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Peter Stenshoel's album of the week: New Africa by Grachan Moncur III

One of most hair-raising saxophone solos in the history of jazz makes its home on an obscure little record on the "actuel" imprint of France's BYG records.  To me it stands right up there with Coleman Hawkins radical 1939 explication of "Body and Soul," or Paul Gonsalves' 27 choruses on "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" with Duke Ellington's band at the 1956 Newport Jazz festival.  The styles are completely different, but Archie Shepp's solo on "When" stakes out unforgettable territory to those lucky enough to hear it.

Here's the story:  Trombonist Grachan Moncur III has been blessed to play with jazz greats such as Jackie McLean, Benny Golson, Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Bobby Hutcherson.  Moncur is Julliard trained and continues to gig and compose.  He's served as Composer-in-Residence for the Newark Community School of the Arts.  The album catches him as he was developing as a composer.

New Africa was recorded 1969 in Paris.  The sidemen are all celebrated in their own right in jazz circles.  Drummer Andrew Cyrille and bassist Alan Silva played with Cecil Taylor.  Roscoe Mitchell is alto saxophonist for the Art Ensemble of Chicago, who were just making a name for themselves in Paris the same year.  Tenor saxman Archie Shepp, a protégé of John Coltrane, had released critically acclaimed albums on Trane's own Impulse label.  Three years out of Berklee College of Music, pianist/composer Dave Burrell had been experimenting with improvisational music in New York City.

I had kind of forgotten about this record after purchasing it until I read an article, in Jazz Journal, I believe, which brought to my attention Archie Shepp's solo in "When," calling it "one of the best tenor sax solos on record," or something close.  I gladly relinquish that discovery to the Jazz Journal writer, who caused me to plop the platter on my turntable to study Moncur's composition.  "When" is structured like a march, but lightly so.  There are eight precisely placed piano chords that repeat without variation.  The progression suggests a blues, but something more. Moncur's genius is evident in that, providing a strict structure, it is one which allows for, even invites, exploration.  Like Ellington, he might have written the piece with these specific improvisers in mind. 

Here's the blow-by-blow:  The groove gets cooking immediately thanks to such a solid rhythm section.  Burrell's piano chording arrives in precise rock-solid blocks--perfect for the tune.  Cyrille's crisp drumming is a delight.  A master of free time, here he proves he is equally at home with straight 4/4, albeit with off-beat little accents that raise the collective temperature of the band.  Silva superbly holds the bottom frequencies with a full-throated acoustic bass.  Trombonist Moncur solos first, and turns in beautiful sinuous melodies with his fat tone.  Next, Roscoe Mitchell, one of the most interesting post-Paul Desmond alto saxophonists, gives a meandering, angular, and relaxed interpretation.  All is well with the groove. 

But then comes Shepp.  Beginning with a low guttural cry, Archie Shepp announces that this will not be a typical outing.  The next three minutes, the tenor sax master is in complete command of every second, including the prescient moments he chooses not to play.  Without a trace of pedantry, Shepp shows he's completely digested New Orleans early jazz, Ellington's coloratura, honkers like Big Jay McNeely, Thelonious Monk's dramatic spacing of notes, and John Coltrane's wall-of-sound.  Furthermore, he's made this impressive pastiche completely his own, exhibiting a technique and swagger I have not heard in any other player.  He can rip out a wail to give you goose bumps and turn on a dime to add a couple understatements, and then gradually ramp it up all over again.  It's freshly minted creative spirit, generously given to his fellow musicians and to us.  When the tour de force is finished, Dave Burrell still has a piano solo to perform.  He wisely restrains himself from grandstanding nor one-upmanship and his understatement helps cool the proceedings down to a satisfying finish.

The other compositions on the record succeed as well to varying degrees, but "When" is a track that made history.