Tuesday 7 June 2022

Some Other Stuff: Grachan Moncur, III (1937-2022)

Image above: Grachan Moncur at New York's Vision Festival

Trombonist and composer Grachan Moncur, III, has passed away, the latest loss from the New Thing generation who came of age in the sixties, whose music opens up a world, worlds yet to be attained, makes them open and transparent, brilliant and glittering. Moncur’s work exemplifies the compositional—or, to put it more specifically, the structural: it’s ‘free’, in that it dispenses with, or at least treats as optional the logic of chord changes, but it’s not ‘energy music’; it’s focused on writing, on a composition as an atmosphere to be inhabited, rather than mere structure for blowing, but it’s infinitely more flexible than the stiffness of self-conscious ‘Third Stream’ experiments with the compositional. Brooding and filled with space, constructed on suspended drones or simple vamps, Moncur’s pieces are far from the stereotype of free jazz as energy, ecstasy, and volume. This is a music constructed around space, around absence, in which the careful, and often calculatedly askew placement of notes replaced a logic of momentum and virtuosity of bop, the functional drive of soul jazz, or the decorative restraint of Third Stream and cool jazz. Like the playing of Alan Shorter, of Andrew Hill, or of Mal Waldron—their interrupted vamps and riffs, their calculated mistakes and inscrutable equations—like the spaces between Thelonious Monk’s notes or the dissonant bur of his striking adjacent keys on the piano, Moncur’s music above all contains a core that refuses to reveal itself, an absent centre or central absence, a form of inner or hidden knowledge that initiates an inoculates and protects, that enables survival. Listening to Moncur, the ‘inside-outside’ binary has to be reconfigured: this is music that at one moves ‘out’, in terms of harmonic possibility and liberation from fixed changes—while by no means rejecting them per se—and moves ‘inward’, in the sense of a contemplative inwardness. Moncur, as William Parker would later say, looks for the centre of each note, looks for the silence around it, too: plays only what’s necessary, no filigree, no decoration. Destination...Out! proclaimed the title to a Jackie McLean album for which Moncur’s contributions were pivotal. But outness—McLean’s destination, Sun Ra’s outer space, Dolphy’s Out to Lunch—had its corollary in Moncur’s work in inner space—Inner Cry Blues, as the title to a later album had it. 

Moncur came from the same thriving music scene in Newark, New Jersey, that produced the Shorter brothers, organist Larry Young, trumpeter Woody Shaw. He grew up in a musical family, of Caribbean heritage: his father, Grachan Moncur, II, played bass with swing ensemble The Savoy Sultans at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom; his mother’s best friend was Sarah Vaughan. Low sounds drew his ear: he began on cello, then switched to trombone. He began playing as a teenager, studied at a private musical school, and moved onto Juilliard before having to drop out due to high tuition fees, subsequently touring as Ray Charles’ music director for three years. Energetic hard bop groups were in vogue thanks to Art Blakey: fellow Newarker Wayne Shorter would join Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and push Blakey further out as he took his first steps towards participating in the reinvention of the music. Moving, like Blakey, Larry Young and other fellow Newarkers, to New York, Moncur’s first post-Ray Charles gig saw him part of a Blakey-like sextet, the Jazztet, co-led by Art Farmer and Benny Golson, Moncur contributing compositions including his trademark ‘Sonny’s Back’, a celebration of Sonny Rollins’ return to playing after his infamous retirement. Within the Jazztet, their music a balance between the sound and fury of Blakey and the more measured, distanced sounds of cool jazz, Moncur can be heard finding his voice: the trombone precise and limber, in the manner of J.J. Johnson, but with a pensive openness to it even at higher tempi.


The Jazztet had offered efficient, pleasing post-bop—a kind of synthesis of existing trends which offered structure and balance. The real breakthrough, however, came when he joined forces with altoist Jackie McLean with whom he’d played as a teenager sitting in with touring groups in Newark. McLean, of an earlier generation, was coming out of bebop into freer-influenced playing and Moncur was there with him. In 1963, they recorded three albums together: One Step Beyond and Destination...Out appeared under McLean’s name, Evolution under Moncur’s own. To this day there is nothing quite like these albums. As well as its more profitable line in soul jazz and boogaloo stylings, Blue Note Records had become the home for what would be known as ‘free-bop’ or ‘inside-outside’ playing: Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch, Andrew Hill’s Black Fire and Point of Departure, the first records of the teenage Tony Williams, the mid-sixties work of Larry Young. This music took an emotional quality found both in cool jazz and hard bop—the melancholic, even mordant sounds of a McLean or a Mal Waldron, in which melodrama and emotional insularity are each other’s mirror reflections, the astringent manoeuvres of a Sonny Rollins—added the spaciousness of Thelonious Monk, and went somewhere else again. But it wasn’t so much a synthesis of trends as an opened fissure in a world of certainty, genre, categorisation—a world suggested even by the coordinates of names and references I’ve just outlined. It’s a music that lends itself to adjectives: brooding, melancholic, mysterious, even minimalist. Such work didn’t oppose bop, didn’t oppose cool jazz, though it went beyond the limitations into which both sets of stylings had arguably by this period moved; likewise, it supplemented and contrasted the more ecstatic stylings of the post-Ayler continuum as a necessary undercurrent, sidestepping down an alternative path, though deriving from the same source. 

