Thursday, October 13, 2011

Milford Graves Quartet - Belgium 1973 Video

Milford Graves' recorded output is downright scarce in relation to the imposing reputation his drumming holds amongst adherents of free music. In particular, his work during the 1970s rages with a distinctive fury matched by few before or since. The album "Babi", released in 1977 on Graves own imprint IPS, is the best authorized representation of this innovator operating at peak intensity. It features wild, superhuman saxophone playing by longtime cohorts Arthur Doyle (still in the scene, but now operating from his homebase in Alabama) and Hugh Glover. Recorded live for WBAI-FM on March 20, 1976, this unique, rough-hewn recording brims with excitement. Often, the horn players are very far off microphone, wailing away like hellishly agitated spectres in the background while Graves' drums remain front and center, heavily focused on the ancient traditions of deeply resonant one-headed toms and eschewing the traditional rattle of the modern snare drum completely. Graves' signature vocal punctuations help underline the ritualistic aura of his group's frenzied rites. The opening cut from "Babi" can be heard below . . .

A sort of alternate version of "Babi" also floats around in trading circles. Recorded live at Columbia University on June 12, 1976 with the same line-up, the 55-minute tape doesn't have the same focused audio fidelity of the proper album, but it does feature more sustained explorations of complete density,  a natural balance of instruments as well as some bass clarinet playing presumably by Doyle. The conclusion to this burning set engages the audience directly. There's a lot of clapping and screaming as the band gradually fades in volume, marching around the room while still blowing and pounding their guts out. This is clearly inclusive music and the large audience responds with great enthusiasm. I think audiences in general might have had a little more blood running through their veins back then? The definitely had stronger ears compared to the average wimpola so-called "music lover" these days.

A duo recording featuring Graves and Glover was issued on a Folkways Records anthology called "New American Music, Volume 1" in 1975. The piece, titled "Transmutations", begins with tinkling small percussion and vocal interplay from both musicians before quieting into a moody, low tom groove with piquant rhythmic jabs, whistle blasts and more vocalizations from Graves. At 3:38, Glover enters on tenor saxophone in a typically high-energy, animalistic solo focused on cries and harsh split tones at the highest register of the instrument. The duo grind to a halt after a minute, only to launch back into more of same seconds later.  At 6:50 another churning groove appears momentarily before Glover switches to what sounds like throaty clarinet playing. This music is not polished in a traditional Western sense. It is loose and focused on spontaneous communication. Glover is certainly more interested in expressing himself than he is at playing into the microphone! Around the nine minute mark, Glover re-enters on tenor saxophone and Graves goads him to further excesses with his endlessly roiling drums, shouts and whistles. There's an out-of-control feel to "Transmutations". It is not a "perfect" piece of music by any means, but it succeeds at being completely free and in the moment, a snapshot of what they happened to play on that particular occasion.

My personal favorite Milford Graves recording is a 47-minute long bootleg of his quartet appearing at the Jazz Middelheimin Festival in Antwerp, Belgium on August 15, 1973. I don't believe I am at liberty to spread this audio recording, but the video embedded below contains excerpts from this very show and will impart at least a vague idea of what I am talking about. It is does not successfully convey the entire arc of the complete set, but I am still grateful that this footage exists and can be seen freely. The schtick in the middle of the video might seem a little heavy-handed divorced from the context of the entire performance, but Graves gets to serious percussive business by 13:30. When the horns re-enter around 17:30, critical mass is finally achieved in an orgiastic display of intensity. Please make it through the whole video to see the last four minutes. The audio I have sounds like it springs from a somewhat different source than the soundtrack for the video. It is also runs at a much faster speed and is higher pitched.

Weasel Walter and Joe Rigby, 2007. photo by Marc Edwards
This particular incarnation of Mr. Graves' band featured a trio of particularly interesting, lesser-known players of great individuality. Glover is primarily known for his work with Graves and, to my knowledge, does not appear on any other officially released recordings available in the marketplace. Arthur Williams was, according to my source, a self-taught trumpeter. His lack of traditional technique is more than compensated by his energy and imaginative phrasing. My source believes that Mr. Williams is deceased. He appears on several other recordings lead by William Parker and Jemeel Moondoc, as well as the fine 1979 Peter Kuhn LP "Livin' Right" (Big City Records, out of print) also featuring Parker on bass, Dennis Charles on drums and Toshinori Kondo on dueling trumpet.  Joe Rigby is still somewhat active in the music scene. The small but hardcore UK label Homeboy Records has issued two hard-to-find cd-rs of solo and quartet music by Rigby, albeit in a more traditional vein. I met him when my band (documented on the sextet tracks on "Firestorm") shared a double bill with William Hooker's band at the defunct, lamented Manhattan venue Tonic in 2007. I told him I loved his playing on that Antwerp bootleg. He really didn't have much to say and didn't seem impressed with my flattery! You can't win 'em all. Ha ha ha. Rigby has probably been heard by the most listeners on the well-received Steve Reid reissue "Nova" (Mustevic, 1976, reissued by Universal Sound in 2000).

Milford Graves appears on less than a dozen releases since the release of his iconoclastic "Babi" LP in 1977.  Since the '80s he has created two somewhat painterly one-man CDs; sparred mightily with John Zorn, David Murray and German saxophone titan Peter Brötzmann; participated in reunions with the legendary New York Art Quartet (co-led by John Tchicai and Roswell Rudd) and laid down a mercurial trio session featuring Anthony Braxton and William Parker. Overall, he seems to have actively resisted involvement in the professional music business - perhaps in protest to the terrible, undignified treatment many creative musicians are perpetually treated to - and I shudder to think what amazing master tapes lie dormant in his own archives. I hope one day we will find out. I have a feeling his absolute best, most mind-bending work has not yet been heard.

- Weasel Walter


Anonymous said...

My ball...

Anonymous said...

Love it, love it all by Milford! My personal favourite, his recording with Ayler from Newport, where he sounds like he is throwing stones on a tin roof for the whole piece, fantastic!