Grachan Moncur

Trombone, pen, nerve.

Nov. 1963 / Blue Note

One of the “progressive” Blue Notes of the decade along the lines of Out to Lunch, Point of Departure, and Dialogue, this record situates Moncur, Jackie McLean, Lee Morgan, Bobby Hutcherson, Bob Cranshaw, and Tony Williams in fairly avant-garde terrain. It makes a demanding listen, not just for the notes and phrases, but also the dark spaces between them. The title track grants the soloists total freedom over twelve minutes of a grim two-note backdrop. The final chord movement (the only movement) suggests evolution into another stage. “Air Raid” is similarly stark although it swings madly at times. Moncur’s solo limitations take some getting used to, especially the way he plays single notes over and over. He gets more eloquent in “Monk In Wonderland”, a dizzying ferris wheel that ends its measures in a Monkian cadence. Morgan handles himself well and his search for new lands elsewhere probably gained confidence from this date. Hutcherson is the key in his creative support and well-told solos. McLean, for his part, continues to tread new ground, playing loose with pitch and reformulating his approach. Occasionally, his solos resemble a work in progress, and he sometimes seems to play in response to a bar that just went by.

A catchy Moncur theme called “The Coaster” brings order to the freedom. I like the combination of trombone and vibes, and the tune sounds very much like Dave Holland’s quintet of the late ‘90s. This lengthy track might be the universal selling point of a record that otherwise isn’t geared toward the easily spooked.

Some Other Stuff
July 1964 / Blue Note

Nonchalant title: here are more of those weird abstractions some of you cats dig. Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Cecil McBee, and Tony Williams lend their hefty abilities to Moncur’s oddball vision, and the music relies entirely on their presence. For example, “Nomadic” is simply a seven-minute drum solo with chromatic horn haiku at the beginning and end. What would it have sounded like with a different performance team? Completely different.

“Gnostic” leans on a Hancock piano motif that ticks like a hall clock in a haunted house; trombone and tenor hold ominous notes over rhythm section jolts. It’s rare to hear Wayne playing as freely as he does on this track, and it’s like seeing someone’s ugly side but not being offended. “The Twins” has a schoolyard taunt as its theme (very Ornette) and the most active Moncur solo. That’s what’s confusing about him; he writes these strange pieces apparently for his own amusement, not for improvisational inspiration. Compare this to Coltrane writing “Giant Steps” to reflect his playing concerns and delivering on the challenge. Here, Moncur comes up with “Thandiwa”, a midtempo waltz with a brilliant theme, and his solo is pathetic. Wayne, soloing first, groks the possibilities in the tune and pans gold, then Grachan steps up and sounds like he hasn’t held the trombone in six months. On the other hand, Moncur has a lot more to say in “The Twins”, so he’s hard to figure out. Shorter devours the tunes like a mercenary, and Herbie is plenty swift, too.

My pick of the date is the wonderful “Thandiwa”, which has a bit of Monk in its rhythm and otherwise illustrates the author’s originality, left field as it might be. And the album? If you appreciate the players, you’ll probably enjoy it, but be warned, they’re wearing masks.

Mosaic Select
Apr. 1963 - Sept. 1967 / Mosaic Records

A handy 2003 collection that’s just one session away from being co-billed with altoist Jackie McLean. Included are the two Moncur titles listed above along with the following McLean albums: One Step Beyond, Destination Out, Hipnosis, and some tracks from ’Bout Soul. (So Jackie appears on everything except Some Other Stuff.) All on three discs, with a booklet of original liner notes and a discography. The remastering is courtesy of Ron McMaster, who seems to use more noise reduction than Rudy Van Gelder, and the sound misses a touch of the high end you’d get on a Blue Note RVG.

I’ve already covered a lot of this music in the above reviews and on the McLean page, although I haven’t mentioned Hipnosis elsewhere. This gutsy 1967 McLean session features Moncur, pianist Lamont Johnson, bassist Scotty Holt, and drummer Billy Higgins. Not counting a slight R&B vibe in places, the real meat of the album is akin to the adventurous modal bop of earlier McLean works. Moncur’s two compositions are among his best: the tough “Hipnosis” prompts strong solos (especially from piano), while “Back Home” mixes a dirge section, a bum-ba-dee-da “out west” rhythm, and a friendly then mysterious chord progression. I think it’s one of Grachan’s finest tunes, and he plays well on it. Elsewhere, McLean compositions like “The Breakout” raise the energy level. The ’Bout Soul excerpts are quite intense, except for the ridiculous spoken-word “Soul”, where some female poet proves how silly the poetry/jazz marriage can be. Yeah, like, far out, and don’t be so square, man. I much prefer hearing McLean get vicious on “Conversion Point”; now there’s a message no words can convey.

The collection paints a portrait of a strange artist, or should I say an artist of strange creativity. Moncur comes at jazz from a sort of an innocent direction: what happens if we do this? What would you do if I wrote that? Some of his tunes are esoteric to a fault, some very catchy. “Thandiwa”, “Back Home”, and “Riff Raff” are a few of my favorites, and it’s hard to imagine the average listener not liking those themes. The solos are another story, and I’ve all but said that I don’t think he’s a great soloist, not on this evidence. Despite the occasional neat idea, he often sounds like he’s marking time until the next soloist steps up. That’s okay by me because these three discs illustrate the creativity of the 1960s, and Moncur was responsible for the majority of the tunes included. If Grachan doesn’t deliver the big solo, someone else does, and in the meantime, jazz’s boundaries are stretched ever so slightly.

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