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)

McCraven had no local musical contacts when he moved to Chicago in 2006 (joining his wife, Nitasha Tamar Sharma, a professor of anthropology at Northwestern University in nearby Evanston, Illinois). So, he forged ahead making his own connections, taking every gig and, as he said, “got pulled into the straightahead world” through working with guitarist Bobby Broom and pianist Willie Pickens (1931–2017). He released his own jazz piano trio disc, Split Decision (Chicago Sessions), in 2012, some of which drew on Hungarian melodic motifs.

When McCraven saw guitarist Jeff Parker play sets of free jazz interspersed with a DJ at a Chicago bar called Rodan, he sought a similar kind of residency at another small venue, The Bedford. He realized that experimental jazz artists could draw listeners to Chicago clubs without simplifying their music. McCraven also was paying attention to adventurous hip-hop producers like Madlib, who has sampled Sun Ra. McCraven wanted to challenge longstanding orthodoxies of free improvisation within his own groups: Grooves and solid vamps had as much of a place as abstraction. Several musicians showed up to contribute, including bassist Joshua Abrams, who mentioned how the drummer combines jazz and hip-hop legacies on his own terms.

“With Makaya, there’s a dialog about how he’s concerned with his music’s relationship with sample-based music and certain realms of hip-hop,” Abrams said. “But then he adjusts sounds, loops things, and it’s cool to see how that’s affected different sounds of the kit.”

After recording about 48 hours worth of material throughout 10 months, International Anthem Recording Co. producer Scott McNiece encouraged McCraven’s experiments with splicing the tapes in his home studio. Sometimes McCraven overdubbed percussion or keyboard parts to bring out more compositional sensibilities. The resulting album, In The Moment, came out in 2015. The follow-up, Highly Rare (2017), derived from a similar method of remixing open-ended live sessions. McCraven said that the difference between the two was that since he felt the latter’s source material sounded more aggressive, he layered in more drums and loops, “so it wouldn’t just be ‘out’ the whole time.”

Media attention from beyond the jazz world followed, and the bandleader has not been the only beneficiary. Alto saxophonist Nick Mazzarella, who performed on those dates, credited a growing audience for his own music to what he observed as a “widespread interest in that record’s production style.”

Such interest has brought McCraven more opportunities for large-ensemble performances. At the time of his DownBeat interview in October, McCraven was preparing to take a group (including Parker and Younger) to the Mondriaan Jazz Festival in The Hague, and he was planning to perform with a 10-piece band at a Red Bull Music Academy event in Chicago. To provide his bandstand collaborators with a roadmap, McCraven has transcribed songs from his International Anthem albums into written arrangements. As McCraven described it, notating and arranging is not far removed from distilling improvisational moments in the studio.

“The process is, I find the parts I liked, locate them and assign them to a player in the group, which might be a different instrument, depending on who’s playing with me,” McCraven said. “I use the melodies and motifs, arrange them and give it a more structured form. When I take the improvisations, I reduce them to this thing that has a structure, but structure can still be loose, reduce it again to core concepts and make a sequence and use that basic composition as a basis for musicians to improvise and make something new. It’s the use of form, recurring form.”

McCraven added that jazz itself is based on ideas of how to use repetition: “Jazz is no more than loops, anyway. Recurring form—AABA—we use that as a vehicle for improvisation to create something new. What I love about that process is that all composition starts with improvisation.

“We improvise, then I edit and rearrange and recontextualize that source material into a new distillation of ideas. Then I can take it and pass it to a DJ, who can remix those ideas. Then [we] take that remix and get a live band to learn the remix, then we can perform it as a live band and use it as a catalyst to improvise over that form or create something [else]. Then we have an additional piece of music that doesn’t resemble the improvisation but is a representation of an electronic-sounding remix of that first reimagination. And if we record that live band, we can chop it up all over again and continue the process. It’s a regenerative process of composition—using what was there to reimagine something new. It’s kind of neat; it’s meta.

“But the end result isn’t what I’m getting at,” he continued. “It’s a process—which part of the process were you there for? It exists in a sonic space that doesn’t exist in our physical realm. But it speaks to the depth of this music, jazz, culture, rhythm, oral tradition. You can’t really pinpoint all of it in words. It’s culture as an organic living thing that evolves, like people.”

At some point in the future, McCraven would like to delve deeper into the source of many of the beats that shape Universal Beings, especially the shifting polyrhythms associated with the traditional music of Africa.

“There are so many other people I want to work with, who I would love to bring into this process,” McCraven said. “I want to travel around Africa—Ethiopia, South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, places I already have connections with musicians, [including] Gnawa musicians. These are people I met through my father. I would do a week in each city, meet musicians, drummers, have a kind of cultural exchange, something where we have an experience and can document that and use that for source material. That’s the next phase of the concept. Universal Beings is just a culmination of me investigating this process, trying to connect with people and seeing how much I can do with it. I’m inspired that people like this, that I’m allowed to do this.” DB

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