Time is on my mind. Now that most of us are back in offices, it seems like it has started moving again—and, as those of us a bit older can attest, it moves faster with every passing day. That means I seem to have fewer hours each week to listen to music and that some of my favorite musicians have run out of their hours entirely. Happily, so many others keep on grooving.
In addition, this has been a brilliant month for new music, detailed below, from David Binney, Michael Dease, Jacob Garchik, Cameron Graves, Mary Halvorson, and Matthew Shipp.
Rest well, Grachan Moncur III
I hate to have mortality on my mind as spring breaks into summer, but the death of trombonist, professor, and composer Grachan Moncur III this month had a significant impact on my listening. His music, as a leader, was limited but utterly bold. Many of us first heard him because he was the composer of most of the tunes on the bang-bang pair of 1964 Blue Note recordings from alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, One Step Beyond and Destination… Out! The same year, Moncur’s own Evolution came out on Blue Note, also featuring McLean, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson in place of piano or guitar, and Tony Williams on drums. Those three records stand easily beside Eric Dolphy‘s Out to Lunch and Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure as high points in the integration of post-bop structure and increasing freedom. They helped define how musicians could improvise beyond harmonic boundaries but still as part of expert composition. (That each one was released in 1964 marks that year as unusually superb for recorded creative music.)
Moncur led one later Blue Note session, Some Other Stuff (with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, and Cecil McBee). It is a bit harder to love, though fascinating. Over the next several decades, he recorded another half-dozen times, and it’s hard to find something less than fabulous on each one. New Africa from 1969 is expansive and open, with a Dave Burrell/Alan Silva/Andrew Cyrille rhythm section and Roscoe Mitchell on woodwinds. The improvising gets wild at times, with collective improvisation and freedom aplenty, but Moncur always structures the performances with a couple of riveting ideas that cause all the musicians to coalesce. That same year, Moncur recorded a Brazilian-inspired record using Archie Shepp as his saxophone foil.
A more traditional session with an octet, Exploration, came out in 2004, suggesting that Moncur never lost a step over the years. Bassist Ray Drummond and Cyrille’s drums swing the session elegantly, and Moncur’s tunes—including “Frankenstein” from the McLean band and “New Africa”—get arrangements for six horns (brass and saxophone) without breaking a sweat. There was plenty of playing left in this undersung master more than a quarter-century past his heyday.
The Trombone, As Inspiration: Jacob Garchik and Michael Dease
Listening to so much Moncur happened to coincide with listening to all of the music of contemporary trombonist Jacob Garchik, whose Assembly is one of my “Can’t Miss” discs of the month. Garchik is as close as anyone might come to being a Moncur for the new century. Not only does his playing marry bebop to a more expansive, freer modern tradition, but he is an ingenious inventor of musical scenarios that inspire others to play very well. Garchik’s 2020 recording, Clear Line, is a set of arrangements for a classic “big band” horn ensemble (trumpets, trombones, saxophones) but without a rhythm section driving them.
Incredibly, the band moves with glorious momentum, setting up space for improvisations—because the writing moves in ways that allow our ears (and the musicians’ ears?) to hear the furious or elegant “swing” that great bands in this tradition have or need. Similarly, who would have imagined Garchik’s Ye Olde from 2015, which reimagines a certain kind of prog rock/metal as a vehicle for buzzing horn arrangements and tongue-in-cheek exercises that lean a bit toward New Orleans funk and a bit toward Queen? Guitarists Mary Halvorson, Brandon Seabrook, and Jonathan Goldberger are a wall of sound, with Vinnie Sperrazza’s drums being the platform for fire. As for Garchik’s latest, skip to the bottom of this column and get dazzled.
The truth is that while there may be fewer trombonists on the scene than there are saxophonists, the brilliance of these musicians is disproportionate. I have written often about the breadth of offerings from Ryan Keberle, who has been shape-shifting from his Catharsis band (small group New Jazz that uses contrapuntal writing/arranging for horns and Camila Meza’s voice) to the chamber playing of Reverso to his project for Brazilian music, Collectiv do Brasil. I have also written about the trombone wizard Joe Fiedler, who leads projects that center on low brass (his Big Sackbut group) or that conjure the music of Sesame Street as a hip vehicle for improvisation.
