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Grachan Moncur III Octet: Exploration

Dan McClenaghan By

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"Frankenstein" seems an odd name for a jazz tune, but then why not? The song title—and the song itself—captures the mood of Grachan Moncur III's Exploration. It's an arrangement that features an assertive—to the point of brashness, perhaps—ensemble interplay of a seven horns backed by bass and drums, sans piano or guitar. Two trombones, along with a French horn and baritone sax, ensure the darker tone predominance with—on this particular tune—a stinging, free-ranging alto sax solo by Gary Bartz, followed by Moncur's contained and very centered solo turn on his horn.

Grachan Moncur III's horn—for those of you who didn't catch him on Jackie McLean's Destination Out or One Step Beyond, or on any of his own bygone Blue Note sets—is the trombone. His is a distinctive voice: tight, terse, incisive (you won't hear a wasted note from him), and within the roiling arrangements he seems to slide into an eye-of-the-storm mode, like a measured voice of reason in the center of slightly neurotic gales.

Mark Masters of the American Jazz Institute arranged these tunes and conducts the octet—actually a nonet when you count Moncur. He proves himself yet again—as he did on One Day With Lee (Lee Konitz) and The Clifford Brown Project, both on Capri Records—a masterful enabler/interpreter. He captures the essence of the musicians in the middle of his projects, with, in this case, arrangements full of coiled intensity and sharp angles and gleaming edges, reminiscent of some of the Melba Liston charts done for Randy Weston's larger ensemble discs.

Moncur's songs are quirky in a Monk-ish sense, counterpointing harmony versus discord, restraint versus freedom, and the set is packed with searing solos alongside very measured and deliberate turns. Exploration makes up a consistently surprising set of sounds. I'll pick "Love and Hate" as a highlight, but it's probably just my precarious preference for a ballad today—any tune here on any given day could fill that bill. But the tune in question has a marvelously tight and taciturn Moncur solo that sneaks in and out some clean mainstream harmony, followed by Billy Harper—tenor sax—soaring on his horn.

Grachan Moncur III has been out of the limelight for a couple of decades. Exploration is a fine and fitting welcome back.

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)

Title: Exploration | Year Released: 2004

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