Sunday, 24 July 2011

Grachan Moncur III - New Africa

Grachan Moncur III, Roscoe Mitchell, Dave Burrell, Alan Silva, Andrew Cyrille (plus Archie Shepp on one track). Recorded August 11, 1969 in Paris.

For whatever reason, trombonist Moncur's discography has remained sparse, and, though he played sporadically through the '80s (with Cassandra Wilson and others) and has recorded a couple of albums since the turn of the millennium, one feels a sense of loss at the fact that a unique compositional voice was never given the space to develop into further areas. As a sideman, he lent his talents to a number of late-60s free jazz albums (in particular, those of Archie Shepp), but, fine as his contributions are, his is not the dominant voice that it was on his own recordings, and those of Jackie McLean. And that's because Moncur as improviser is only part of the story - his writing is not a mere adjunct to the business of getting down and `blowing free', but a crucial part of his entire aesthetic (something one also senses about his sometime collaborator Alan Shorter). In terms of his own music, then, what we have are the eerie, superbly atmospheric Blue Note dates (the quartet of `Evolution' and `Some Other Stuff' under his own leadership, `One Step Beyond' and `Destination....Out!' under that of Jackie McLean), and the often attractive, but more formulaic modal/African-inspired dates (the two albums he cut for BYG in 1969, and `Echoes of a Prayer', a collaboration with the Jazz Composers' Orchestra recorded five years down the line).

`New Africa' is the first of the BYGs, and the seventeen-minute titular track gets things under way. It's listed as a suite in four movements (a bit like 'Echoes of a Prayer'); in that case, the first 'movement' is the opening, slowly pulsing ostinato figure sounded in unison by Dave Burrell's left hand and Alan Silva's bass, with Burrell plucking out grave, mid-register chords on top. The entrance of Moncur's trombone two minutes in signals the second movement, and the two main melodies of the piece (which serve as more traditional `heads' in Archie Shepp's rendition, with Moncur, released on 'Kwanza'). The tempo quickens, Cyrille laying out sparkling, regular time on his cymbals, as the trombonist takes his solo. Given the propensity for slow, moody compositions he'd displayed on his mid-60s collaborations with Jackie McLean, it's no surprise that he relishes the space afforded by the steady rhythm-section foundation; with Burrell's on-the-beat chords and Cyrille's cymbals, he's able to tease out and develop phrases in an almost leisurely fashion - often, simple melodies that might have come from folk-songs (and indeed, he went on to record traditional Brazilian tunes on 'One Morning I Waked Up Very Early', ten days after the sessions for this album.) The problem with such a regular and reliable back-drop is that it's easy for the attention to wander; and, whereas Mal Waldron's trio recordings from the same period (such as `Free at Last' and `Spanish Bitch') take the approach to its logical conclusion, everything put at the service of the riff, dark and drawn-out, deliberate and packed with tension, with soloing as such taking more of a back-seat, here, the ostinato approach threatens to overwhelm the solos - in particular, those of Moncur, but also those of Roscoe Mitchell (who plays here in a much more `inside' fashion that one might expect from his work elsewhere, with a smooth yet piquant tone). Even in Burrell's spot, where the repeated chords momentarily let up for more linear melodic playing, things are hampered by the deliberately limited harmonic framework, which spurs the development (or lack of) of some rather aimless and, frankly dull material, with the pianist seeming to simply plonk his way up and down the instrument according to pre-set formula, rather than expressive need. The locked-in nature of the repetitive material means that it's very easy for things to meander, to drift, a problem I also find with some of Shepp's work from this period (`Coral Rock' being a prime example, as Alan Shorter's harmonically-distinctive composition and solo is bludgeoned by relentlessly hammering piano work); one senses, most of all, that it restrains Burrell, one of the most diverse and capable of free jazz players, into an unrewarding supporting role. And, while in some ways it opens up space for the horn players, it also closes down any possibility of silences or pauses in the music as a whole.

That said, there are benefits to the approach, as demonstrated on the next track, which, at under half the length of `New Africa', doesn't risk becoming too loose or baggy. Hard, concise, lapidary, `Space Spy' conveys an impression of relentlessness, seriousness, a brooding and oppressive atmosphere in which repetition is the spur of tension and uncertainty rather than familiarity and comfort. Burrell stabs out a two-note motif, like rumbling morse code, freeing up Cyrille to play more colouristically, while Moncur explores gnomic, almost fragmentary dissonances that share harmonic territory with, of all people, the film composer Jerry Fielding, who scored a number of Sam Peckinpah films in the '70s. `Exploration', as its title implies, is the `freest' track on the record; another menacing low-end melody gives way to a period of collective soloing that finds Moncur and Mitchell initially, elusively, suggesting the clock-tower chimes best known to those from the UK as the `Play Up Pompey' chant sung by fans of Portsmouth City, FC. The horns and Burrell then proceed to riff off each other, picking up, varying, developing and discarding each other's melodic figures in a sometimes sprightly, sometimes deliberately lugubrious fashion.

Another unison melody opens `When', this time more simple, song-like and hopeful, the sort of material that could easily be turned into a collective chant, perhaps at a civil-rights rally. Archie Shepp joins the band on tenor sax, and one remembers just how much spark and fizz his playing had during the 60s: the extension of pauses to create tension and uncertainty; the sudden re-entrances in a blurring, blarting blast (what Ekkerhard Jost called `staccatoed legato'); the use of particular forms of tonguing, slurring, notes trailing away after that initial fortissimo impact; the combination of languor and passion, romanticism and fury, sometimes within the same phrase; the timbral reminiscences of Ben Webster or Jonny Hodges tied to the multiphonic innovations of Johns Gilmore and Coltrane, sliding between smoothness and acidic sharpness. Moncur, for his part, blows some delicious, voice-like high notes that seem to pre-echo Mitchell's bleats, trills, and smooth melodicism, and Shepp ends the piece with some beautiful supporting harmonics that make his tenor sound almost like a flute.

In sum, though the occasional longuers mean that `New Africa' lacks the cutting-edge possessed by Moncur's work on Blue Note, and if there's a sense of opportunity missed (imagine a record that explored the collective improvised territory of `Exploration' throughout), it nonetheless remains an attractive and worthwhile album overall: certainly, an important stop-off point for those who wish to understand the trajectory of Moncur's career, and the late 60s free/modal scene in general.

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