Boomkat Product Review:
One of the most crucial - and bizarrely under-heard - albums from the US free jazz underground, 'Nommo' captures a breathtaking interplay between two singular titans, with Milford Graves brandishing his unique, humanistic approach to percussion, and Don Pullen corkscrewing the edges of bebop. Utterly essential!
Graves and Pullen showed up in New Haven, Connecticut in April 1966 and played a set that resulted in two legendary LPs: 'In Concert at Yale University' and 'Nommo'. Graves was fairly well-known by this point, having done time in the New York Art Quartet, Giuseppi Logan Quartet and other key ensembles, and mystified his bandmates with his furious, rhythmically innovative style. But he hadn't carved out a name for himself as a bandleader - that would all change with this performance. Don Pullen had grown up in Virginia playing piano for the church choir, and, inspired by Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy, had quit a medical degree to follow his passion. He met Graves when they both played alongside saxophonist Giuseppi Logan and realized their philosophies intertwined well. Pullen played percussively, and his blues-y, bebop-inspired playing could mirror Graves' polyrhythmic intensity. It was a match made in free jazz heaven.
'Nommo' was originally released on the duo's own private press imprint SRP ("Self-Reliance Project" - what a name!!!), and has remained one of the free jazz underground's best kept secrets ever since. It was relatively notorious in Europe, but took decades before its feverish cult status led to wider appeal. Listening back now, it's easy to hear not just how important it was, but why it confounded listeners at the time. Graves doesn't play like most drummers; he was inspired by percussive music from across the world, particularly African drumming, but he didn't mimic any particular style or other. He preferred to follow his own pulse (he even developed a heartbeat monitor to assist his playing later in his career), and his rhythms washed like water over the other instruments around him. Tempo was never fixed, and if you're looking for a discernible beat, you'll be disappointed.
For his part, Pullen was clearly invigorated by Graves' idiosyncratic skill, approaching the piano with similar heretical glee. He hammers the keys like he's just cast eyes on the instrument for the first time, interrupting jerky runs with minuscule bebop phrases that fragment and fall to pieces before they've resolved. The interplay between both players is like a conversation that just keeps escalating as they goad and inspire each other's most radical impulses. It's music that emphasizes the texture of sound itself, not in a way that fetishizes the instrument, but the performance. You're left with the sense that they fashioned something completely unprecidented on that day in New Haven, and there are few free jazz records that can match this level of sheer depth.