The Evolution of Grachan Moncur III

The name Grachan Moncur III floats mostly unremarked through the music of post-bop jazz, not unlike his opening notes on the title cut of his second album as a leader, Some Other Stuff. Despite walk-on roles in biographies of Dizzy Gillespie and Wayne Shorter, and mentioned favorably in interviews with Sonny Rollins and Jackie McLean, Moncur remains mostly a shadow from the 1960’s even with his trombone and compositions appearing on the recordings of not just McLean and Shorter, but also Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Lee Morgan, Benny Golson and Art Farmer.

Grachan Moncur III: The Beginning of an Evolution

Grachan Moncur - evolutionDue to myriad problems both personal and professional, Grachan Moncur’s first and most satisfying album, Evolution from 1963, proved to be a high water mark. Until the new millennium, Moncur was only occasionally to be heard, and mostly on albums by artists such as Archie Shepp and Cassandra Wilson. While Moncur did have an important comeback with Exploration in 2004, featuring trumpeter Tom Hagans and reedman Gary Bartz, this album is hardly a simple reprise of his earlier success. Exploration requires a taste for the avant-garde and can be challenging for the casual listener. Which might also be said for much of Moncur’s music after Evolution. And just perhaps, is one of the reasons he has struggled to gain wider appreciation.

After high school, Grachan Moncur went on the road with the Ray Charles Big Band in 1959, a time he recalls fondly in later interviews. Leaving the band a couple of years later for health reasons, Moncur spent the next several months woodshedding and experimenting with other musicians. It was his friend, sax man Jackie McLean, who helped kick-start a journey of musical exploration still underway, Moncur now 79 years old. This turning point would be McLean’s 1963 Blue Note release One Step Beyond.

A Turning point for Moncur

Grachan Moncur - McClean One Step BeyondBoth McLean and Moncur were working to stretch beyond hard bop, yet perhaps without really thinking so much about just being different, as often suggested. Moncur recalls in an All About Jazz interview from 2003: “…when Jackie called me (about playing on One Step Beyond), he happened to call me on the same night that I had finished writing “Frankenstein” and “Ghost Town.” Moncur was also spending a lot of time jamming with vibes great, Bobby Hutcherson, who in turn had recently been playing with John Coltrane. Perhaps at Moncur’s suggestion, Hutcherson also appeared on One Step Beyond, his first time to record with McLean as well. The invitation to Grachan Moncur was, in fact, a gutsy move on McLean’s part.

Though McLean had first recorded as a leader in 1956, by 1963 he had around 20 albums to his credit. But the release of One Step Beyond was intended to live up to its title by allowing McLean to explore new ideas. Beyond choosing to record with a couple of relatively unknown players – and using Moncur’s edgy compositions for two of the four cuts – McLean was also experimenting by adding a vibraphone instead of a piano. With Tony Williams on drums and Eddie Khan on bass, this quintet swings hard, though clearly more so with the compositions of Moncur than those of McLean.

Evolving outside of the Mainstream

A few months later, given an opportunity to record under his own name on Blue Note, Grachan Moncur was explicit about his intentions with Exploration, demonstrated by the composition of both music and band. Other than the addition of Lee Morgan on trumpet and Bob Cranshaw instead of Khan on bass, the band remained the same. And the music continued to move toward a sound that could not be confused as simply variations on hard bop themes. Moncur had this to say about Evolution: “I had no thoughts in my mind of this being revolutionary. I thought the way I named the album Evolution, I was thinking of the music evolving from the mainstream.”

Grachan Moncur - Some Other StuffGrachan Moncur’s follow up album the next year, Some Other Stuff, saw a new, tighter line-up with heavy-hitters Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock joining Cecil McBee on bass and only Tony Williams remaining from the Evolution session. With the first track, Gnostic, the distance traveled between Moncur’s work on One Step Ahead and Some Other Stuff, is obvious. Listening to Wayne Shorter’s 1965 release, The All Seeing Eye, Moncur’s presence, if not his influence, abounds. Interestingly, the two had played together during Shorter’s college career in the band of Nat Phipps in Newark.

