Milford Graves Full Mantis, de Jake Meginsky et Neil Young, Monoduo Films, 91 min, anglais, VOSTF, Etats-Unis 2018.
À l’avènement du Free jazz, au milieu des années soixante, Milford Graves (1941-2021) a révolutionné l’usage de la batterie. Avec lui, le batteur cessait d’être le gardien du rythme pour devenir un improvisateur à part entière. Musicien, artiste, inventeur de la Bäbi music, qui est aussi une thérapeutique, du Yara, un art martial inspiré des mouvements de la mante religieuse (mantis en anglais), Graves, unique présence et unique voix, nous entraîne à la découverte d’un monde où la musique semble le lien direct du cœur au cosmos. Cet artiste-shaman considérait que la batterie devrait être enseignée dans les facultés de médecine. Entremêlant le passé et le présent à travers scènes tournées dans le jardin-laboratoire du Queens à New York, et concerts à travers le monde, le film est, comme l’a écrit un critique, une « leçon d’autodidactisme ».
Sélectionné dans de nombreux festivals, plusieurs fois primés, reconnu comme l’un des meilleurs films inspirés par le jazz, « Milford Graves Full Mantis » est une création qui vibre à l’unisson de cette figure exceptionnelle.
Jake Meginsky, compositeur, percussionniste, qui fut un étudiant de Graves, a commencé à le filmer à partir de 2004. En 2015, Neil Young l’a rejoint à la réalisation
La projection sera suivie d’une conversation entre Thierry Madiot, musicien et artiste sonore, Alexandre Pierrepont, ethnologue, anthropologue, participant à différentes revues et manifestations consacrées au jazz et aux musiques improvisées et Patrick Javault.
Milford Graves Full Mantis is a portrait of renowned percussionist Milford Graves, exploring his kaleidoscopic creativity and relentless curiosity.
Graves has performed internationally since 1964, both as a soloist and in ensembles with such legends as Albert Ayler, Giuseppi Logan and Sonny Sharrock. He is widely considered to be a founding pioneer of avant-garde jazz, and he remains one of the most influential living figures in the evolution of the form.
The film draws the viewer through the artist’s lush garden and ornate home, into the martial arts dojo in his backyard and the laboratory in his basement – all of this just blocks from where he grew up in the housing projects for South Jamaica, Queens.
Graves tells stories of discovery, struggle and survival, ruminates on the essence of ‘swing,’ activates electronic stethoscopes in his basement lab to process the sound of his heart, and travels to Japan where he performs at a school for children with autism, igniting the student body into an ecstatic display of spontaneous collective energy.
Oscillating from present to past and weaving intimate glimpses of the artist’s complex cosmology with blistering performances from around the globe, Milford Graves Full Mantis is cinema full of fluidity, polyrhythm and intensity, embodying the essence of Graves’ music itself.
Director’s Statement From Jake Meginsky
The seeds of Milford Graves Full Mantis were planted nearly 15 years ago.
In 2004, I ended my relationship, quit my job, and presented myself at Milford Graves’ door. I waited for almost an hour. When he arrived, I asked him if he would take me on as a student. It was an impulsive decision — I was nervous I would be rejected on the spot, and I didn’t have another plan. He looked me up and down and said, “Come on in, we will see what the story is…”. Without another word, he directed me toward the purple drum kit in his studio. I grabbed a pair of sticks, took a seat and noticed the timbale in place of the snare drum. He sat down on an old, and slightly out of tune, upright piano, and we proceeded to play together, improvising for almost an hour. This marked the beginning of my time with Milford, my great mentor — known to his students and his fans all around the world as the Professor.
The year before, in 2003, I had attended his solo concert at the Fine Arts Center at the University of Massachusetts. I was already a huge fan. As a drummer who had interests in electronic music, free-jazz, folkloric music and the avant-garde, Milford Graves loomed large. Each river of the American underground seemed to lead to the ocean that was Graves. Milford was every heavy-weight drummer’s favorite drummer. I hunted down all the records I could find, each one presenting a percussive voice so intensely singular and dynamic, that it forced me to rethink my long standing relationship with the instrument entirely. I practiced drums listening to Nothing: Milford Graves Percussion Ensemble ESP 1965 on my headphones. I imagined myself as the third drummer in the ensemble, attempting to create counterpoint to the dense clusters of rhythm coming from Graves and Sunny Morgan. I read every interview and the books that Milford mentioned — Helmholtz’s “On the Sensations of Tone” and Khan’s “The Mysticism of Sound and Music.” However, there was no amount of reading or listening to records that could have prepared me for the experience of seeing him live that year. The hour-long solo performance proved to be cataclysmic. I had never heard so many tones coming from the drum kit — a brilliant lattice of melodic patterns, weaving in and out of each other, extending from the high frequency metallic punctuations of the hi-hat, all the way down to the subharmonic rumble of the kick drums. As the concert progressed I could feel my heartbeat changing, responding to the music. I entered the concert one way, and I came out different. It was then that I decided to throw my life in the air and find a way to study with Milford.