At the turn of the decade, Ornette Coleman had removed the piano, opening up the harmonic possibilities beyond the changes; McLean and Moncur replaced piano with vibraphone, its combination of shimmering sustain and percussive attack, in the hands of Bobby Hutcherson, offering another set of possibilities: a cushioning and probing at once rhythmic as harmonic or melodic, and a timbre at once crisper and more ambiguously floating than that of the piano. One Step Beyond—for which I named a student radio show a decade or so ago—has two compositions apiece by McLean and Moncur. McLean’s ‘Saturday and Sunday’ and ‘Blue Rondo’ suggest one vibe—exploratory, cool, open—Moncur’s ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Ghost Town’ another: the clipped medium temp of ‘Frankenstein’, a kind of swinging march or lope towards the unknown, ‘Ghost Town’ radically slowed, inward, lugubrious, sinister. A simple descending scale, blown in Moncur’s attack-free legato over Hutcherson’s vibratoed vibraphone descends to a bass burr or leaps up an octave in a kind of contained panic. Eddie Khan’s bass carries the rhythmic weight, Tony Williams’ drums are barely there: before the tempo shift for McLean’s oddly jaunty solo, he offers little more than single cymbal strokes, a playing conspicuous by the absences its leaves as the presence it fills. On Destination....Out, recorded at the year’s end, all but one of the tracks—Mclean’s dedication to Kahlil Gibran, ‘Kahlil the Prophet’—are by Moncur: ‘Love and Hate’ opens the album, followed by ‘Esoteric’, and closing off with ‘Riff Raff’, a piece he’d play onstage in the production of James Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie. ‘Love and Hate’ remains to this listener perhaps the group’s greatest ever recording, a lengthy melody played with exquisite slowness over a simple chordal figure in vibraphone, the spacious setting allowing the contrast in styles between the two horns to reveal itself to the full. Moncur plays the melody first, from the core of its inward focus, before McLean’s alto produces a sour blaze of light: inside-outside, shadow-light, chiaroscuro. ‘Esoteric’ is more self-consciously maze-like, something from The Twilight Zone, ‘Riff Raff’ jaunty, defiant, swinging, its march-style dynamics suggesting the lope of ‘Frankenstein’ or Andrew Hill’s ‘Les Noirs Marchant’. The following year, the piece would make its way to the stage as part of Moncur’s contribution to James Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie, on which more presently.


Evolution was Moncur’s first record under his own name, adding Lee Morgan to the basic quintet format. It’s an album of two halves: misterioso tone pictures, in the first half, a move somewhat closer to post-bop in the second. The opener, ‘Air Raid’ is not exactly programmatic, despite its title: the vibraphone trills with which it opens suggesting a generalized figure of suspension, waiting, pause, over which Moncur blows inscrutable truths in light-dark, dialectical relation to the B-section’s double-time swing. ‘Evolution’—its title suggesting Mingus’ tone poem ‘Pithecanthropus Erectus’, on which McLean had participated the previous decade—opens with droning, gently dissonant held notes punctuated by more suppressed martial rolls on the snare; the sound of the three horns getting inside the sound, interrogating what ensemble sounds like. McLean comes in over the top, somewhere between preaching and questioning; by the time Moncur’s solo comes round a few minutes later, it’s unclear if what’s offered is consolation, desolation, or some other affect entirely. The other pole comes on the closing track, the joyously sideways march of ‘Monk in Wonderland’: through the looking glass, down the rabbit hole, bop surrealism as cohesion, moving ahead, together. The feel of Moncur’s music at this time is suggested by the titles to his piece—‘The Intellect’, Gnostic’, ‘Nomadic’, ‘Esoteric’: an intellectual otherness, a pursuit of knowledge by other means, in other directions, Some Other Stuff. This is a music that moves between places without fixed abode, the mind wandering, errant and introspective, moving in to go out. Monk had opened up the spaces in the music with his sparsely placed notes and pungent dissonances; players like Moncur followed further down that route; tempos were often slow, notes placed into the space like stones in a rock garden, in expansively condensed dramas of scale and shade whose contours were, deliberately, closed to the fetishized world of performance and display. This music refused to let out all its secrets; this was the ‘cool’ that had given the name to ‘cool jazz’ but unlike the stereotyped image of tragic glamour associated with the likes of white musicians such as Chet Baker, this was about a kind of strength rather than a performed weakness, a quiet resolve and inward satisfaction; the inwardness, as Moncur suggests in the liner notes to Some Other Stuff, necessary to survive in the city, on the move; but also a space of discovery, of an alternative—perhaps even utopian—to society as it was and is currently constituted. In this time of struggle, musical and political ,people would need all their inner resources as well as their external ones in order to survive. But, despite its introspection, it was also a music about communication. Moncur perhaps worked best with a more exuberant musicians to play off: the telepathic interplay and contrast between Moncur and the sweet-sharp alto of Jackie McLean; or, later, his contrast to Roswell Rudd in Archie Shepp’s band. Moncur’s music of this period was so effective because the musicians he played with were equally interested in opening up the idea of how a jazz group worked, of the lines between ‘frontline’ and ‘rhythm section’, of how you built space, constructed narrative, moved from straight line to ellipsis. 

