Given the small number of recordings under his own name, and how sporadically those have appeared, that Grachan Moncur III has released a follow-up to his fine 2004 offering Exploration in just three short years is remarkable in and of itself. The former set was filled with all-stars and legends from Billy Harper and Gary Bartz to Ray Drummond and Andrew Cyrille. Tim Hagans, Gary Smulyan, and John Clark were also part of that octet proceeding. The scene on Inner Cry Blues is a different one. Moncur's best-known sideman here is vibraphonist Ben Adams, who has issued three solid dates under his own name on his tiny Lunar Module imprint, where this disc appears as well. Other members of the group are Sameer Gupta on drums, Erik Jekabson on trumpet, tenor Mitch Marcus, and bassist Lukas Vesely.
The subtitle of Inner Cry Blues is "Dedication Album, Volume 1." Of the six cuts, here four are dedicated to jazz legends: "G Train" for Duke Ellington, "A for Pops" for Louis Armstrong, the two-part suite "Sonny's Back" for Sonny Rollins, and, of course, "Blue Rondo" for longtime friend and collaborator the late Jackie McLean. This is one of those Moncur dates that walks the tightrope. It walks the inside line of post-bop and modal jazz a lot. In fact, it never strays far from them. But the sense of space, color, and texture in his compositions pushes their boundaries a bit. All of these tunes range on the long side; the shortest, "A for Pops," is over eight-and-a-half minutes. The two-part suite for Rollins is 8:49, and the others are at or over the ten-minute mark. This is a plus. Since this is a young band, Moncur's rule of conduction is apparent everywhere here. He allows solo space, plenty of it in fact, but as with his best music it is seamless, without messy edges and quick-change corners. It's all about flow here, and yes, it does swing, everywhere, subtly, with introspection, elegance and grace. "G Train," with its three horns and vibes front line, offers a breezy if somewhat elaborate lithe melody for the rest of the players to get behind. The role of Vesely's bass is unusual, it's right in front of the mix on this session, and here it leads the band in a relaxed mid-tempo groove that unfolds in all sorts of interesting harmonic ways. Moncur's own solo, right in the blues pocket, is full of short, choppy lines, whereas Adams, on the vibes, struts out elongated, complex lines that never lose their rhythmic focus.
The title track is a soul blues that has as much to do with New Orleans funeral music as it does with Southern soul in general. The entire cut feels like a coda, but develops from there without losing that feel. The stops and starts are all pronounced, even exaggerated, and the arco work by Vesely just unfolds so slowly and beautifully. It is a rich tune that keeps bits and pieces of ragged but right blowing directly in the mix: check the tone on Marcus' tenor and Jekabson's trumpet. They could bust out at any moment, but they keep playing these phrases repetitively and each soloist stays right in the blues with his fills throughout. "Hilda" begins as a strolling, old-school swing tune, with a catchy, almost nursery rhyme phraseology in the lyric. Gupta's kit work, pops in and out of the box on the rhythm, breaking it, double- and triple-timing it with a restrained hand, adding to the dancing, swing feel of the cut.
Moncur sings on a pair of these cuts -- the Armstrong and Rollins tributes -- but it works. His voice isn't great, but in terms of the informal, laid-back feeling of this date it just inserts itself as another part of the equation, grooving right in time and space and lending immeasurably to its fingerpopping charm. Though everything here is hip, full of soul and groove as well as execution, "Blue Rondo," for McLean, is the brightest moment. The interplay between the three horns and vibes is actually rather astonishing. There are call and response lines in the melody, all winding around one another, and some of these are in an uncanny counterpoint. Moncur uses tropes from both his own and McLean's hard bop music, pushing at the edges to bring them back into the center of the music's roots without losing his sense of space and stretched time. It's not just a fitting tribute, it's a mad, swinging affair with huge wood by Vesely and wonderful, lush add-ins from Adams. Marcus' solo hints at the edges that McLean and Moncur were looking at in the early to mid-'60s, but never loses the center of the rhythm, either. In sum, Inner Cry Blues is a welcome return from a composer, bandleader, arranger, and soloist we hear far too little from. This set has everything a jazz fan would want, and has enough compelling rhythmic invention and hard blues thematics to interest a younger generation whose tastes range from hip-hop to funk and R&B. Not because this music is any of those things, it's not. It's tough post- and hard bop jazz that is fresh, spirited, cool, and timeless. It will appeal to anyone with half an ear for the real thing.