Parsing out who invented free jazz is a mystifying exercise. Many cite pianist Lennie Tristano’s 1949 experiments, or saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s a decade later, but in some ways, this was a drummer’s revolution. If Sunny Murray was the first to privilege texture over timekeeping, it was Milford Graves who made a science out of the new sound. His contribution to the New York Art Quartet’s self-titled 1964 debut was a line in the sand: an abstract yet consummately poised performance, marked by staccato snare work and a dense low-end barrage. (One benefit of call it art, a pricey but revelatory recent box set of NYAQ rarities on Triple Point Records, is an essay tracing Graves’s style to his background as an ace on timbales.)
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Given Graves’s obvious command, it’s not surprising that the lifelong Jamaica, Queens, resident took on a guru’s role, teaching at Bennington College for 39 years and mentoring everyone from prodigious free-jazz drummer Susie Ibarra to avant-rock all-star Greg Fox and saxophone visionary Steve Coleman, who based his latest album on Graves’s research into the relationship between biorhythms and music. Few locals are more deserving of a lifetime-achievement showcase, which Graves receives Wednesday 12 on opening night of Vision Festival 18, with an illustrious cast featuring Graves’s NYAQ bandmate Roswell Rudd and young Cuban piano marvel David Virelles. (The drummer warms up Saturday 8 in the heavy company of John Zorn and Bill Laswell.) The epicenter? Graves’s inimitable whomp—still thunderous and microdetailed.—Hank Shteamer
Susie Ibarra on Milford Graves:
"I came across two recordings of Milford Graves in 1990: Pieces of Time [with Kenny Clarke, Andrew Cyrille and Famoudou Don Moye], and Albert Ayler's Love Cry. I loved his unique way of mixing traditional drumming with avant-garde and jazz. I also loved how he mixed influences of South Asian, Asian, African, West African and American music in his drumming. You could hear this in his playing all wrapped up and delivered through powerful and explosive music."
Greg Fox on Milford Graves:
"As far as my working with him directly, as limited as that has been (I've been visiting him for maybe a year or so at this point, and we have only hit drums together once, out of all the times I've been to his place), I would say that, among other things, Milford has strengthened my conviction that drumming has a morality and a charge beyond the mere enjoyment of music making. There is a deeply energetic justification to the work; it can be oriented to come from a certain place so that it has a beneficial effect for the drummer and the listener. Yes, of course drumming and playing music are fun and feel good, but I think—and Milford has reinforced to me—that there is a deeper mission at hand, a reconnection to the original purpose of the drum, as an extension of the heart."
Steve Coleman on Milford Graves:
"I’ve always heard and felt that what Milford was doing did not fit the stereotypical mode of writers’ descriptions of so-called avant-garde drummers. I don’t like labels anyway, and when labels somewhat apply, it is because the thing being labeled somewhat fits a stereotype, and Milford definitely did not fit any simple musical category. I could immediately hear that Graves was a cat that could actually deal with complex rhythms, rhythmic structures and rhythmic relationships in a detailed manner, in terms of the creation and execution of spontaneous but precise movements. And yet Milford’s playing had an extremely loose quality about it. That is part of what intrigued me. Another interesting thing is that I’ve always been attracted to people who attempt to redefine the pulse of a particular era. Several groups of musicians were attempting this in the 1960s, but to my ears Milford’s musical solutions were among the most effective. When you add to this the shaman-like qualities that Milford brings to the table, then we have a very intriguing mix of musical and nonmusical elements."
Follow Hank Shteamer on Twitter: @DarkForcesSwing