Private lessons grew into an assistantship at Bennington College where I took a job as a technician, assisted Milford in his laboratory and taught his Intro to Percussion classes to freshman and sophomores. Graves was a generous and tireless teacher. Late into the evening, often past midnight, our private work expanded from the drumkit into the practice of Yara, a martial art he invented based on a synthesis of Kung Fu, boxing, West African dance, and a direct study of nature (including the praying mantis!). We also worked on bioacoustics, graphical programming, electronic music, gardening, music healing and polyrhythmic musical concepts applied across disciplines. I was now practicing drums to digital tracks Milford would create for me — each containing a sine wave sonification of my own heartbeat or nervous system sound recorded in the laboratory. Within the first year, I asked if I could record class to both preserve and reflect upon the work we were doing. I knew I was in the presence of a living master, and I felt it was important to do my part and make a contribution to the history. I was learning, slowly, the central aspects to Milford’s kaleidoscopic philosophy. It is these recordings that form the foundational basis for Milford Graves Full Mantis.
I was soon filming Milford at his house with borrowed equipment. I would invite various friends to come down and record video, while I asked questions and helped with gardening or with other projects around the house. Little by little, over the years, clips and sequences would emerge out of the footage. I didn’t know what they would become, but I knew these clips had a special vibration — one that I would later recognize as the central vibration of the feature film.
In 2007 Graves began to share unseen material from his personal archive. One hot summer afternoon in his basement in Queens, we threaded Super 8 footage taken on a 1981 Japanese tour with the great butoh dancer Min Tanaka. As we watched the screen flicker, a younger Milford appeared in front of a Japanese forest, demonstrated Yara movements with focus and intensity, and then proceeded to disappear, absorbed by the quivering bamboo. In another reel from the same tour, Milford and Min Tanaka perform for a school for children with autism. The concert begins with the students sitting still.
Over the course of 20 minutes, as Graves plays the kit and Tanaka dances, the students begin to get up and dance, one by one, until the entire school erupts in a display of energy and joy. In the final frames, a single child remains, dancing beautifully in front of the drums as Milford plays the ride cymbal in 12/8. The child’s eyes are locked in with Milford’s, and I could feel the energy transmission between the two. At that moment, I caught my first real glimpse of the cinema that would become Milford Graves Full Mantis. Over the following decade, Graves continued to share selected personal archival material with me — photos from the early days of Yara in his backyard dojo, performance photos, family pictures, heart-beat recordings, old flyers and playbills. He told me to find the original footage for a concert from 1973, during an underdocumented period when his group opened for Carmen McRae in Belgium — “That is the real stuff Jake, we were really playing on that one.”
I filmed Milford in his garden, at Bennington, in concert. During this time, I also performed with him, triggering his electronic heart sonifications and projecting video of the garden. I often slept in the dojo when I would stay with him, becoming more intimate and familiar with his collection of masks, objects, figures, and books from nearly every continent in the world. Over time, I discovered some of the things Milford wanted to share most about his life, and especially about his creative process. I also began to understand what I felt most compelled to share and reflect back to him, regarding my experience as his student. I started to have an acute sense that the film was talking to me, and in turn, I was learning to listen to it and understand how to best help it become what it wanted to become.
In 2015 I asked my friend and fellow drummer, Neil Young, to join me in filming Milford’s solo concert with me at Brandeis University. I was extremely impressed by the footage Neil captured during the nearly three-hour shoot. Over the next two years, Neil jumped into the project wholeheartedly and became much more than a cameraman. He would accompany me to Milford’s house and take part in our lessons. We would spend extended hours focusing our cameras on the basement laboratory, on the garden, on the drums, and on the house itself. We shot hours of Milford’s performances at various venues on the east coast, including the documentation of his first-ever sculpture/sound installation commission for the Artist Institute Gallery in Manhattan. In 2016 I traveled to Stockholm for an electronic music residency. Instead of making music with the incredible collection of early modular synthesizers at the Elektronmusikstudion as I had intended, I spent the week editing footage, night and day, on my laptop. I almost never left the studio. The film was starting to talk loudly and forcefully, demanding action. It was there, in Sweden, that I carved out a basic structure for the first third of the film. When I returned to the States, my collaboration with Neil expanded into the editing room where we would set up our laptops side by side and cut scenes and clarify others, as if we were in a percussion duet. We both approached the material in an intuitive, rhythmic way in order to inject the film with the same sense of fluidity and intensity that are the hallmarks of Milford’s sound – each of us bringing our often distinct but complementary musical and visual sensibilities to the creative process.
Late in 2017, after a year of editing, we had a rough cut of the film in hand. I drove to South Jamaica, Queens, set up a projector and watched the film, sitting between the Professor and his wife Lois. After the film finished, Milford proclaimed, “Man, that’s me up there on that screen — that’s what I’m about.” I was Milford’s student long before this film was completed. I continue to be his student to this day. In many ways, making Milford Graves Full Mantis was one profound lesson among many that I have received over the past 15 years, and I know there are many more teachings I have yet to receive.
Director, Milford Graves Full Mantis