You could say Milford Graves is an experimental jazz musician. He is the co-holder of a medical patent and often records the human heart as part of a long-term holistic musical project. Graves is also generally considered part of the free jazz school, but as is often the case, that label is not sufficient for his music. Graves’ former student Jake Meginsky and co-director Neil Young document the percussionist’s music and ideas in Milford Graves Full Mantis, which screens at this year’s SXSW.
Graves has played with some of the greatest names in free jazz. In fact, we hear him playing with a decidedly free group early in the documentary. However, whenever Grave’s percussion is front and center, it is totally accessible. We can hear African and Asian influences in there, but we are always talking about rhythm—sometimes boisterous and sometimes hypnotic, but always propulsive.
To approximate the experience of their lessons, Meginsky prompts Graves to speak his peace during Full Mantis—and he has a lot to say. Some of his ideas are a bit out there, but they are the eccentricities of a survivor. He has lived quite a life, having worked as a trained physician’s assistant (making us wonder if he ever played with Eddie Henderson, the jazz M.D.) and made it through the tumult of the 1960s in relatively intact.
He generally seems philosophically and empathically inclined, particularly during a concert in Japan at a school for autistic children. For most musicians, that would have been a tough gig, but he and dancer Min Tanaka use rhythm to reach the student on a profound level. Nor do they let it ruffle their feathers when some of the kids encroach on the performance space and in some cases start playing along. Fortunately, somebody captured it on a video camera, because it is an absolutely extraordinary performance that is quite moving, both emotionally and physically, in a toe-tapping kind of way.
The Japanese concert is such a crescendo, it probably should have concluded the film, but there is at least one more sequence that will stick with viewers for a long time to come. Graves relates a harrowing 1960s encounter with street crime and racism that sort of cuts both ways from the perspective of current gun and law enforcement controversies.