May 18, 2024

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Makaya McCraven remixes the past toward a brighter future: Video, Photos

When journalist Studs Terkel wrote his landmark 1974 book “Working,” he described it as “a search for daily meaning as well as for daily bread.”

One could describe the music of drummer, producer and composer Makaya McCraven in much the same way. In his albums and mixtapes, he cuts, samples and overdubs his live performances, those gig recordings becoming building blocks for all-new creations. McCraven’s marriage of here-and-now improvisation with a hip-hop producer’s sensibility has made him a global musical eminence: a regular presence on the world’s major jazz stages; a repeat star on year-end roundups; and the headlining artist at this summer’s grand opening of the Salt Shed, the most significant independent venue to open in the city in years.

But for years after McCraven moved to Chicago from Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley, he played all over the city in decidedly less glamorous contexts. In the spirit of other great live jazz recordings of the past, his discography asserts those venues as musical personalities themselves: babbling patrons become a rowdy counterpoint, the looped clink of glasses and silverware a subtle ostinato. “In the Moment” (2015) — his first remixed full-length, released to critical acclaim 10 years after he first arrived here — begins with McCraven requesting applause from an inattentive audience, only half-jokingly.

“I tell people, like, ‘If you’ve ever seen music somewhere, I’ve done that.’ I’ve been through the trenches,” he says. “I’ve had people treat me like the help at events, then I turn around and play a club or festival where the same people treat me like a rock star. Artists experience class stratification in ways most other people don’t.”

Makaya McCraven | Beat Scientist, Drummer and Producer

Such is the lot of a working musician. Before releasing “In the Moment,” McCraven spoke candidly about his experiences on the bandstand in a 2014 interview with leftist publication “In These Times.” He received an outpouring of support from musicians around the world. Clearly, his words had struck a chord.

This September, McCraven, now 39, released an album he’s been trying to make since that interview. He called it, appropriately enough, “In These Times.” The album is McCraven’s first to exclusively feature the compositions he’s played in his sets for years now. Attendees of his live shows have likely heard “This Place That Place,” a punny play on the tune’s continually displaced rhythms. Even older is “Lullaby,” based on a song cowritten by his mother Ágnes Zsigmondi McCraven. In the original, she sings “hush, little baby, hush, Makaya” in Hungarian, set to a lilting 5/4; on “In These Times,” it becomes a cascading instrumental ballad and a virtuoso spotlight for harpist Brandee Younger, one of McCraven’s many frequent collaborators.

The gig-economy hamster wheel is partly responsible for the long gestation of “In These Times.” McCraven had wanted to release an album of his own compositions for more than seven years, but he had to squeeze it in between tours, gigs, fatherhood (he and his wife, Northwestern University professor Nitasha Tamar Sharma, have two children) and more immediate, full-length projects. Those projects weren’t so much detours as they were ever more head-spinning explorations of his musical process: “Universal Beings” (2018), recorded in and alongside the local talents of Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and London; “We’re New Again” (2020), which re-imagines Gil-Scott Heron’s final commercial recordings; and “Deciphering the Message” (2021), a trippily remixed voyage through the Blue Note catalog.

“Deciphering the Message” gave McCraven a chance to indulge his “crate-digging” obsessions, nurtured early on by his father, jazz drummer Stephen McCraven. While Makaya McCraven was growing up in Massachusetts, Archie Shepp, Yusef Lateef, Marion Brown and Sam Rivers weren’t unattainable idols — they were just around.

“As a young musician I’d hear things like, ‘Oh, jazz is all corny and white.’ That didn’t compute with me. I grew up around provocative Black musicians who had very developed ideas about music and who were politically engaged,” McCraven says.

He’s internalized those mentors’ lessons, not just musically but philosophically. McCraven might be this paper’s Chicagoan of the Year for Jazz, but he casts a skeptical and ever-shifting eye toward the label.

“When we use the word ‘jazz,’ it’s very limited in the scope of what it means to different people,” McCraven says. “At a young age, I decided I didn’t want to play jazz — I wanted to play everything. Then later, I decided, ‘No, I want to reappropriate the term to how I understood it growing up.’ Now, as I’ve become even more nuanced, my thinking and understanding has come back to, ‘Actually, the word doesn’t even really encapsulate what I feel like I’m trying to do.’

“If I wanted to follow in the tradition of the so-called ‘jazz greats,’ well, Miles (Davis) critiqued the racist origins of the term ‘jazz.’ So did Duke Ellington and (Charles) Mingus. It was used as a way to box them in and commodify their culture and art … I’m taking part in that lineage by also questioning these things.”

Makaya McCraven unleashes Universal Beings E&F Sides | Jazzwise

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