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 characterised 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.
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)