In April 1964, Moncur III took an acting job in the Broadway production of James Baldwin’s provocative and today neglected play Blues for Mister Charlie. The acting gig in the three-hour production meant that he could use the time between his appearances to go backstage and rehearse the pieces he’d written for an upcoming studio session for Blue Note, the results of which would be released the following year as the album Some Other Stuff. Moncur also played an important role in the play, serving as understudy for minor parts, and playing a townsperson who delivered a solo performance on trombone. An interview feature in Down Beat early the following year fills in the details: 
“When I got the call to audition,” he said, “my emotions were mixed—a jazz musician, being confronted with a situation on the Broadway stage. I assumed that I’d have to play something ‘stiff’ for the audition, but to my amazement, they wanted to hear my own music. I played for [director] Burgess Meredith, and he was quite receptive. First I played Frankenstein and laid back a little...He liked it but asked to hear more. When I played Riff Raff, I really opened up, and he was gassed...I had expected a stiff, professional job—nothing more. As it turned out, my judgment couldn’t have been more in error [...] The show really involved me and became my most serious obligation” [...] 

Underlying almost all Moncur’s reflections one notices an almost compulsive need to come to grips with the everyday world. For this the tragic insight of Baldwin's play served as fertile ground. The challenge to create music about a deranged social action became more than a mere mechanical exercise; it had a therapeutic effect. 

Blues for Mr. Charlie was a demanding job because I was playing alone,” Moncur said. “If I goofed, there was no rhythm section to pick me up. I had to blend with the mood and pitch of the actors—every nuance—every inflection. 

When the theatre was empty, I would go there and practice. I’d try to project my tone to every point in the house—inch by inch. The acoustics were my only support, and I had to know every phase of the reverberation... The mood of the stage was always changing, and if I wasn’t absolutely flexible, the whole performance could be ruined. If you don’t think that’s a responsibility, try it.” 

[‘Flexible Grachan Moncur’, Down Beat, Jan 28, 1965: 15] 
This aloneness suggests something of Moncur’s music: music as reflective supplement to the social action dramatized on the stage in the next-door theatre, honed and sharpened within the sound-proof space of the rehearsal room, constructing spaces for and around itself. The play itself opens with the sound of mourning from the church, Baldwin writing, in his words, to the accompaniment of “my black ancestors, who evolved the sorrow songs, the blues and jazz, and created an entirely new idiom in an overwhelmingly hostile place”. Songs from Moncur’s former employer Ray Charles and Rufus Thomas played from a jukebox, along with Folkways recordings of work songs; Moncur played onstage as a kind of choric figure, his music swelling underneath the memories of the central, martyred Richard, and his love for the music he plays. The music speaks for what cannot be spoken, the trauma of memory and the possibility of future action. Black music here is memory and defiance; communal repository, the “mighty witness” that enabled Baldwin to find a new language befitting he demands of his first play. 

