Film Review: Milford Graves: Full Mantis

Profile of free-jazz percussionist Milford Graves offers a generous sampling of his music and philosophy.
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An influential figure in the 1960s free-jazz movement, Milford Graves has devoted much of his career to teaching rather than commercial recording. As a result, he is better known to aficionados than the public at large. Milford Graves: Full Mantis is a wide-ranging look at an intriguing artist, a documentary brimming over with his thoughts about culture as well as his music.

Graves taught for many years at Bennington College, and speaks with an educator's clarity and confidence. He gives a succinct account of his upbringing, tours his backyard "global garden" and his basement technology center in his house in Queens, and has provocative things to say about the connection between music and our senses.

Graves was a pioneer in abandoning metrical timekeeping in his drumming, basing his rhythms on pulses and heartbeats instead of metronomes. A long, daunting sequence shows the musician using his own software to transform heart patterns into electronic music, or TonoRhythmology.

Director Jake Meginsky, also a student of Graves, includes extensive performance footage from the 1970s to the present. The early black-and-white clips show Graves in blazing form, singing and chanting along to his rolling beats. Meginsky and co-director Neil Young sometimes intercut past concerts with more recent ones, showing how Graves has evolved while maintaining his core principles.

Full Mantis also covers the musician's involvement with martial arts. In keeping with his idiosyncratic approach to music, he forged a unique style of movement based on his study of nature. His music provides exceptional accompaniment to a montage of vintage photos from his studio, Yara Dojo.

Graves tells wonderfully thick, convoluted stories that wind up in startling places. In a way they are like his music, full of twists and repetitions that ultimately pull together with power and focus. His work may be challenging, but it is never elitist. Instead, it is welcoming, inclusive, joyful.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in a 1981 performance with dancer Min Tanaka at a school for autistic children in Japan. In an eight-minute segment, Graves hunches over his drum kit, improvising a beat that energizes his listeners. "I had to play to get in their minds," he explains, "not as a concert."

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