I spent about a week this month listening to the prolific trombonist Michael Dease, who has J.J. Johnson-esque technique, superb writing and arranging skills, and a wide stylistic range. Dig into his discography, and you will hear sharp big-band charts, organ-based small group groove tunes, happening modern bebop, and the occasional dose of fusion. Listen to “Roppongi” from his release Relentless to hear the kind of guitar-driven big band music that occasionally appeared in the 1970s and now gets its clearest expression from Snarky Puppy. I got hooked on Dease because his latest release on Posi-tone, Best Next Thing, is the kind of inside-outside date (or, well, as close as Posi-tone gets) that brings to mind a mid-1960s Blue Note. The publicity materials make a sly reference to Oliver Nelson’s classic The Blues and the Abstract Truth, which featured Freddie Hubbard and Eric Dolphy spicing up and challenging a bunch of wonderful but otherwise very mainstream settings. And, sure enough, Dease’s latest includes alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa acting as a somewhat Dolphy-ish disruptor and trumpeter Alex Sipiagin spinning creamy but craggy brass lines that have a restless quality.
Dease is a player of dazzling technique and endlessly good musical ideas, and his ballad features here are a significant update on the classic trombone balladeers. But I found myself most savoring the ways that Mahanthappa’s edgier improvisations made all of Best Next Thing rise higher. For example, the strutting, Mingus-ish cover of Sonny Rollins‘ classic “Doxy” is fun and free—and it is Mahanthappa’s keenly controlled approach that acts as the catalyst. On Dease’s super-hip and punchy “Persian Rug Dealer” and the harmonically bright “Horse Trader”, the saxophonist resists the urge to play the changes straight, grabbing a motif and working it just slightly against the harmonies. The result makes these tunes utterly fresh. It’s a Posi-tone date, so all the solos are terse (usually just one chorus—why?), and the amount of “out” playing is limited. Still, in this case, the blend of “straight-ahead” and adventure makes this recording a surprising thrill. Go, trombone!
At 80 and 85, Sir Paul and Ron Each Still Playing Beautifully
If I’ve been thinking too much about losing people, let’s celebrate those who are still around. May marked the 85th birthday of bassist supreme Ron Carter and recent weeks have seen the 80th for Paul McCartney. I don’t suppose I write much about Beatles music in this column, but I’ve been relatively obsessed with McCartney lately. Sure: “Blackbird”, “Yesterday”, “Eleanor Rigby”, but I had always discounted his post-Fab Four work. I actively listened in the 1970s and 1980s, and “Live and Let Die” was not for me.
But it turns out that I was suffering from some anti-nostalgia. As a teenager and young adult, I thought I was too cool for “My Love” and “Silly Love Song”. Listening back to Wings hits like “Let Me Roll It” and solo albums like 1980’s brilliant and ahead-of-its-time McCartney II made me realize that McCartney’s brilliance had, somehow, blinded me to his constant genius? He was always around, singing a fantastic melody and crafting a hooky arrangement. I managed to ignore 50 years of superb music.
Like Sir Paul, Ron Carter was part of one of the most outstanding bands of the 1960s—the Miles Davis Quintet that also included Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Tony Williams. Those records and Carter’s astonishing blend of post-modern timekeeping and harmonic flexibility on them were blindingly great. He made every measure swing seemingly harmonically understandable, even as the band flew out toward freedom. Add to that scores of incredible Blue Note dates for other leaders on which Carter anchored a legendary rhythm section (just one: Hancock’s Maiden Voyage) and then dollop on top Carter’s 1961 debut as a leader, featuring Mal Waldron and Eric Dolphy (Where?), and you have a Beatle-esque level of brilliance.
In the ensuing decades, jazz arguably took on a somewhat Wings-ish shade. Carter played onward and led some forgettable CTI dates in the 1970s that were perhaps a bit candy-coated. Maybe I didn’t follow his career with as much rapt attention. But, as with McCartney, I should have. There are gems all over the place. Take Patrao from 1980, recorded in Rudy Van Gelder’s studios with a sunny Brazilian rhythm section on two tracks and three cuts with Kenny Barron’s piano and Jack DeJohnette on drums—and Chet Baker at his lyrical best on every track. 2016’s My Personal Songbook with the WDR Big Band is masterful, showcasing not only Carter as a player but also as a fine, indeed deeply underrated, composer. The version of his classic “Little Waltz” with WDR is almost heartbreaking. Ron Carter, can it really be I underestimated you?
To top it off, publicly reported anecdotes and some stories I have heard from my friends suggest that both Paul McCartney and Ron Carter are kind and generous people, not ego-maniacs, despite being monstrously talented. The fates have granted them long, healthy, productive lives making art of the highest caliber with little interruption. Count me increasingly thankful.