No recordings exist of the 1964 staging, though a playbill notes that he played the pieces ‘Riff Raff’ and the otherwise unrecorded ‘Carissima’. We can, however, hear the record date for which he rehearsed. Though often neglected in comparison to the McLean collaborations, Some Other Stuff may turn out to be Moncur’s greatest work. As Moncur later told Adam Shatz
“That whole record was inspired by the hard times I was having in New York. I’d just fallen out with the first young lady I’d met in New York, and I’d moved out of my apartment in the Diplomat Hotel opposite Town Hall, which was the biggest mistake I ever made since I had a room there with a private bath and telephone for only $27 a week [...] I was a nomad after losing my room, and I was a gnostic because I had to survive in the streets by my own wits.’” 
The Down Beat profile commented on Moncur’s combination of “free acoustical structure”, with “specific harmonic design” as “an intimate extension into a new language”, and Some Other Stuff marked another step beyond even the music of the previous year. Blues for Mister Charlie marked a new departure for Baldwin—a turn to the public environment of the stage, influenced by his personal grief and fury at the murders of Medgar Evers and Emmett Till and by changing political currents. So, too, Moncur would soon participate in a wave of New Music that drew on but extended the music of bebop, often in avowed connection to political militancy. As well as that intellectual otherness I’ve named above, the names of Moncur’s pieces—‘Frankenstein’, ‘Riff Raf,’ ‘Space Spy, ‘New Africa’—suggest the confluence of a working-class identity and a conscious ‘weirdness’ or ‘outness’, or sense of dread, that Amiri Baraka noted as a key propensity in be-bop, and that also characterises the work of fellow Newark Alan Shorter, of Sun Ra, Earl Freeman, and many others. The pieces recorded on Some Other Stuff—‘Nomadic’, named for Moncur’s shifting housing situation, and ‘Gnostic’, the secret knowledge required to survive on the street—suggest at once a personal, introspective language and a common, classed experience. The ensemble might seem more conventional than that on the McLean records, with Hutcherson replaced by Herbie Hancock, but the album in fact radically extends their sense of space, in large part due to the astonishing flexibility of Tony Williams—then in his avant-garde phase, thanks to early work in Boston with Sam Rivers—and the openness of Hancock and Wayne Shorter, whose proclivity for free playing has gone too little remarked in surveys of his career. ‘Gnostic’, as Don Heckman’s liners note, “eliminated a pulsating meter”, Moncur’s questioning melodic fragments answered by doomy unison figures with Shorter’s tenor doubled by Hancock’s left hand as his right maintains a constant tolling, in a kind of desolate version of call and response. It’s an astonishing piece: a music that could go anywhere, in which contemplation also means expansion, a world in a grain of sand. ‘Thandiwa’ gestures toward new-found Afrocentricity, taking its name from Bantu language: Moncur’s jaunty, walking-marching pieces are given a sharp, joyful twist, ironized yet at peace. The solos invariably play with that melodic earworm; Shorter’s sharp keens and caresses, Moncur’s melodic musings, Hancock’s swirling triplets and single line, notes opening out like strings of pearls, Cecil McBee elegant and to the point. Opening the second side, ‘The Twins’ plays off a single chord: like Shorter’s later ‘Schizophrenia’, it plays with mirroring, doubleness, dialectic perhaps. Along with ‘Nomadic’—which predates Miles Davis’ ‘Nefertiti’ in serving as a feature for Williams’ drums—the focus here is on rhythm: not the propulsive, Afro-Cuban inflections of a Blakey or a Roach, but a kind of thinned-out, clipped maintenance of a constant tension. Hancock’s chords on ‘The Twins’ suggest the harmonic vocabulary of his own neglected Inventions and Dimensions; McBee, who at periods plays repeated notes in a high register, extends his bass like a high- or a live-wire. Rather than resolution, the point is a constant opening: to inhabit the space of the in-between, up and down, side to side, to sustain a dissonance and see where it goes, remain in the looping ambit of a rhythm; single lines, single notes, a sparse dialogue, an enigmatic conversation of elliptical exchange and give and take. 


Moncur was not overtly political as some of his peers, but had at least some involvement in the emergent Black Arts Movement activities of fellow Newarker Amiri Baraka. In March 1965, he led a group at New York’s The Village Gate, as part of a benefit concert for the newly-founded Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BART/S): also on the bill were Sun Ra, Betty Carter, the groups of John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, and Charles Tolliver. One track per group was included on the original Impulse! Records release entitled The New Wave in Jazz, Moncur’s entitled ‘Blue Free’; a second, much-longer piece, ‘The Intellect’, was first released on the Impulse double LP The New Breed: The Dedication Series Vol. VIII: Cecil Taylor/Charles Tolliver/Grachan Moncur/Archie Shepp (1978). To my knowledge, no other recordings of this group exist: the combined tracks, recorded in impeccable sound, represent almost a lost album. In some ways, we might see it as representing the ultimate stage of the ‘introverted’ tendency in Moncur’s playing represented, say, by the piece ‘Gnostic’ on Some Other Stuff: a hidden knowledge found deep inside the self through a press of isolation and contemplation, a defensive retreat into the self that is also a social affirmation of what it takes to survive in tight spaces and what expansive resources can be found there. Moncur’s music is the still centre of the swirl of sound around it: Ra’s Arkestra, entering its most experimental phase; Coltrane and the New Thing saxophonists; the life-force of Betty Carter’s post-bop vocal extensions. ‘The Intellect’ lasts over twenty minutes, and throughout is extremely slow, grave, engraved: a pause, an interlude, a call to arms, to peace, or to the abyss. With Cecil McBee spending much of the piece ruminative arco lines, Joe Chambers’ drums are often barely there, a perpetual flutter on cymbals with brushes like a kind of tremulous breathing. Bobby Hutcherson’s vibes offer a crisp counter-commentary, acidic and icy or shimmeringly lyrical, lights emerging from the haze; and Moncur solos with a sense of space rarely heard until the “silences big as a table” of the AACM, each note—often the same note repeated—considered from every angle, every possibility, before being sounded out again; like Coltrane’s polyvalent ‘sheets of sound’ but with the additional notes shorn away.The combination of a kind of static or stasis, of inscrutable gloom or wisdom, of brooding introspection—not the romantic openness or blueness of the traditional ballad, but something deeper, darker, existentially freighted and inscrutable, as if conveying or searching for some hidden meaning lost as soon as it’s uttered--as when the audience begin applauding too early, at least a minute before Moncur’s restatement of the main theme takes things out with the beautiful, solemn, terrible pace of a glacier; the soloist playing as if speaking alone, yet always in conversational tandem with the other musicians—it refuses to be anything other than it is. 


