Before flutist/percussionist/singer Atiba Kwabena and his quintet, featuring his son Nkosi on piano and multireedist/trumpeter Dan Carter, conjured ancient Egypt or Kemet with their performance-and there was a hint of Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti” in the tune-Kwabena lectured to the packed Paris Blues club in Harlem on the importance of the drum in jazz.
“From the very beginning of jazz in this country, from the early bands of Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong, there was the drummer Baby Dodds,” Kwabena began. “With Duke Ellington there was Sonny Greer; with Count Basie there was Papa Jo Jones; with Charlie Parker there were Kenny Clarke and Max Roach. Ornette Coleman had Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins, and Coltrane had Elvin Jones and Rashid Ali.”
Each prominent group, he concluded, had a significant drummer. It was a perfect setup for Milford Graves, the evening’s featured act.
And Graves did not disappoint. Like the professor he is-at Bennington College in Vermont-there was a tutorial on African music and its global influence. “The presence of African rhythm is universal,” Graves said, warming to his subject while at the same time securing his arsenal of drums, including a bongo and small conga and a cowbell.
His cogent words segued almost imperceptibly into an opening drum roll that was soon accompanied by an assortment of ululations, reminding listeners of the Gullah language of South Carolina. Then there was a nod to his two Cuban friends in the audience and a rapid discharge of Spanish as he invoked a tempo and sound reminiscent of Chano Pozo, the great Cuban drummer.
Then, as if turning Kwabena’s lecture into a demonstration of styles, Graves dropped some salsa licks, a little reggae, a taste of samba, a rumble of bebop-with some scat lyrics on the side-then there was a quick dash of hard bop, a dollop of fusion and then into his forte, the so-called free or fire music he popularized with Albert Ayler and Don Pullen.
For nearly 25 minutes, Graves created a blur of precision, working the drums with amazing speed and intensity to belie his 70 years. His top hat and bass drum foot pedal were in perpetual motion, and Graves has a unique way of turning his left hand with a reversed stick to allow his elbow to rest occasionally on the trap drum to modulate the sound.
This was the first solo; when it ended, he began another lecture on his former days in Harlem working with the renowned writer Amiri Baraka. “I remember one day we marched through Harlem in the ’60s,” he recalled. “I had a drum strapped around my waist, Albert Ayler and his brother, Donald, were behind me, and behind us was the Sun Ra orchestra. We created quite a sight.” And quite a sound.
He embellished this story with another furious solo that once more left the crowd in a stunned trance. They seemed mesmerized by the speed of his hands as they raced from one drum and one impossible tempo to another.
Once more, Graves was swinging in the distant past, back at Slugs, back at the Five Spot, back in the lofts in Greenwich Village, and he took a group of willing listeners along with him.