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, When?, Frankenstein, Excursion, Sonny's Back.
Personnel: Grachan Moncur III, trombone; 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.
I was first exposed to jazz when I was tiny. My earliest memory is watching Ella Fitzgerald scat on a Christmas special when I was no older than four. Like many who are from tiny towns, my first extended exposure was listening to the high school jazz band when I was a kid
I was first exposed to jazz when I was tiny. My earliest memory is watching Ella Fitzgerald scat on a Christmas special when I was no older than four. Like many who are from tiny towns, my first extended exposure was listening to the high school jazz band when I was a kid. For some reason I remember an arrangement of Hey Jude they did. My first real exposure was Stan Kenton in the Smithville, MO high school gym. Kenton and the band director there were old friends, so he would play there from time to time. My dad took me without telling me where we were going and it was the only show he ever took me to. I remember that Bobby Shew played Send In Clowns and I damn near levitated I was so excited. The huge sound and amazing chords floored me. I believe I was 13 at the time. I immediately started practicing and taking lessons. Music became a passion and nearly a career. I also listened to Dick Wright's Jazz Show on KANU every night. I can't even start to explain what I learned lying in bed listening to Dick talk about jazz. I met him once when I was struggling to put together a solo for Joy Spring playing in a combo at KU. Stopped by his office and asked for recommendations. He showed up at my jazz ensemble rehearsal the next day with a tape with example solos. What a kind man Dick Wright was.
My advice to new listeners is to stop worrying about what music is important and focus on music you like. I spent quite a bit of my music life listening to important music I didn't necessarily like. Must say I have quite a bit more fun now listening to music that I deeply enjoy. Some of it is even important.
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