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Artist Profiles

Milford Graves: Time Piece

By Published: June 22, 2009
Graves lent his unique rhythm and timbral freedom to the two New York Art Quartet (NYAQ) albums in 1964 and 1965. The later '60s found him taking part in more landmark sessions, Albert Ayler
Albert Ayler
Albert Ayler
1936 - 1970
sax, tenor
's Love Cry and Sonny Sharrock
Sonny Sharrock
Sonny Sharrock
1940 - 1994
guitar, electric
's Black Woman chief among them. Less discussed but equally important are his duo discs with pianist Don Pullen
Don Pullen
Don Pullen
1941 - 1995
piano
, released on SRP, an independent label then owned by the pair. The second side of Nomo, recorded at Yale University in 1966, opens with Graves executing microtones, which are then imitated by Pullen in a way that Graves found energizing. "He's playing clusters there, which approximate microtones that the piano can't manufacture and it complements what I'm doing on the drums." NYAQ colleague Roswell Rudd remembers: "[Milford's] playing was like an anti- gravity vortex, in which you could either float or fly depending on your impulse."

The '70s were a pivotal time for Graves in that he began the simultaneous inward and outward journeys that would determine his present activities. He began to travel to Japan and to Africa, the initial trips to both regions occurring in 1977. His exposure to the cultural riches of Asia and Africa would manifest themselves 25 years later on his two solo discs for John Zorn's Tzadik label. In 1973, he was invited by Bill Dixon
Bill Dixon
Bill Dixon
1925 - 2010
trumpet
to join the Black Music department at Bennington College, where he has remained for 36 years and which has given him a platform to address his music in its sociopolitical context. Of equal importance, in 1975 he began to study the pitch levels of heart sounds, a subject to which he has devoted many hours of research. Listening to the complex pitch relationships produced by different areas of the heart can serve diagnostic purposes, some of which have been documented in national media, but there are also musical implications to Graves' studies. "We are simply not making music that is up to our potential. The complexities you can hear in the sounds of one person's heartbeat are very similar to free jazz and if we were to make music that was in tune with the vibrations of our bodies, the results would be very powerful." Recently, Graves has used heart sounds in performance. He records the sounds of each musician's heart and plays them back while the musicians are performing and he is contemplating using this technique on a future recording project. However, the ideal of achieving potential informs every performance in which he takes part, recorded or otherwise. "My job as a musician is to inspire whoever I'm playing to the best of their abilities and more! The worst thing that can happen would be to play with somebody and to find that there's no exchange, no giving back."



Courtesy of Peter Gannushkin

While Graves performed with a degree of regularity in the '80s and '90s, recording projects became infrequent, the multi-percussionist Pieces of Time (Soul Note, 1983) and The Real Deal with David Murray
David Murray
David Murray
b.1955
sax, tenor
(DIW, 1991) being notable exceptions. "I took myself off the scene. I saw too many musicians getting overrecorded by certain American labels, or exploited in other ways." He feels that the Japanese labels with whom he's been associated treat him with more respect. "There are times when a person needs to make a statement, and I thought that conditions were such that it was my time to take a stand against what I saw as unfair treatment of the artists."

Graves sees his upcoming appearance at this year's Vision festival as a sort of re-emergence; he will be joined by pianist DD Jackson, saxophonist Grant Langford and bassist William Parker
William Parker
William Parker
b.1952
bass, acoustic
; of the three musicians, Parker is the only one with whom Graves has previously played, most notably on a recent collaboration with Anthony Braxton
Anthony Braxton
Anthony Braxton
b.1945
reeds
[Beyond Quantum, Tzadik, 2008]. "I met Jackson at Don Pullen's hospital bedside and since Don couldn't be present, DD came to mind. I heard Grant play at a Bennington College function and even though he was playing inside, I heard things that I thought we could develop." Given the power and individuality of Graves' most recent music, this event should constitute a unique statement. Of Graves' accomplishments, John Zorn
John Zorn
John Zorn
b.1953
sax, alto
puts it best: "Milford's approach to music, life and thought is perhaps best described as shamanistic—for him, music is quite literally a healing force. He is a true renaissance man, with a vision both ancient and modern in its scope. He is intensely focused, honest and passionate—a technical master who has long ago transcended technique itself... Ever curious in a thirst for knowledge, he continues to study, learn and grow, gaining strength, power and wisdom with each passing day."

Recommended Listening:

New York Art Quartet, Eponymous (ESP-Disk, 1964)

Albert Ayler, Love Cry (Impulse, 1967)

Milford Graves, Babi Music (IPS, 1976)

Milford Graves, Grand Unification (Tzadik, 1997)


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