“These musicians change what is given and hopefully understood. What the normal feeling of adventure is [...] show you the music is changing before yr very ears,” wrote Amiri Baraka in the liner notes. Steve Young, music co-ordinator at BARTS, was more dramatic. For Young, the music conjured up: 
“the lands of Dada-Surreal a la Harlem, South Philly and dark Georgia nights after sundown, night-time Mau Mau attacks, shadowy figures out of flying saucers and music of the spheres [...] This music, even though it speaks of horrible and frightening things, speaks at the same time so perfectly about the heart and to the heart. This music, at the same time it contains pain and anger and hope, contains a vision of a better world yet beyond the present and is some of the most beautiful ever to come out of men’s soul or out of that form of expression called Jazz.” 
Following the Village Gate Benefit, Baraka remembered Moncur as one of the musicians, alongside Coltrane, Ayler, Ra, and McLean, who participated in the outdoor music programme the Black  Arts Repertory Theatre/School ran in Harlem that summer, in which the musicians would “play in playgrounds, housing projects, parks, vacant lots, along with four other trucks we sent out Summer of 65, carrying Poetry, Drama, Graphic Arts, Dance into the Harlem Community”. Moncur himself was not politically outspoken, but his next major collaborator was amongst the most politically outspoken of all the New Thing musicians: Archie Shepp. From around 1966 onwards, Moncur formed Archie Shepp’s phenomenal two-trombone band alongside Roswell Rudd: Rudd extroverted, satirical, Moncur a brooding heart at the centre of the storm. The albums from this period, with studio ensembles of various sizes, are unparalleled—Mama Too Tight, The Way Ahead—but it’s the live album from a European tour with a disgruntled Miles Davis, later released as One for the Trane: Life [sic] at The Donauschingen Music Festival where the music really takes off. (Radio broadcast recordings also exist of a gig in Rotterdam the same month, October, 1967, and a December gig in France, released as Freedom on a 1991 bootleg). While Shepp’s early work with Bill Dixon and the New York Contemporary Five emphasized sparse, Ornette Coleman-style heads and improvisations, exacerbated by the absence of chordal instrument, and his work with Bobby Hutcherson on New Thing at Newport and On This Night imparted a kind of sardonic cool to his flurries, his new music, likely under the influence of Roswell Rudd, now turned towards timbres more reminiscent of pre-swing jazz than of bop. The band’s key feature was its unusual two-trombone timbre—Rudd’s raucous upper-register blares contrasting with Moncur’s propensity for dark-toned, melancholic and menacing shades—and for its suite-like form, as Sousa marches, blues and standards emerged and disappeared from extended improvisations in long pieces that flowed without a break. Shepp later recalled the kinds of reception the band encountered. 
"We performed [...] one time in Paris at a big hall called the Salle Pleyel, where we followed Miles Davis. Now, Miles had gotten a standing ovation. This was in 1967, [soon] before the student rebellion in Paris. And so we came on, and we were shocking to look at: Roswell was wearing a baseball cap; I was wearing a dashiki. And there was this explosion of sound, cacophonous, and we only played one song, one long piece for about an hour and a half. [...] 

When we finished, contrary to Miles, there was an outcry of boos – oh, it was terrible. But up in the balcony — where all the young people were seated, in the cheap seats — everyone was cheering. So there was a standoff for about ten minutes between the boos and the cheers. And finally I was asked to do an encore; it was amazing. And the following year they had that student rebellion, so I guess it was an indication of things to come." 

Moncur in rehearsal with Archie Shepp, 1966. Photograph by Guy Kopelowicz.

