Cinemadope: The kaleidoscopic philosophy of jazz percussionist Milford Graves

So few of us follow our deepest drives — it’s a path that leads along high wires and narrow ledges, and for many, the fear of failing big keeps us dreaming small. On the other end of human experience is a man like Milford Graves.

Milford Graves Full Mantis, photo courtesy the filmmakers

Graves is a renowned percussionist who has been on the avant-garde jazz scene since the beginning, performing with the likes of Albert Ayler, Sonny Sharrock, and Paul Bley. As he and his fellow musicians were building the core of what would come to be known as free jazz, Graves was also looking beyond music, following his inner compass down wildly different paths (martial arts, herbalism, college professor) that always seem to reconnect at journey’s end.

Now, filmmaker Jake Meginsky and co-director Neil Young have given Graves the chronicle he richly deserves. Milford Graves Full Mantis is the film, and it screens as part of Amherst Cinema’s Bellwether series Thursday, May 10, at 7 p.m. Both filmmakers (each of whom has deep Western Mass connections) will be present at the screening to discuss the film and the man that inspired it.

For Meginsky, the relationship with the man he calls “[my] great mentor” began not with the film but with a leap of faith. In 2004, reeling from a Graves solo concert at UMass, the director — himself an accomplished musician — quit his job and ended a relationship to ask Graves to take him on as a student. Graves saw something in the young percussionist, and their early lessons evolved into something closer: Meginsky found work as a tech at Bennington College, where Graves taught, and helped the Professor (as his many students call him) with his teaching duties. After classes were done for the day, the pair’s studies grew to include the other forks of Graves great confluence, including Yara, a martial art of Graves’ own invention that brings together boxing, West African dance, and natural studies.

MILFORD GRAVES FULL MANTIS TRAILER from Full Mantis on Vimeo.

As master and student became more familiar, Graves began to share bits of his personal archive, giving Meginsky a wider view of his teacher’s legacy. As the idea of a film took root in Meginsky — he had already begun making recordings of his sessions with Graves — he came to feel that “it was important to do my part and make a contribution to the history.” When he called in co-director Young, also a percussionist and inveterate experimenter, to help film a 2015 concert at Brandeis University, a short-term collaboration once again grew into something more, with Young spending the next two years helping Meginsky capture Graves’ life.

Milford Graves Full Mantis, courtesy the filmmakers

The result is a kaleidoscopic look at a man who refused all attempts to turn his multifaceted philosophy into something one-dimensional (listen for his take on the meaning of “swing,” for instance, for a sense of how Graves diverges from traditional jazz history). Whatever your thing is, there are lessons for you in the Professor’s class.

Milford Graves Full Mantis, Thursday, May 10, 7 p.m., Amherst Cinema, 28 Amity St., Amherst

Also this week: Part of Graves’ technique stems from recording the pulses of his own heart, and of being in tune with his own body’s rhythms and flow. With that in mind, note that the Little Cinema at the Berkshire Museum is offering Sensory Friendly screenings; this week they bring in the “kids” classic Toy Story (yes, adults, you can go on your own). Specially designed for families and children with sensory needs and those who have difficulty in a traditional movie screening setting, the screenings are presented in collaboration with the Berkshire Early Autism Resources program. If you or someone you know is often overwhelmed at the movies, these screenings can be a great resource.

Jack Brown can be reached at cinemadope@gmail.com

Jack Brown

Author: Jack Brown

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