Words by Hank Williams | Press still from Milford Graves Full Mantis

“This is a family house” Milford Graves says describing his house, which is down the street from the South Jamaica Houses in Queens, New York where he grew up. The house differs from everything else one might find on the block by the amount of decoration on the exterior—which supplies a hint that the man who lives inside isn’t your average resident.

in fact, “average” seemingly doesn’t apply to any aspects of the subject of Jake Maginsky’s documentary film of an innovative, yet somewhat unheralded percussionist.

Graves, probably best known for his role in the free/avant garde jazz scene, has put his stamp on a lot of things since his emergence in the early 1960s. Since his transition from Latin Jazz and conga drums to the drum kit (Graves found more acceptance and work playing the drum kit), Graves played with some key players, most notably saxophonist Albert Ayler. Although Graves missed playing with saxophone legend John Coltrane, he had a connection of sorts when he played at the latter’s funeral as part of Ayler’s band. Graves also suggested in a 2016 interview that he was behind Coltrane’s show at Harlem’s Olatunji Cultural Center, known as one of Coltrane’s last appearances before his death. An unofficial recording of which was later released posthumously.

When Graves turned to teaching, he poured the same passion into that as he did into his playing as he shaped a legion of students during his tenure at Bennington College. Jake Meginsky was one such student—though an informal one—he got a job at Bennington in order to meet Graves and convinced him to take him on as a student. Meginsky originally started recording Graves as a learning aid and began amassing a lot of footage. This is the base of the current film, though supplemented with extensive footage from Graves’s own collection.

One gets a skeletal biography from Full Mantis. It’s a deliberate choice and not necessarily a bad one. Meginsky instead chose to create a portrait of the artist via a view into his philosophy of the world, teaching, and approach to music. It works spectacularly well, especially considering that this is Meginsky’s first effort as a filmmaker.

The film centers Graves’s words and music and does an impressive job of highlighting his profundity (a word I don’t use lightly) in many areas and his enticing personality.

The other complicating factor in a project like this is Graves’s unorthodox approach to nearly everything he tackles. Actually, to say that Graves is an unorthodox teacher or musician would be a gross understatement. It would be accurate, though, to point out that Graves may be one of the most radical musicians one could ever encounter in the most literal sense of the word: he tries to get to the actual root of the issue–no matter what it is–for the solution to any kind of problem or challenge.

Full Mantis offers documentary evidence of Graves’s approach of going directly to the source in two key areas: martial arts and his understanding of musical time.

“Well, I started reading books,” Graves says about his martial arts training. Frustrated at the inability to achieve some of the lessons offered in Chinatown because there were limits placed on what non-Asian students could be taught, Graves decided to take lessons in his own hands, eventually settling on closely watching the insect the Praying Mantis after hearing that some of the movements were based on them. “I went to the source,” he says. He bought a few mantises and let them loose, observing their movements. “I just got the full mantis,” says Graves with a mischievous grin, noting that some interpreters or teachers might be hindered in various ways by their own physical or mental limitations. Graves wanted none of that.

The film next jumps to Graves’ musings on heart rate and musical time, noting that heart rate constantly varies in healthy people, which provided another breakthrough that led him to eschew the conventional metronome developing musicians use for keeping time.

Graves began closely studying medicine and human anatomy, haunting the medical textbook section in the former Barnes and Noble on Fifth Avenue. The next revelation came from a medical recording of human heart sounds he found there.

Graves, thinking that the heartbeats would be regular, was taken aback at the percussive patterns he heard. He eventually developed a software to translate the patterns from measured heart rates into music. He began taking the heart rate of everyone who enters his house and anyone he musically collaborates with: “I want to see how you’re vibrating inside,” Graves says. “How is your body oscillating?”

“Swing, it means, man, I want to live to the next day,” Graves explains, using the metaphor of someone crossing a busy street and dodging traffic as a way to explain the complex interactions involved in playing Jazz.

Watching a clip of Graves drumming all of a sudden makes the seemingly haphazard, disparate approach make perfect sense. Elements of his mantis-influenced movements are discernible as is his biologically-oriented approach to musical time signatures. Magically, concepts that seem impenetrable become clear.

Graves’s approach is also incredibly analytical, as would be expected for someone who bought his own EKG machine to track heart functions in an effort to better understand his own body and the bodies of those he interacts with to translate the information into a musical response that will connect with a particular audience on a vibrational level.

Maginsky shows a true example in a performance Graves does in Japan for a group of students in a gymnasium. Graves is surrounded by children dancing, jumping, and reacting in various ways; some even touch the drums or play the cymbals themselves while Graves, totally unfazed, keeps on playing, seemingly pleased with the results.

“We have to have some relevant vibrations,” Graves says, noting that the planet is changing all the time and that musicians should be in tune with that.

In a talk session after one of the New York screenings, Meginsky revealed that “ultimately the film was a labor of love” that just kept gaining momentum over time. Meginsky studied sound, healing, and music with Graves and that helped him structure the film and wrangle the disparate elements into place. “I wanted to see if I could structure the film in a way that had the same sort of energy transfer that Graves incorporates into his own performances.”

Given that charge, it succeeds on all levels. Graves smiled at the screening. His student has indeed learned his lessons well.

91 Minutes. 2018. Words and music by Milford Graves. Directed by Jake Meginsky. Playing at Metrograph Theater in New York and in select locations nationwide.

—-
Hank Williams is an associate producer for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and webmaster for the Suga’ and Behind the Mic sites. He is also a PhD candidate in English and Africana Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches at Hunter and Lehman Colleges and The City College of New York.

Advertisements