And it should be noted that Lee Morgan was also interested in stretching out, but was hampered by his unexpected popular success with the crossover pop hit Sidewinder, recorded a month after the Evolution session. Morgan reportedly commented that he considered the work with Moncur to be more advanced than his albums around the same time. Just prior to his senseless death eight years later at age 33, Morgan demonstrates his continued efforts to find new directions for his music. Morgan’s final album, The Last Sessions, was the only one to feature his longtime friend Grachan Moncur III.

Grachan Moncur’s Legacy

Grachan Moncur - Jazz of Physics BookColtrane and Ornette Coleman, among others, created jazz for audiences looking to be challenged. And while their avant-garde and free jazz works are inspirational beyond jazz circles – just check out the terrific new book The Jazz of Physics by Stephon Alexander – this music arguably remains an acquired taste. It might be that Moncur moved forcefully enough away from mainstream jazz too early in his career, finding himself in a spot where there just wasn’t enough audience to go around. His free jazz playing with fellow trombonist Roswell Rudd and one-time Coltrane sideman Archie Shepp did more for their careers than his.

Ironically, despite the accolades for his two comeback albums in 2004 and 2007, Grachan Moncur III remains most often remembered for his playing with straight-ahead players in the early 1960’s like McLean and The Jazztet. With both Evolution and Some Other Stuff still easily available, this is a trip down memory lane sure to offer up some new paths to explore.

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Yes, jazz can be fun, too.

At one point there were a half-dozen women from the audience were dancing with the two professional dancers who were part of the show. A couple of little kids were also playing along on a tambourine and mariachis. Punctuating all this movement was pianist Jason Moran wearing a huge paper-mache mask of Fats Waller with a big grin and sleepy eyes. It was without a doubt one of the most memorable straight ahead jazz shows I’ve ever attended.

The only downside to the Fats Waller mask was that I never did clearly hear the names of the band members, and only later learned the line-up included bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Charles Haynes. A bit of a surprise was the appearance of a dancer, who’s first appearance left me a bit confused since she, and later a second dancer, didn’t seem to be dancing in sync with the music.

Only when she reappeared during a song featuring just Moran on piano and his drummer did I finally understand what she was doing. During a particularly aggressive drum solo the woman began to move in a way that made it obvious she was playing her body like a musical instrument. The interaction between the dancer and the drummer was a sight to behold.

About half the songs featured vocals by Lisa Harris, plus a number where Leron Thomas set aside his trumpet and sang a deep, barrel-chested blues. One of the many magical moments during this show, again at the Carver, were the amazing arrangements of old standards that were, for all intent and purposes, unrecognizable. The music was terrific, the playing energetic and the show full of fun.

As I’ve complained in the past about the lack of showmanship typical of “serious” jazz performances, Moran’s playful vibe was a delight. Just before the encore started Jim turned to me and said, “This is the best show we’ve seen.” Agreed – and a great model for making jazz come alive.

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What does the audience want?

The fourth time I caught the SF Jazz Collective in concert, it was one of the best. Opening with a medley of classics from Wayne Shorter and McCoy Tyner, and including a powerful arrangement of “Crystal Silence” for the entire eight-piece band, they closed strong with “Song for My Father.”

So this additional part of my conversation should be understood in the context of the review of the Peter White show, discussed below: More reflections on the difference between just playing live music and providing entertainment.

From the first number, the band members where wandering, seemingly aimlessly, around the stage. Which makes their ability to suddenly appear perfectly synced at every play point all the more impressive. There was laughter, banter, grooving to the music, yet it also left an impression of a mild disregard for the audience. That many people in the audience had dressed up for what they seemed to consider a special occasion was all the more noticeable in light of the casual band attire. Yes providing a view of the bass solo mentioned below was appreciated, how things are done also impresses.

I was reminded of one of the saddest moments in my long history of attending live shows. It was during the second SF Jazz concert I attended, and toward the end of the performance when one of my all-time favorites, in mid-song, looked at his wristwatch wistfully. “When would the concert be over?” his attitude messaged. Perhaps the issue is that the expectations for catching a show at the Village Vanguard or Blue Note in New York encourages a bit of laid back. After all, the audience is sitting cheek-by-jowl with the performers. An auditorium venue is, perhaps, less appropriate for casual attitudes.

