Jason Moran & Milford Graves “Live at Big Ears”

When I was in my late teens, I used to spend a lot of time sitting in my apartment with my friend Jeremy, listening to whatever jazz CDs we’d picked up in the previous week. Jeremy is the first person who played me Coltrane and opened my ears in ways that I’m still trying to understand. But one of my favorite parts of the ritual was going to the local store, thumbing through the CD trays and reading the extensive liner notes that labels like Blue Note and Impulse often printed on the back of the CD tray. There was so much knowledge disseminated through those liners and it’s one reason I’ve started buying a lot of jazz CDs again. With that said, I am so thankful that a lot of artists are putting extensive notes in the descriptions of their digital-only releases. Such is the case with this incredible document from Jason Moran and the late Milford Graves.

I can’t recommend enough that you go to the release page for Live at Big Ears and read Moran’s story about how this collaboration came together. It is such a perfect encapsulation of one of the many things that made Milford Graves such a one-of-a-kind giant. This line, though, stands out: “Milford spoke of gardens and how he planted species close to one another that might not otherwise meet, charging a new relationship. This is how he approaches music.” It’s a perfect analogy. 

So what of the performance on Live at Big Ears? It’s a spellbinding romp of two incredibly talented artists leading and chasing each other through the sonic heavens, finding a solid, tender embrace at the end of the path. Hearing the performance unfold in real time is exhilarating as you can hear Moran and Graves feeling each other out, testing waters – a scattershot rhythm here to push in one direction, a waltzing arpeggio there to take things even higher – until it all comes together in three-and-a-half minutes of focused aural lightning. On “Third,” Moran’s piano notes hang like dandelion seeds floating in the summer air while Graves offers a gentle touch, the sound of building rain thrumming on the roof. There’s something mournful about it as if they’re laboring over past misery until Moran jolts to and Graves rises to meet him, pushing those feelings aside to rediscover cathartic joy. It’s one of my favorite pieces on the recording.

Complementing the live collaborative performance are four pieces from Moran. Three are looped, processed, and slowed-down excerpts from the performance and the final duet on the album, “With Bikongo Ifá: Spirit of the Being.” Recorded as part of a performance within Graves’ exhibition at the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary art, Moran describes the pieces as a conversation with Graves’ final sound sculpture, Bikongo Ifá: Spirit of the Being. The growling electronics and effervescent heartbeats of the piece are beautifully accented by Moran’s entrancing piano excursions. Repetitive patterns that shift between contemplative and hopeful to angular and freeing open up new pathways to fresh ideas. 

Listening between the lines to the live pieces and the final collaboration, there is so much care and gratitude in this music. On Live at Big Ears, the journey takes center stage. Jason Moran and Milford Graves forge an understanding and deep appreciation with all of us listeners as witnesses. This is music that is viscerally real. To quote Graves (again, read the liners!) one last time: “…you’ve got to teach people how to get back into themselves, to learn how to be that human being.” Live at Big Ears is a roadmap to just that. What an absolute treasure.