Last week, Grachan Moncur III died. I got to know him (metaphorically, of course) as a jazz trombonist, but as the obituaries have come in, it is clear that he was also an activist who wrote music for James Balwin’s plays, participated in the wider Black Arts Movement along side Amiri Baraka and Archie Shepp as well as producing and contributing to some iconic albums during the 1960s. I like knowing that avant-garde such as Shepp, Sun Ra, and Moncur understood their music as part of a larger social program that sought to elevate Black people and Black art.
I first encountered Moncur’s playing on Jackie McLean’s album One Step Beyond in 1963. His composition “Ghost Town” is outstanding.
It wasn’t until after hearing that album about a dozen times that looked up Moncur’s contemporary dates as a leader for Blue Note. On Evolution, he was with a top tier crew with McLean, Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, Lee Morgan on trumpet, Tony Williams on drums, and Bob Cranshaw on bass. It’s all works written by Moncur and they’re all pretty great. Critics seem to really like “Monk in Wonderland,” but “Air Raid” is my favorite. If you haven’t heard this album, it’s pretty great.
The next year, he released Some Other Stuff with a slightly different crew including the core of Miles Davis’s future outfit (Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Tony Williams with Cecil McBee on bass). As someone who once thought a good bit about Early Christianity the Gothic-sounding “Gnostic” is my favorite track here, although all of them are really outstanding especially since Moncur’s trombone has a bit more space to work on this release.
While Moncur continued to work extensively over the next 50 years, I want to single out one more of his 1960s recordings. The Way Ahead is an Archie Shepp date from 1969. On it, Shepp and Moncur reprise his “Frankenstein” which appeared on McLean’s One Step Beyond and it’s cool to hear Ron Carter’s frantic bass playing and Shepp’s raspy saxophone remove the early 1960s sheen from this song and allow it to skitter and squawk and announce itself. It’s brilliant and well worth the listen.