While the trend to wear stylish suits back in the 40’s and 50’s sometimes feels a bit awkward when looked at from today’s vantage point, nobody can deny how good Miles Davis and other like-minded bands appeared. At the other end of the spectrum is the contrast of seeing Pat Metheny in concert live, but more particularly the video of “The Way Up” recorded in Korea. While the dress was casual, the lack of movement unrelated to playing an instrument stands in stark contrast to many of the shows I’ve seen over the last year, or so. The seriousness with which Metheny and his bands takes their playing is almost hypnotic.

Leaving the theatre, “Crystal Silence” was the song I heard being discussed most, and I’ll finish with some upbeat comments about that. Having seen this classic song by Chick Corea and Gary Burton performed live a few years back at the Portland Jazz Festival, the version played Saturday was a magical study in contrast. The horn section provided a special flavor while Warren Wolf on vibes did Burton justice. But pride of place goes to bassist Matt Penman – wow, what a solo. We can only hope when a compilation of the best from this tour is released on disc, this performance is included. And, hey, Neal, thanks for the Steely Dan tip – “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” indeed.

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“Where was the improvisation?”

There is a note below about the Souza show, and the Dr. Lonnie Liston Smith performance was a beautiful run of long, deep grooves (both at the Carver in San Antonio). And now we’ve seen Peter White, an early heavy weight in the smooth jazz arena that followed a career in pop music whose highlights included playing with Al Stewart (where I last saw him perform live). It was a very good show.

The intro act was a young trumpet player, Gabriel Johnson, clearly influenced by Miles Davis and the source of much spirited debate that evening. There were four of us at the show, all with an appreciation for both traditional jazz as well as the smoother variety. After Johnson finished his set, the first question posed was, “Where was the improvisation?” There were solos, but no improvisations. This thread of conversation wove through the evening’s performances. Yeah, where was the stuff that doesn’t fit on a checklist? There wasn’t any. This didn’t make the show any better or worse, just obviously different from the other two we’ve seen this year.

And this, we agreed, was due to this being a “show” and not a concert. Which likely speaks to the headwinds causing the popularity of traditional jazz to slow precipitously. The Peter White show was a near sell-out, making a comparison to the two concerts at the Carver something of an embarrassment. Both offered brilliant musicianship and terrific music. Yet with Johnson and White, the audience was offered an awful lot of familiar pop tunes performed to a jazz cadence with a bright light show and – my only complaint with the evening – far too many opportunities to “sing along” with old favorites like Roberta Flack’s classic, Feel Like Makin’ Love. It was a carefully choreographed performance, not unlike a rock concert.

But it can’t just be that the songs were more familiar in the smooth venue. Souza, in particular, also played some well-known music. As did Miles Davis throughout his career, covering music from Porgy and Bess to Michael Jackson. And Miles was well represented in the set played by Gabriel Johnson, including a number from, well, Porgy and Bess. The difference between Souza and Johnson simply came down to a script. Souza’s band left the sheet music on the ground and played long segments of well-worn music that was not easily recognizable. Nobody colored outside of the lines at the Peter White show. There is room for both styles of jazz, but we shouldn’t underestimate just how different they really are.

In the end, it would seem the current crop of jazz aficionados aren’t so interested in being challenged when listening to music. During my time managing a jazz radio station, I experienced two uncomfortable realities. The first was the majority of the jazz musicians I interacted with – both local and national – had a very cavalier attitude about the audience. There was a distinct tendency for the artist to expect the audience to appreciate whatever moved them during a performance. To the point that I had to remind musicians during performances they were not playing the flavor of music that had been advertised.

Perhaps more importantly, a majority of listeners at the jazz station wanted to hear what they already knew and liked – or at least something familiar. This flies in the face of how so much great jazz was originally conceived. There are those who argue that the decline of jazz began when individual players began to take precedence over music where the orchestra ruled. Sorry, I don’t agree, or appreciate that we seem to have come full circle.

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