Makaya McCraven’s ‘Distillation of Ideas’

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Seeing guitarist Jeff Parker perform sparked new ideas for drummer Makaya McCraven.

(Photo: David Marques)

Makaya McCraven uses various means to create and redirect energy, as evidenced on his latest album, Universal Beings (International Anthem). Just as he’s done on previous releases, the drummer took kinetic segments from live performances, edited them and turned them into striking original compositions.

Geography became both more and less of a factor on this record’s sessions, held in 2017 and 2018. On these tracks, McCraven led distinct groups in four cities, and here, too, transformation yielded new works that stood apart from the original sources.

Maintaining the conversation’s momentum with few detours, McCraven blended seemingly disparate ideas during a discussion with DownBeat at a coffee shop in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood, a few blocks from his home. He spoke with the same intense focus that he brings to the bandstand. (It’s not surprising that he was captain of his high school football team.) Although McCraven describes himself as competitive, his forcefulness is intertwined with generosity.

Universal Beings includes contributions from a singular string section—harpist Brandee Younger and cellist Tomeka Reid joining McCraven’s longtime bassist Junius Paul on some tracks—and exchanges with British players, including saxophonists Shabaka Hutchings and Nubya Garcia. McCraven’s inclusive perspective also means his collaborations focus on people, rather than their instruments, just as the percussionist’s Where We Come From (CHICAGOxLONDON Mixtape) does.

“I just try to follow the best, most sensitive, dynamic and creative people I know,” McCraven said. “Good musicians have instincts: They’re not going to cover each other up; [they] give space, play together. If you have musicians who are sensitive, listen, I hope I get to learn something from them and hope they rub off on me in a positive way. It’s an opportunity to bring a lot of great people into a place and let great people do great things.”

McCraven constructed the tracks on Universal Beings from his groups’ improvisational sets recorded in 2017–’18 in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and London. His take on funk seems universal. On “Mantra” and “Holy Lands,” his accents propel Younger and Reid’s interwoven lines. Live and in the studio, the drummer’s sense of tension frames Hutchings’ solo on “Atlantic Black” before quickly changing the tempo. Sometimes he also unifies contrasting rhythms, such as the 5/8 superimposed over a 4/4 feel on “Young Genius.” Still, there is some mystery involved, as McCraven explained when describing how he crafted “Black Lion.”

“In the session, there was a straightforward backbeat groove that we lined up into,” McCraven said. “My first perspective was to find an intro, fade the whole thing in with a filter. Afterwards, I isolated melodic moments in the harp to give the song melodic content and chop bars into smaller bits to alter the chord changes. By the time it develops, it then opens back up into the improvisatory part, from the same improvisation we had. Then, after a hard switch to the next part, it opens up a little bit and takes itself out. It’s a puzzle. There are only 30 seconds we played this one thing, but those 30 seconds are magical. Part of the process is isolating these moments.”

Hutchings—who alters recorded performances via audio edits for one of his groups, The Comet Is Coming—is a kindred spirit. But he feels that his affinity with McCraven (with whom he first played in 2017) is fueled by the drummer’s emphasis on spontaneity.

“Makaya set up his drums, didn’t play anything, didn’t sound check, just set his stuff up, didn’t make any noise,” Hutchings said. “The first noise we made together was the first note of the concert. There was no second-guessing what anyone was going to do, no figuring out how we navigate the personalities beforehand. He wants that experience and he’s happy to put himself into the unknown.”

Younger, who described her aesthetic as “very groovy and very vampy,” felt completely comfortable in the group. She said that on the bandstand, McCraven displayed not only a great respect for her instrument, but for her skills as a musician.

“I asked Makaya, ‘Do you have music?’” Younger recalled. “He said, ‘You are music.’ That will keep you on your toes.”

In conversation, McCraven, 35, drew connections between his upbringing and his design for Universal Beings. His father, jazz drummer Stephen McCraven, brought his warm touch to such albums as Archie Shepp’s Black Ballads (1992). But McCraven drew as much inspiration from his mother, Hungarian singer Ágnes Zsigmondi. She ignored supposed boundaries to demonstrate how her country’s songs derive from a multitude of ethnicities. Similarly, McCraven seeks to dismiss any internal or external barriers. This point becomes pertinent given the rise of exclusionary nationalism throughout the planet.

“My mother’s group, Kolinda, did Hungarian music, Jewish music, Gypsy music, and the political statement was, ‘This is our music,’” McCraven said. “That wasn’t taken well by the Hungarian government at the time. Its lines were drawn not by culture, but by power. I’m saying, ‘Fuck those lines, this is my world to walk.’”

Born in France, McCraven grew up in western Massachusetts, his family members representing a range of nationalities and social classes. As a youngster, he sought out connections among diverse communities within the college town of Amherst. His years as a teenage musician and athlete involved episodes of crossing through various social strata. His amiability became crucial to his success, as he started working professionally at age 15, playing in the band Cold Duck Complex, and booking gigs around the East Coast. Through that group, McCraven blended his father’s jazz influence with rock and hip-hop. The latter’s rhythms add to why he still identifies himself as a “beat scientist.” Here, too, McCraven presented this concept in personal and international terms.

“A beat is no more than the ticking of a clock—beats per minute,” he said. “Our only way of measuring time is by adding rhythm. It’s deep in science—from the rotation of Earth going around the sun—[and] all about pulse and rhythm. I study beats, whether it’s hip-hop beats or hip-hop production, whether that’s the cymbal beat of a jazz band or polyrhythm, advanced meter, odd time signatures or the polyrhythms of West African music. Rhythm and time are all-important to me.”

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May 2019
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