Tuesday, June 14, 2011
Studio visit: Milford Graves on record
In a March post, I attempted to make the point that free jazz ought to be documented in the studio from time to time. The only problem was that the Peter Brötzmann albums I chose as examples were actually live recordings. I stand by my argument, however, and it's because of albums like Real Deal and Beyond Quantum, sessions from, respectively, 1991 and 2008 featuring the drummer Milford Graves.
I've been on a Milford Graves kick over the past few days, incited by an interview subject who named Graves's 1976 LP Babi as an all-time favorite. Checking out that record, it was easy to see the appeal: It is as unhinged and raw a free-jazz document as you will find. Like Graves's many ESP-Disk recordings (I happened to catch some great material from 1964's The Giuseppi Logan Quartet on WKCR the other day as part of a Don Pullen profile), it sounds DIY, punk. There's something romantic about that. The legend of free jazz hinges on ideas of subversion and underground-ness. We like to think of these sorts of recordings as having been made hastily and cheaply—or in the case of Babi, a live album, almost incidentally, i.e., the music would have raged on whether or not the tape recorder was rolling. Graves's ESP sessions were mostly (all?) recorded in the studio in NYC, but there's nothing meticulous about them. The resulting documents are more or less the polar opposite of the kinds of gorgeously warm and balanced albums being made for Blue Note nearby at Rudy Van Gelder's New Jersey studio.
Despite all the financial shadiness surrounding ESP, fans of this music—myself included—tend to be glad that those mid-’60s records exist. We should also be happy, though, that many of the artists in question, e.g., Mr. Graves, have survived/thrived long enough to take advantage of more sophisticated recording technology. Just like with old, scratchy blues recordings sourced from 78s, we fetishize the thin, sometimes borderline crappy sound on those old ESPs, hold it up as a badge of authenticity, forgetting that no free jazz actually sounded like that in the flesh. You want to hear a Milford Graves album? Get Real Deal, a duet recording with David Murray recorded in the decidedly non–historically sexy year of 1991, or Beyond Quantum, a 2008 trio album with Anthony Braxton and William Parker. (Both are available as Amazon downloads via the links above.)
I can't express to you the sheer beauty of these recordings—not just the performances, but the SOUND. On Real Deal, Milford Graves sounds like the wind and the rain. He sounds like he's worshiping the drum kit, its glorious range of timbres. I'm listening to the first track right now, and it sounds heartbreakingly alive. The recording is wonderfully three-dimensional: You have the ride cymbal over in the left channel, the toms and bass drum closer to the center along with Murray's tenor, the hi-hat slightly to the right of those. I don't think I've ever heard another drummer paint with his kit the way Graves does, coax as much nuance out, and a musician like that deserves to be heard in a warm and resonant document like this, without that obfuscating aspect of rawness—obfuscating not just in the sense that detail is lost, but in the sense that it invites you to impose upon it a kind of punk romanticism. The romanticism is all there in the drums, though—you don't need an invitation to heap on your own baggage.
In short, free jazz deserves the studio treatment just as much as any other music. Sure it's a style built on rawness and spontaneity, but with the truly great musicians like Graves, you're going to get that no matter what. Why not hear him in glorious hi-fi? Here is a sample of Beyond Quantum—skip to around 1:50 for a taste of what I'm talking about:
I love that the ESP records exist (The New York Art Quartet is a particular fave), that Babi survives. But in terms of what I would take to a desert island, it's the pro-shot stuff, so to speak, where the music brings the heat and the recording soaks up the whole range of frequencies. Interstellar Space, anyone? Recorded at the aforementioned Van Gelder facility, not at some no-name Times Square facility or at a gig with a room mic. These Graves records are part of that illustrious tradition. Like many of the recordings in, say, the Aum Fidelity catalog—I've been very impressed recently by the new Planetary Unknown, with David S. Ware, Cooper-Moore, the aforementioned William Parker and Muhammad Ali—they're about museum-quality preservation, not DIY mythmaking. Artists of this caliber deserve such treatment. It is, I would venture to say, the real deal.
P.S. ECM is another label that has long understood the value of superior sound quality and studio documentation. You won't hear the full range of a Paul Motian performance on any other label. (See I Have the Room Above Her.) Speaking of which, I wrote about a handsome new studio-recorded Craig Taborn solo disc on ECM in this week's Time Out New York.