Essential New Music: Charles Gayle / Milford Graves / William Parker’s “WEBO”

Milford Graves never seemed to be that worried about making records. An early run of recordings for ESP-Disk in the 1960s, which established him as one of the paradigm-shifting percussionists of his time, was followed by a number of independently issued efforts and some seismic releases by Sonny Sharrock and Albert Ayler during the ensuing decade. But Graves’ discography is punctuated with six-, seven- and eight-year gaps. He preferred to focus on teaching, physiological research, performance, practicing martial arts, gardening and other creative pursuits. If you’ve had the opportunity to see 2018 film Milford Graves: Full Mantis, you already know that just listing such activities does no justice to the singular way Graves went about doing them. If you haven’t, track it down posthaste and prepare to learn just how much a person can do with a life. 

But if Graves wasn’t that bothered about making records, that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t recording. Upon his passing in 2021, he left a personal archive that included eye-opening works-in-progress and rare encounters with other titanic free-jazz personages. Prior to his death, Black Editions Archives was set up to release sessions from it. WEBO, named for the Manhattan venue where Graves, Charles Gayle and William Parker played a pair of self-produced concerts one weekend in 1991, is the archive’s third release, and it adheres to the process that yielded its predecessors: Give the recording the best sonic spiffing possible, give the vinyl an exacting cut, and give it a gorgeous package. Mind you, Black Editions Archives aren’t snobs; if you don’t want to spring for the three-LP boxed version of WEBO, it’s also available as a download.  

Another things that Graves never worried about was taking it easy on his fellow musicians. His drumming is a polymetric barrage that leaves little room, but it broadcasts enough energy to light up a dead star. Not just any player can withstand such force, let alone think creatively when in its presence, but tenor saxophonist Gayle and double bassist Parker are not just any players.

Gayle, who passed last September, may have been even scarcer on record than Graves in 1991, but that’s because he had spent so many years living and playing on the streets out of choice. Determined to blow hard enough to put a hole in a wall, he had the stamina to meet the drummer where he was at—and the inner determination to know that it mattered to do so. His drilling forays are the un-eye within Graves’s hurricane of sound, but there are also passages where he develops long, passion-inflaming lines with thrilling fleetness. Parker matches their intensity and takes it into trance territory.

While this set lasts a full two hours, there’s not a minute that doesn’t feel like the only minute that matters when you’re hearing it. [Black Editions Archives]

—Bill Meyer