Ralph Ellison once wrote a great essay in which he seemed to predict jazz's ultimate dependence on a music industry driven (and subsidized) by a star system. The irony, Ellison suggested, is that jazz is largely created by anonymous musicians, who because they are "devoted to an art which traditionally thrives on improvisation [...] very often have their most original ideas enter the public domain almost as rapidly as they are conceived to be quickly absorbed into the thought and technique of their fellows."
There is a bittersweet implication hereas if it's somehow nobler to be an unknown, poverty-stricken musician, and as if becoming a jazz celebrity inevitably involves selling out. But I don't know if you could convince trombonist and composer Grachan Moncur of either of these propositions. Though he may agree that the star system is a horrible invention, he recently had the opportunity to reestablish his own reputation, and I can almost hear him thanking [insert the deity of your choice here] for that.
After all, until this chance came along, Moncur was coming very close to total obscurityand from what I can tell, he wasn't enjoying it, materially or philosophically. In the '60s, he had been a participant and leader in several stellar Blue Note sessions (now collected on a Mosaic box set), but he more or less hadn't been heard from again until, well, last year. Why? It could be that his (smart) impulse to control his own publishing rights got him blacklisted by the Blue Note big wigs. Or maybe that blacklisting had something to do with his turn toward the avant-garde. Or perhaps it was something else altogether something even more painful (see Fred Jung's AAJ interview with Moncur for several moving allusions). In any case, here at last is one of the rewards of a jazz culture that has become downright curatorial in recent years (a fact sometimes too-quickly decried by those of us who prefer our music in the clubs): at least we're starting to value the contributions of lesser-known veterans.
To be sure, Moncur's new album, Exploration, is markedly different from his '60s output. Here, he is dealing with a much larger ensemble (an octet featuring such varied personages as Gary Smulyan, Billy Harper, and Andrew Cyrille), for which Mark Masters' compelling, dense arrangements are perfectly suited. True to its name, Exploration is not a simple repackaging of Moncur's work, but, rather, a sincere statement of artistic growth (a noble thing any age, but particularly when you're in your late 60s). A brief summary: "New Africa" is a gorgeous suite whose creation was apparently assisted by Moncur's wife, Tamam. "Sonny's Back" weighs in on the "almost-bop" side of things and is named after Moncur's friend, Sonny Rollins. And speaking of friends in high places, Moncur's signature tune ("Monk in Wonderland") is named after another fellow traveler (you-know-who), who I suspect is his biggest influence. (I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the amazing alto solo on this tune, incidentally. Thanks, Gary Bartz.) "Love and Hate" is strangely named; it sounds like all love to me (slow, mellow, sweet). And for the hardcore fan, "Excursion" is a more or less totally free several minutes.
I could go on, but you get the idea. Bottom line: welcome back, Grachan. We missed you.
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
Track Listing: Exploration, Monk in Wonderland, Love and Hate, New Africa, When?, Frankenstein, Excursion, Sonny's Back
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.