In the summer of 1969, Moncur accompanied Shepp to the more conducive environment of the Pan African Festival in Algiers. Anticipating the trip, Moncur had written a piece entitled ‘New Africa’, which Shepp had recorded for an expanded group that February. Though the recordings would not be issued for another five years—eventually appearing on the unjustly-neglected Kwanza—they’re among Shepp’s finest, Moncur’s enormous spaces turned to the expanded future so many saw unfolding on the African continent, calling across to those other cities of Algiers from the inner cry of New York’s inner city with clarion certainty and turbulent purpose. In Algiers, Moncur played with Touareg musicians, on the streets and on a boxing ring converted into a stage: though he can often barely be heard on the lo-fi recordings of Live at the PanAfrican Festival, the experience was crucial to all involved. Interviewed by Algerian newspaper El Moudjahid, Shepp affirms jazz as a weapon in the popular struggle. For Moncur, though, music is just music. “Music and politics are two very different things. Music is spiritual, politics is, if you like, material. There may be some rapport between them, but they are two distinct things”. (My translation) Afrocentricity and a wide-open experimentation both the atmosphere of Algiers and of post-May ’68 Paris nonetheless suffuses the recordings the members of Shepp’s group would make for BYG Records on departing Algiers. Recording everyone and everything, while hardly paying anyone, the BYG sessions are an invaluable document, despite the business practices of the label’s owners. Moncur appears amidst the dense ensemble textures of Alan Silva’s Luna Surface and Dave Burrell’s Echo, two of the loudest free jazz recordings ever made; by contrast, his featured role on Burrell’s La Vie de Boheme, an instrumental adaptation of Puccini’s opera, sees his trombone replaces operatic voices with a kind of measured, mournful cool, and contains perhaps the sweetest playing of his career. 


 The two albums recorded under his own name are fresh takes on the introspective spaces from earlier in the decade. For the first of the sessions, Moncur’s New Africa, three members of the Algiers quintet—Moncur, Silva and Burrell—are joined by Andrew Cyrille and Roscoe Mitchell, with Shepp appearing on the final track. The pieces tend to operate on vamps, repeating figures, slowly pulsing ostinatos, over which Moncur teases out and develop simple, leisurely melodies, their cast suggesting something of the various ‘folk’ musics he might have heard in Paris or Algiers. His second BYG album, Aco Dei De Madrugada (One Morning I Waked Up Very Early), would indeed, feature Brazilian singer/pianist Fernando Martins and drummer Nelson Serra De Castro, the record divided between Moncur originals and arrangements of Brazilian traditional songs. Mitchell, meanwhile, functions in a kind of update of the Jackie McLean role: his alto thinner and, if anything, even more sour than that of McLean, his playing relatively restrained compared to the stream of notes he would unleash with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, he offers tonal contrast to Moncur, the lyricism of his playing delivered with a timbral sharpness that gives it a piquant clarity. The title track, here recast as a suite, again bursts with the sense of possibility, of wide-open space; hard, concise and lapidary, ‘Space Spy’, by contrast, 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, as Burrell stabs out a two-note motif, like rumbling morse code, while Moncur explores gnomic, fragmentary dissonances. ‘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 clock-tower chimes. The horns and Burrell then proceed to riff off each other, picking up, varying, developing and discarding each others’ 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. The temperature boils up when Shepp joins on tenor: the extension of pauses to create tension and uncertainty; the sudden re-entrances in a blurring, blarting blast; 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 John Gilmore and John Coltrane, sliding between smoothness and acidic sharpness. Moncur follows, blowing some delicious, voice-like high notes that seem to pre-echo Mitchell’s bleats, trills, and smooth melodicism, and Shepp ends the piece with fluttering harmonics that seem to momentarily transform his tenor into a flute. 


As well as playing in Shepp’s live group, around this time, Moncur and Burrell joined with drummer Beaver Harris and saxophonist Roland Alexander to form a group entitled the 360 Degree Music Experience. Though they wouldn’t record for several more years, footage of an early live appearance with poet-vocalist Bazzi Bartholomew Grey has recently surfaced online the humour in Moncur’s music illustrated by his exchanging duck calls with Grey on ‘Blues for Donald Duck’. Here was the ‘inside-outside’ sound of the time: repetitive vamps, extended solos, a steadiness and optimism more extroverted than the earlier, ‘gnostic’ recordings.


