Grachan Moncur IIINew Africa
Released 1969 on BYG/Actuel
Reviewed by aether, 16/09/2010ce
Of the myriad instruments within the lexicon of jazz, it has to be said, the one that draws the focus of my own scepticism is the trombone. Simply too ‘trad’ I had thought, featured much more in the big-band and traditional jazz ‘mainstreams’ than the radical ‘fusion’ and ‘free’ sub-stratums of modern jazz experimentalism. For me, the trombone had long been the sound of ‘cartoon-jazz,’ stereotypical and orthodox: the sound one heard in one’s mind when Marilyn Monroe’s skirt blew up over her knee-cap, or, at the very least, reminiscent of Glenn Miller’s In the fucking Mood (No I'm not Glen, not after hearing that thank you very much!!). Certainly a key instrumental colour in terms of orchestrated large-scale arrangements, very rarely had I heard it successfully deployed as a solo or leading instrument.
Grachan Moncur III soon put paid to all that! A minor (AND TRULY UNSUNG!!!) figure in sixties and early-seventies jazz, it was via my interest in the BYG Actuel label, that I first happened upon his work. Due to some of the label's unnecessarily excessive free jazz exponents, it was with caution (and often a test play), that I would venture into buying anything on BYG. Coming across Moncur’s second LP for the label, aco dei de madrugada (1969), I was surprised to hear a beautiful, poignantly cool, but still swinging, Latin-Afro-Jazz LP, that engaged with other ‘World music’ instrumental elements, and a gentler free jazz approach to composition, arrangement and harmonic structure, that chimed in accord with some of Don Cherry’s late 60s and ealry 70s work. More pointedly, the trombone was Moncur’s lead instrument, and with it he heads up his BYG LPs with a melancholy air and coolness of timbre and that only the aforementioned Cherry, and Miles Davis can match, in my opinion. Strong claims, I know, but Moncur’s trombone playing, at times, really does achieve that formidable languid poise and enriched delicate mournfulness that Miles, at his most ennui-ridden, reaches. His LP’s (released over a 15-year period), offer a glimpse into a truly unsung jazz poet, and make a virtue of one of the most awkward, cumbersome and stereotypical of jazz instruments. It also documents what is, in retrospect, a true alchemical and magical, healing process.
New Africa (BYG Actuel, 1969)
At the height of the free jazz movement, many exponents of the style who had come of age under the alluring shadow of the holy trinity of 'Saint' John, Coleman and Mingus (Cherry, Shepp, Braxton, Dolphy, Tchicai, Waldron et al.) relocated to Paris in the late sixties, given the warm welcome and respect offered there, which contrasted greatly with the frosty reception free jazz garnered from most critics in America. One of those people was trombonist, Grachan Moncur III, who had already released two LP’s as band leader on Blue Note - Evolution (1963) and Some Other Stuff (1964). After participating in many seminal jazz recordings of the 1960s - with the likes of Jackie McClean and Lee Morgan - Moncur relocated to the continent as part of Archie Shepp’s extended company of free jazz ’exiles,’ where BYG supremos Jean Georgakarakos (usually known as "Karakos"), Jean-Luc Young and Fernand Boruso, gave Moncur the chance at another date as leader. The ensuing sessions would birth two LPS - New Africa and Aco De Dei Madrugada (both 1969).
New Africa begins with the huge four-movement, title-suite, ‘New Africa,’ a 17 and-a-half-minute master class in structured ‘cool,’ spiritual jazz aesthetics and semi-improvisational playing that displays an emotional warmth rarely found in this particular arena. ‘Part 1: Queen Tamam’ opens with a woozy ostinato in the bass and pianos, a slow lugubrious (and very mystical) groove that forms out of an ancient mist; somehow neat-but-ramshackle drum riff clatters about, and the atmosphere concocted from the start is very afro-centric and spiritual - ritualistic mood music for the modern savage! It is absolutely fantastic and very affecting, a venerable tribute or prayer, in musical form, to some long forgotten deity. The phrase returns throughout the piece as ghostly minor-key piano chords are added here and there. Similarities could be drawn with McCoy Tyner in particular, the slow beckoning riffs of Kohntarkosz-era Magma maybe (Vander obviously gobbled up the BYG/Paris sessions in the wake of Coltrane’s death looking for new takes on what JC had started), and, overall, Coltrane‘s earlier sixties material.
In comes the introductory riff for ‘Part 2: New Africa,’ as the two-note bass picks up into a trot, bumbling away tunefully in the background as Moncur’s soothing trombone offers a palliative for our modern angst, in the best way of the then-burgeoning Afro-Spiritual Jazz/World Fusion. Moncur’s first solo follows, full of little scurries up the scale, often syncopating with little phrases in the bass. The band really gets to swing on this part. Dave Burrell laying down lots of great monk like phases on ‘Part 3: Black Call’ - it all comes together with a repeat of the main theme and some remarkable drumming and cymbal work intermeshing with the wild edenic piccolo/flute playing for ‘Part 4: Ethiopian Market.’ McCoy Tyner's Asante or Extensions are similar touchstones.
Tension-filled side closer, ‘Space Spy’ could soundtrack a Sergio Leone-type gunfighters’ duel to the death - a hugely atmospheric two-note piano is constant throughout, like the beating of said gunfighter’s heart, whilst a lonesome Morricone-esque trumpet or trombone fills the pregnant air with Latin-type phrases (a musical flavour that would come centre stage for his next LP), With double basses rattling away in the low end and occasional shaken percussion, the piece always seems on the brink of exploding into a massive free jazz hoedown but (to its credit) never does, however, given this lack of variation, it is perhaps a little on the long side at just under seven minutes. Reminds me of Orhtodox’s recent direction actually.
‘Explorations’ sounds just like that, beginning with musical rush hour traffic skittish and skating about, held together (just!) by the fantastic be-bop type bass and cymbal pulse, as the brass provides blaring fog-horn emphases, and the piano skids about like a slack-pawed puppy dog, shooting about on a bed of ice. Its just the right side of ‘free’ for me, saved by the rhythm section really who give a fantastic performance throughout this 10 minute hard-bop monster! I’m sure there are lots of augmented ninths and compound time signatures going on here for the musos and technical-heads to appreciate. Personally, I’m all for the more atmospheric, cinematic and slightly more together take on free/afro-jazz that we have all over Side One.
Thankfully, Moncur returns to this on the opening moments of closing 12-minute track, ‘When’ which is a beautiful slow-paced swinger, replete with buoyant walking bass line, and a great sax solo by Archie Shepp which is Coltrane-d to the max! It’s a finger snapper alright, but also very experimental in certain respects - the tricky, stumbling drum patterns for example, and the extended brass solos which layer proper intense shrinking over lugubrious rhythms and a fulsome groove. Aligning, like some set of distant stars, from time to time, the track has the constant feel of Coltrane’s classical opening phrases for “Blue Train.” Gradually, the blowing gets harder and more intense, as the piano vamps away on the charted chords, sign posts for the increasingly wayward brass solos. Like most of the free jazz (ish) stuff I like - it is precisely that: free jazz (ISH), i.e. retaining enough shape and form overall to add to the power of this piece in particular, and the LP in general.