It’s good that we celebrate the great figures of jazz as they depart this earth one by one — but it’s important to celebrate the living legends, too. Muhal Richard Abrams got a little more time in the spotlight before making his passage last fall, which was good to see.
Milford Graves has received a few such waves of deserved attention, including one that seems to be going on now. He was the cover story in Wire magazine’s March 2018 issue, he’s recently been interviewed by Bomb, and he was the subject of a recent New York Times profile with the news hook being the Milford Graves Full Mantis documentary that recently screened at SxSW.
It helps that Graves simply makes for good copy. He’s accessible and eccentric, and his studies in biology fit somewhere between credible science and in-credible ideas of new-age psychology and mysticism. He’s a fascinating character and seems downright friendly, to boot.
But at the core of it all is the music. Through the Bomb writeup, I got curious about a couple of recordings from 1966 — two halves of a duet concert with Don Pullen, titled In Concert at Yale University and Nommo. The two albums sport just five pieces between them, each titled “P.G. I” through “P.G. V.” I’d been aware of Graves’ role in the early days of free jazz, but I’d never listened to any of that work before. Now seemed like a good time.
It’s good stuff. Pullen is splashing about on the piano with purpose and verve, while Graves is a fountain of sound — minus the snare drum, I think, as noted in this NYT passage:
He had radically remodeled his drum kit, ditching the snare drum and taking the bottom skins off his toms, getting a soupier resonance. He said the snare’s stiff-toned sound fit its European military origins better than it did his music. “The potential of how you can manipulate a vibrating drum membrane is much greater,” Mr. Graves said. He suggested that jazz drummers who use the snare might simply be “following orders without questioning those orders” — his idea of a grave sin.
I’m loving these recordings for the density of attack. I guess you could criticize it as singleminded, but it does feel pure, in a way. This is who Don Pullen and Milford Graves were at the time, and this is what they wanted to say. They do tone it down just slightly on “P.G. II,” the longest of the five pieces. They pace themselves, each player taking occasional breaks to let the other one fill the space.
Context has a lot to do with my enjoyment of these pieces, I think. It was 1966, and while Graves denigrates attempts to attach political meaning to the music (see video at bottom), it’s hard not to ignore that there was a lot being said at the time. Right or wrong, most of us are going to feel like this music is tinted by the surrounding energy of the era.
While I was at it, I figured it was a good time to dip a little further back, to the classic 1965 ESP disc Percussion Ensemble.
A glance at the album cover will tell anyone that the ensemble is actually a duo — with Sonny Murray, so it isn’t just any duo. I find it interesting that I didn’t pick up on that. Listening blindly to a digital copy, I was picturing a four-person ensemble, with one or more players sitting out for certain phases. No idea why. The album is built on short storms of sound, executed with precision. You could call it an extended drum solo, but it’s more fun to consider it as a study in the musicality of percussion. And today, it’s a slice of history.
But part of the point here is to not dwell on the past. I want to spend some time with Graves’ more recent output. He has two solo albums on Tzadik — Grand Unification (1998) and Stories (2000) — and a trio with Anthony Braxton and William Parker titled Beyond Quantum (2008) that I remember being well received. But I think the place I’ll go first is the duo with John Zorn, recorded as Volume Two of Zorn’s 50th Birthday Celebration series (2004). Every concert I’ve heard from the series has been joyous, and considering Graves and Zorn apparently play together annually, this one promises to be a lot of fun.
What’s nice is that the attention around Graves isn’t a one-time thing. The 2013 Vision Festival included an opening night celebration of his career, featuring him playing with three separate groups. Don Mount posted the concert on YouTube; here’s a starting point, with Roswell Rudd.
Finally, here’s Graves in his own words, from a Q&A session after the world premiere of Full Mantis.