Moncur’s playing still had that burnished tone, that sense of space, but to different means. The results can be heard to the full in what was perhaps the summit of his achievement, the album Echoes of a Prayer, one of a series made by the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra and released on the JCO label in 1975. Opening with a trombone prelude, Moncur’s album-length suite is organised on that repeat: ‘Reverend King’s Wings’, ‘Medgar’s Menace’, ‘Garvey’s Ghost [Space Station]’, ‘Angela’s Angel’, and ‘Right On’, separated by a drum transitions, featuring Congolese drummer Titos Sompa alongside Harris. The cycle plays twice, ending with an ‘Amen Cadence’ and a bitter coda, featuring Bley on piano, pointedly entitled ‘Excuse Me, Mr Justice’. The circling structure offers an analogy both for the lack of progress made—the deaths of martyrs—King, Medgar Evers—the attempted silencing of figures of resistance—Garvey and Angela Davis—and for the recurrence of collective resolve—‘Right On’, while also suggesting a rejuvenative notion of the cyclical, the figure of ‘sankofa’, of ancestral return and inspiration as a means of moving forward. The operative mood of much of Moncur’s earlier music was brooding, minimalist, melancholic: but what stands out above all is the joy of the music, as often wide-open and celebratory as ominous and questing, with storm-clouds averted for a blazing sun. This is often connected to the consciously diasporic heritage of the music and to the insistence on a group sound, with soloists embodying certain aspects or moods within an overall texture: much of it is riff driven, and the drums that boil up in the transitions are a central part of the music. The album packs a wider variety of moods, textures, feelings into its running time than some manage in an entire career. Moncur’s solo over rising, choraled brass chords and fluttering cymbals on ‘Garvey’s Ghost’ is like the sun rising: checking the time, it’s hard to believe that only eight minutes have passed. The up-tempo drive of ‘Angela’s Angel’ is another highlights: in the first version, Moncur follows Pat Patrick’s flute with serene confidence, in the second, Hannibal Marvin Peterson blows to the heavens. The album has never been reissued and remains almost never discussed. One day someone will analyse together the JCOA recordings made in the 70s—Bley’s Escalator Over the Hill, Don Cherry’s Relativity Suite, Roswell Rudd’s Numatik Swing Band, Leroy Jenkins’ For Players Only—as a necessary chapter in the history of jazz, ‘free’ or otherwise. For now, seek out the music while you can.


Through the seventies, Moncur continued to work with the 360 Degree Music experience, to work with Shepp on live tours, and to participate in New York’s Loft Scene, where Dave Burrell recalls him bringing the likes of vocalist Eddie Jefferson over from Newark. In general, though, he recorded far less. His obscurity was in part to do with health issues, included dentistry, as well as artistic control of the music. As his widow, Tracy, remarked to WBGO:
“After he made the albums for Blue Note, he wanted to own his own music. He wanted to not only get royalties as a performer but also as a composer. He was told that he was never going to work again. Basically, he still worked, but he was one of the first to get out there and actively try to own — and did end up owning — his own music.”
Shadows, released under Moncur’s name in 1977, features strong performance from vocalist Andy Bey on a set of standards and ballads, and is not what one might expect given Moncur’s previous work. The determined strangeness of the album lies, not, as on Evolution or Some Other Stuff, in the spacious inscrutability of playing or compositions, in its balance of the straightahead—swing, chord changes, ballads—with the textural oddness of Bey’s vocals, treated at times as a kind of instrumental third horn alongside Moncur’s trombone and Marion Brown’s alto. Dave Burrell’s typically expert composition ‘Teardrops for Jimmy’ is meltingly traditionally, beautiful, Bey entering half way through and channelling a higher-pitched, more emotionally extroverted, Johnny Hartmann, Moncur offering sweeping, lilting cadences in glorious tandem. 

I’m less familiar with the later work than the earlier, though there are fine turns on albums like Butch Morris’ debut, In Touch...But Out of Reach, from 1978, merging with Morris’ dark-toned cornet on lengthy explorations, and, in particular, on Frank Lowe’s Decision in Paradise (1983), its crisp bop edge contrasting Moncur’s burnished tone with Don Cherry’s bright trumpet and Lowe’s rough-edged tenor—the tone and placement of notes within a ‘freebop’ context suggesting an airier version of the work to come of the David S. Ware quartet—and with an early feature for the late Geri Allen. On the heads, alternately jaunty, sardonic, lushly intellectual, long phrases spool out with a post Ornette-Coleman feel; Allen offers smoothness, doubling, a variety of voicings; Lowe breaks things up in truncated riffs and melodic fragments; Cherry pitches and sails; Moncur discloses his hidden knowledge with inspiring steadiness. He knows! Throughout his late recordings, Moncur’s playing maintained its qualities, adding layers of emotional expansiveness that brought it closer in line with ‘inside’ playing: up-tempo joy, balladic serenity. More important than technical terms is the feeling or quality of the tone: it’s there, you know it. In 1995, Moncur’s trombone graced William Parker’s In Order to Survive. My favourite cut is the ballad, ‘Anast In Crisis Mouth Full Of Fresh Cut Flowers’, in Parker’s words, “written about a poet named Anast whose words cannot get out to the world, so the words turn to flowers. Anast cries out but no one hears her because her words are now flowers”. This paradox of communication and non-communication, the offerings the musicians make. “From the infinite number of sounds available”, writes Parker, “[Moncur] chooses the right notes, and places each note in the middle of its tone centre. His sound is full of hope and is laced in the tradition of change.” 'Laced' is a lovely metaphor: flowers, lace, delicacy, the blooming richness of his sound in tandem with the other horns, Lewis Barnes’ trumpet and Rob Browne’s alto, words that become flowers, in and beyond crisis, resplendent.


