McCraven Delivers Dramatic Contrasts, Shifting Textures

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Drummer Makaya McCraven has a new leader album, Highly Rare.

(Photo: Jude Goergen)

Drummer Makaya McCraven was in a jubilant mood during his quartet’s set at Chicago’s Thalia Hall on Dec. 2. “This is a party, right?” he said. “It’s all about feeling good and thinking hard.” But his group’s music sounded far from pensive.

McCraven had reason to celebrate. The night served as a release party for his new album, Highly Rare (International Anthem). Like on his 2015 album, In The Moment, layers of remixes add different perspectives to bandstand recordings. This approach lends a new perspective to presenting a live event, such as making strong, extended vamps seem earthier.

But for Highly Rare, he took on a different challenge. After taping a series of November 2016 gigs at Chicago club Danny’s on four-track cassettes, he reconstructed them in the studio along with additional vocals and a turntable. Even hardcore audiophiles would find little fault with the end results, even though the source material was comparatively low-fidelity tapes. At Thalia Hall, McCraven’s Chicago-based group showed that strong compositions and intuitive dialogue always remain at the heart of its work.

A combination of contrasts and shifting instrumental textures shape McCraven’s ensemble. He frequently uses snare and cymbal strikes that echo hip-hop, but the quartet also blends these beats with Junius Paul’s buoyancy on five-string electric bass. Alto saxophonist Nick Mazzarella and cornetist Ben LaMar Gay had their own salient responses to the rhythm section’s fluidity. Sometimes that was evidenced as Mazzarella unfurled a series of subtly shifting explorations of a repeated motif while Gay answered through quietly muted phrases.

On “R.F.J. III,” sudden turns built toward a surprisingly quiet coda. During another piece, Gay switched to the diddley bow while incanting the names of Chicago musicians who have passed on—from Muhal Richard Abrams (1930–2017) and Phil Cohran (1927–2017) to gospel icon Mahalia Jackson (1911–’72). Then, McCraven took that funereal hymn, reconfigured the tone and turned it into an r&b stomp. For this group, dynamic fluctuations in volume become as essential as its dramatic changes in time, whether live or in the studio.

The Thalia Hall concert also showcased the Chicago-based label International Anthem with the inclusion of jazz/spoken-word artists Irreversible Entanglements and the Latin-inspired Dos Santos. Irreversible Entanglements recently released its self-titled album, and Dos Santos’ disc is slated for next summer. All three acts shared an aesthetic of open-ended improvisation, even while taking the end results into singular directions.

Irreversible Entanglements’ performance featured a series of bracing exchanges—whether it was the flights of alto saxophonist Keir Neuringer and trumpeter Aquiles Navarro or the recitations of poet/singer Camae Ayewa (aka Moor Mother) in response to drummer Tcheser Holmes’ shifting accents. Ayewa’s sharp words decrying racism and violence reaffirm that Amiri Baraka’s legacy remains vivid.

Dos Santos used such idioms as Colombian cumbia as lively launching pads and touchstones for extensive jams among its electric guitarists and keyboards.

For more info on artists signed to International Anthem Recording Co., including trumpeter Jaimie Branch, visit the label’s website. DB



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July 2019
Anat Cohen
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