Boomkat Product Review:
The first half of legendary free percussionist Milford Graves and pianist Don Pullen's Yale performance (the second half is released as 'Nommo'), 'In Concert at Yale University' helped transform the genre - it's one of the undisputed holy grails of underground free jazz.
Graves' drumming was unconventional, even in the relatively open landscape of free jazz. He looked at rhythm differently from other percussionists, taking his influence from across the globe and realizing that tempo, particularly, was restricting progress. He was interested in polyrhythms and unmetered time, and he'd cut his teeth not only playing jazz but Latin music, where the snare was used as an accent rather than a marker. Pullen was a gifted, adventurous pianist who'd met Graves while they were both playing alongside saxophonist Giusseppi Logan, and he was a rare musician who could keep up with the drummer. When they arrived at Yale University in 1966, they had plenty to prove - they weren't just playing jazz, they were channeling the energy of revolution, education and radical philosophy into an expression that shocked the establishment to its core.
The duo released 'In Concert at Yale University' on their own Self-Reliance Program label, hand painting the cover. And while it didn't reach many listeners at the time, its importance has slowly been recognized as time has ticked by. Listening now, it's still jaw-dropping - not just a furious display of skill, but a rebellious, anti-establishment statement of intent that would draw a line in the sand between the old way and something completely new. The set is split into two side-long workouts, and Graves' percussion undoubtedly leads the way. He sounds haunted as he splits the rhythms seemingly mid-flow, rattling into side beats and following loose threads and whims without a care for trad coherence. Similarly, Pullen is able to reply with similar moves on the piano; his runs are almost recognizable, but dance off the keys, referencing bebop but crumpling the genre's rulebook.
The back-and-forth between the two virtuosos is hard to comprehend. It's deep gear that only starts to reveal itself when you strip away the awe of the initial firework display. Listen closely and you'll begin to recognize Graves' intricate use of tonality as he bends his drum rolls, and alternates rhythms and tempos. He lets the physicality of the drums affect his interaction, and lets the tempo follow his soul. Pullen meanwhile listens in attentively, captivated by Graves' unsurpassable spirit, responding with broken phrases and tidal runs that seem to mimic the percussionist's polyrhythmic flurries. It's awe-inspiring stuff, from beginning to end.