In his final years, Moncur recorded a couple more albums as a leader, returning to his classic earlier compositions in new arrangements with Mark Masters on Exploration (2004) and on Inner Cry Blues (2007). Sporadic as they were, his relatively few appearances were always welcomed; his sound now opened up to a more straightforwardly swinging joyousness that leavened the intensity of his early work, within a relaxed, post-bop idiom. His real legacy, though, remains that work of the sixties and seventies, a time when anything was possible: the inner explorations of Some Other Stuff, of Evolution and Destination...Out, the wide-open spaces of New Africa and, above all, the cleansing collective propulsion and catharsis of Echoes of a Prayer. Moncur’s music emerged at a time whose implications are still little understood. His work and life open up a gnostic possibility, dismantling illusion, going the way of the hidden, pursuing knowledge by other means, opening onto new vistas, “a vision of a better world yet beyond the present”.

Il Prigioniero at the Barbican

Luigi Dallapiccola, Il Prigioniero 
Sunday 5th June 2022, Barbican Hall, London 

Eric Greene (prisoner) Ángeles Blancas Gulín (mother) Stefano Secco (Gaoler / Grand Inquisitor) Egor Zhuravskii (First Priest) Chuma Sijeqa (Second Priest) London Symphony Chorus and Guildhall School Singers, dir. Simon Halsey, London Symphony Orchestra, cond. Antonio Pappano

LSO Chorus taking applause for 'Il Prigioniero' at the Barbican. Photograph by David Glynn

Taking place on the last day of a Platinum Jubilee weekend that engulfed the nation in a sea of flags and sentimental patriotism, Antonio Pappano and the London Symphony Orchestra’s concert performance of Luigi Dallapiccola’s one-act opera Il Prigioniero (1944-48) opened with an unscheduled performance of the National Anthem, for which audience members stood up enthusiastically. There was a marked—though surely unintentional—irony to this, given that Dallapiccola’s work is a rigorous challenge to persisting forms of authoritarianism-by-consent. The first half of the concert offered Ottorino Respighi’s Church Windows: an orchestral showpiece, supposedly evocative of medieval stained glass, which offered of familiar orchestral colours, tonal resolution, and a comforting vision of religious and musical order. By contrast, Dallapiccola’s twelve-tone opera, written from within Fascist Italy, operated as a gigantic question mark. 

Under the Austro-Hungarian empire, Dallapiccola's family had been suspected of Italian nationalism, and he had himself been forcibly relocated and placed in a kind of open confinement in the city of Graz as an adolescent. Coming to public prominence as a composer in the thirties, he had initially supported Mussolini’s regime until the Race Laws of 1938 threatened his wife, the librarian Laura Coen Luzzatto, of Jewish heritage, and Il Prigioniero is an opera about being coerced and seduced into desiring one's own own unfreedom, even one's own death. The libretto, Dallapiccola's own, is based on Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam's short story ‘Torture by Hope’: Laura had discovered it on a trip to Paris on the eve of war. In the dungeons of the Inquisition, a Prisoner is offered hope by his gaoler’s reports of a rebellion in Flanders; creeping through an open cell door, he begins his escape, only to be greeted at journey’s end by the Grand Inquisitor, who leads him to the stake as the prisoner whispers “La Libertà”, “Freedom?” Dallapiccola sets this deceptively simple scenario as something like a chamber opera, with the music characterised by pounding drama and flowing (serial) melody alike. It’s a delicate balance, and the singers—particularly the American tenor Eric Greene as the Prisoner—gave a strong, moving account of the music, not overplaying its melodrama, while Pappano, conducting without a baton, swept his whole body convulsively up and down in rhythmic sympathy. Constructed in a single, unbroken span, the opera is guided by motifs constructed from tone rows which serve, not as recurrences of fixed ideas of character or fate, static tokens of being, but as ideas in contestation and--ultimately--ideals betrayed: Hope, Prayer, Freedom, Brotherhood. Dallapiccola’s coup-de-theatre is the presence of an off-stage choir, or “inner chorus”, who sing verses from the Psalms in Latin, giving collective form to the prisoner’s individual hope. Yet at the climax, a second chorus moves onstage, the internal voice of individual freedom merging with the external forms of religious conformity singing the condemned to the stake. Despite this bitter irony, Dallapiccola’s ending can be read as act of existentialist defiance. Moving from music back into speech, the pirsoner's final, spoken whisper of “freedom?”, offers up, not so much an acceptance of his fate, as a response to false liberal or pietistic hope—the kind of hope heard in the National Anthem with which the concert began. This response, Dallapiccola suggests, can only be a question, not an answer. Today, the prison cell is still our reality. The Dungeons of Zaragoza end in Guantanamo Bay and in Abu Ghraib; in the immigration “detention centres” that spring up in the bucolic countryside National Anthem-singing patriots so love to celebrate. (Lest we forget, concentration camps are a British invention.) Il Prigioniero speaks more than ever, within and against the contexts in which it is placed. The question, as yet unanswered, is still: “Freedom?”