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Review: Good Vibrations in Jake Meginsky and Neil Young's "Milford Graves: Full Mantis"

Percussionist, professor, free-jazz drummer, acupuncturist, herbalist, independent electro-cardiologist, martial artist, sculptor—Milford Graves doesn’t settle down and he doesn’t stick to one thing. Rather, these different identities all feed into this autodidact and polymath’s interest in the body and the human heart, as well the natural world’s relationship with them. Graves the man, the musician, his lifestyle, and his unwavering beliefs are the subject of Jake Meginsky and co-director Neil Young’s recent film, Milford Graves: Full Mantis (2018), which with Stephen Schible’s Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (2017), is one of two portraits of artists now playing in New York City.
Born on August 20, 1941 in Jamaica, Queens, Milford Graves is one of the seminal figures of free jazz, avant-garde jazz, or any other type of classification that describes the genre of the late 1950s and 1960s. Although his discography is slim (which is perhaps due to the fact that his drumming is so singular that it isn’t conducive to jazz’s preponderance for group playing), in this period you can hear his music on Albert Ayler’s Love Cry (1968), Sonny Sharrock’s Black Woman (1969), and on the albums released by the New York Art Quartet (for which he was a member of). In 1973, out of necessity to make ends meet for his wife and children, he took a job teaching various subjects at Bennington College in Vermont, which lasted until 2012, when he retired. He also created his own martial arts called “yara” (a Yoruban word for “nimbleness”), which is based on West African dance and warrior movements, as well as the praying mantis insect. Around this time in the mid-1970s, while browsing the medical section at a Barnes & Noble on 18th Street and 5th Avenue in Manhattan, he stumbled upon George David Geckeler, M.D.’s Heart Recordings, which lead to abiding research on the heart’s electrical impulses. Eventually, he engineered his own electrocardiogram in his basement, and his findings have piqued the interest of a few scientists. And amid all of these various interests, music remains a constant throughout Graves’ life, either playing solo or with others.
This is all backstory for Full Mantis; the documentary doesn’t provide a linear and by-the-numbers biographical timeline, thereby trusting and honoring the viewer’s intelligence. If you know about Graves, all the more power to you. If you don’t, hopefully the doc will inspire you to read and learn about him and his music. What Full Mantis does do is select anecdotes told by Graves (a born storyteller) to elucidate and highlight his life and work, his approach to life, and how it all informs his music. Graves explains the connections between Asian philosophies and human anatomy, between heartbeat and percussion. 
Meginsky and Young refreshingly rely on sound and visuals rather than exposition and explanation. You know this isn’t a standard doc when the film doesn’t even begin with the subject talking until roughly eleven minutes into it. You get the sense that Full Mantis was made by musicians (Meginsky was once Graves’ student and personal assistant) by the way in which there’s a complete dedication to sound and image, and their symbiotic relationship, for the film allows for rhythm, rhythmic patterns, pauses, and interludes in the editing.
Full Mantis alternates between archival footage and interviews with Graves himself in and around his passed down family home (studded with colorful and resplendent stones, Gaudí-like) in Jamaica, Queens. In the latter, Graves is in his basement tinkering with his electrocardiogram or banging on a conga; he’s walking in his garden or presenting his grandfather’s rusty tools, now fashioned as a spirit-filled sculpture. One of the most amazing examples of archival footage is one that features Butoh dancer Min Tanaka and Graves performing for a gymnasium full of Japanese children with autism. Gradually, the whole crowd of kids starts to move, gyrate, and groove. They’re full of energy.   
To my mind, Full Mantis and Coda are comparable. Schible’s film finds Sakamoto in his Manhattan apartment, often using objects nearest him in his neat studio to create the sounds that will eventually be used in his latest (and perhaps best) album, async (2017). Graves in Full Mantis relies on the natural world around him to make relationships between biology, music, and various cultures. In one instance, Graves lays out his theory on why the notes in the major scale are associated with joy and those in the minor scale with sadness, as well as their connection to the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, and the concepts of yin and yang in Chinese philosophy. By the end of the doc, you come to understand Graves the man and the artist by his music and the way he lives, the one influencing the other—they’re one and the same. Graves transmits his life’s philosophy into his music. “You don’t play the drums with these,” holding his sticks, “you play it with this,” Graves says, pointing to his temples after finishing a performance at the Brandeis Improv Festival in 2015. “And whatever else comes in,” motioning to the sky, then to his body, “goes out,” spreading his hands outward to the crowd.       
And what does “Full Mantis” mean exactly? It has to do with one of the anecdotes Graves tells. He wanted to learn the praying mantis technique from an instructor in Chinatown. But the instructor didn’t teach certain techniques to non-Chinese people. “So I went to the best teacher; I went to the praying mantis himself. And that was better than any human could teach me, because if you go through another human, he may have a limitation. Maybe he can’t move a certain way? If he can’t move a certain way, then that means I’m not going to get full mantis. I’m going to get only a little bit of the mantis.” Meginsky and Young go to the source for their doc, who himself has made a life’s work of finding the source for his music. 

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