Mark McGrain takes Plunge, music ensues

Contrapuntally speaking
By JON GARELICK  |  June 27, 2011

Mark McGrain jazz
SOUNDING LARGE McGrain has figured out how to make a trombone-saxophone-bass trio sound large in every way.

Trying to find continuities in the strains of jazz history can be a dizzying, foolish, irresistible head game. Original as it is, this stuff all comes from somewhere, right? So, when it comes to a certain kind of avant-garde small-ensemble writing — one that combines free jazz, swing, mixed meters, contrapuntal lines, and complex harmonic schemes — in other words, that tension between a nearly classically-composed modern music and total freedom, that would all come out of . . . Eric Dolphy, right?

"Out to Lunch."

Exactly!

I'm talking with Mark McGrain, trombonist, composer, and leader of the trio Plunge, a version of which plays Outpost 186 this Friday. We're talking about jazz composition, something McGrain has been working on nearly his whole life — at least since about the age of 14, when he wrote his first jazz tune, a bebop blues in F. Over the years, McGrain has done all manner of professional writing and playing — studies at Berklee, years of orchestrating and copying in LA recording studios, then back to Berklee to teach, and, since 1996, living and playing in New Orleans.

Plunge is about a lot of jazz things. You could start with the tension between composition and total freedom exemplified by Dolphy's landmark 1964 album, as well as the strain of contrapuntal jazz writing on that album that goes all the way back to Jelly Roll Morton and extends up through the Gerry Mulligan–Chet Baker Quartet, the Jimmy Giuffre 3, and beyond. It's also about the "piano-less" small ensemble with which such writing is often linked. And it's about trombone trios, of which there are maybe more than you think. And no, there's no drummer either.

Not that that was always true. Plunge's first record, recorded for Boston's Accurate label, included drummer Bob Moses and the tuba player Marcus Rojas. "I even toyed with the idea of using two drummers," McGrain tells me over the phone from Rochester, where Plunge is on the road. "Two basses, two drums, basically a double trio." For a while, the great New Orleans drummer Johnny Vidacovich was part of the mix. McGrain was planning a large-ensemble recording — with four horns. But running through the arrangements as a trombone-sax-bass trio, "it just surfaced as something that worked really well without the drums and without the other horns. In large part that's because of the percussive nature of [bassist] James Singleton's playing." That also gave McGrain and the saxophonist (either Tim Green or Tom Fitzpatrick) "plenty or room to move around."

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