, sounding both challenged and entirely within his "bag." Indeed, all three hornmen treat their solo spots as shaky soliloquy rather than exploring the possibilities of silence and mass a la Feldman and Ligeti (composers to which this piece offers some kinship).
While the first two pieces lean to the left of possibilities engendered by "modal jazz," the date closes with comparably more traditional tunes. "The Coaster" is jaunty, riff-laden post-bop out of a similar vein to "Riff Raff," which appeared on Destination Out!. So much credence could be given to McLean's poetic verbosity or Morgan's darting miniature explosions at the hand of Williams that the leader's solo statements might go unnoticed, which would be unfortunate. What might be termed "cool" is slick, effortless elision, the trombonist opting for evenly-paced thematic probes rather than the explosive peals chosen by his companions. "Monk in Wonderland" places side-by-side brassy swagger and detailed modal clambering, a nod to where Moncur's approaches to space and sound might also come from.
Moncur would go on to record dates with pianist Herbie Hancock and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, including one more as a leader for Blue Note, Some Other Stuff (Blue Note, 1965). His association with the avant-garde and new Black music became more distinct in the latter half of the 1960s as he worked with saxophonists Archie Shepp and Marion Brown, drummer Sunny Murray, and bassist Alan Silva, including a trip to the Pan-African Festival in Ketchaoua, Algeria in 1969. Yet this debut displays keen orchestration and a dedication to form, qualities which imbue his playing and would ground that of others. Talk about a title instilled with artistic prophecy.
Tracks: Air Raid; Evolution; The Coaster; Monk in Wonderland.
Personnel: Grachan Moncur III: trombone; Lee Morgan: trumpet; Jackie McLean: alto saxophone; Bobby Hutcherson: vibraphone; Bob Cranshaw: bass; Tony Williams: drums.