In 1963, a little-known trombonist named Grachan Moncur III was quietly making history by pairing up with saxophonist Jackie McLean to make some of the most scintillating music to come out of Blue Note during the '60s. That's saying quite a bit, but the classics Evolution and Destination ... Out! crop up frequently on critics' all-time lists, and both represent an important but short-lived development in jazz that saw the successful excursion of "hard bop" master McLean into the territory of free jazz experimentation. Moncur's haunting compositions are a real prize: By turns somber and humorous, his intricate music was the perfect vehicle for the free flights of fancy undertaken by the other musicians. Yet McLean soon went back to more traditional bop, Moncur disappeared from the scene, and other practitioners went on to different things.
It is primarily this rich but largely unexplored territory that Frankenstein -- named after one of Moncur's tunes -- revisits with such gusto and virtuosity. The band, which draws its members from a diverse range of groups including Tom Waits' band and Club Foot Orchestra, is remarkably faithful to the original tunes even as it imbues them with its own style. Drummer Andrew Borger creates an almost unbearable tension with deft strokes that feather around the beat, while bassist George Cremaschi expertly handles the complex rhythms. Tom Yoder (trombone) gives his own twist to Moncur's slick solos, and Dave Casini breathes life into the demanding vibe parts. Bruce Ackley rips it up on saxophones, impeccably dancing his way through the melodies.
The most remarkable achievement of Moncur's music is that it represents such a departure from standard horn/bass/drum soloing clichés, maintaining a structure without losing the post-bop sense of freedom. Themes are built up, a mood is set, and solos never deviate completely from that theme and mood. Rather than dissolve into separate skronking, Frankenstein seems intent on exploring those contrapuntal intricacies together, which is what makes its performances so unique.