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Growing the phenomenon with Makaya McCraven

Makaya McCraven is shown standing outdoors, against a background of palm trees and the roofs of houses. Photo by Michael McDermott.
Makaya McCraven is shown standing outdoors, against a background of palm trees and the roofs of houses. Photo by Michael McDermott.

The drummer/composer/producer plays the High Noon Saloon on May 26.

Experimental drummer, composer, producer, bandleader, sonic collage artist, and self-described “beat scientist” Makaya McCraven vigorously dissolves the boundaries between musical genres. His audacious auditory explorations breathe new life into the elusive phenomenon that has been historically categorized as “jazz,” while freely drawing upon its rich legacy to create mind-melting mélanges of instrumental improvisation, avant-hip-hop beats, and musique concrète techniques. 

The Chicago-based McCraven’s singular, ever-evolving compositional style first came to fruition on his breakthrough album In The Moment, which was released by Chicago label International Anthem in January 2015. Since then, he has cultivated a growing reputation as one of the most inventive, resonant, and exciting voices in the modern global jazz community. As McCraven continues to develop his trademark “organic beat music”—via an inspired production process that involves recording live improvised ensemble performances, cutting the material into pieces, and splicing the fragments together into various permutations, sequences, and rhythmic patterns to create an entirely fresh audio experience—he at once preserves a time-honored tradition in Black American culture and takes it to the next level. 

Just the past couple years of McCraven’s output span a variety of sounds and approaches. We’re New Again (2020) is a dynamic re-imagining of American soul-jazz poet and proto-rap icon Gil Scott-Heron’s final dispatch I’m New Here (2010). Universal Beings E&F Sides (2020) collects extra material recorded during the sessions for his pulsating, multidimensional 2018 double album that also serves as the soundtrack to the Universal Beings documentary. Deciphering The Message (2021) is a heady remix of 13 hard bop tracks handpicked from the vast archives of Blue Note Records, seamlessly interweaving samples with new recordings of McCraven and a crew of collaborators.  

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Ahead of McCraven’s May 26 show at the High Noon Saloon, he spoke with Tone Madison by phone about delving into the Blue Note catalog for Deciphering The Message, his special affinity for Madlib, and his hopes for the future of progressive instrumental music.

Tone Madison: How does it feel to be touring again? I can imagine it must have been difficult not having that outlet for so long.

Makaya McCraven: It’s great. It’s nice. You know, there’s some annoying things to get back into. But it’s just so great to be playing for people and traveling a little bit… In a way, I kind of burnt myself out traveling so much [from] 2019 into 2020 that the beginning of the pandemic was a really nice time to spend with my family. I mean—nice time—we were not in the best of spirits. But there was a silver lining there for us. Me being home a lot. Spending time with my family. Having some time to regroup. It was good for a few months. I had planned around that time to be off for about three months. But three months quickly turned into three years. 

Tone Madison: How else were you spending that time?

Makaya McCraven: I wasn’t that interested in doing online performing. I mean, I did do a handful of streaming concerts, but for the most part, I felt like I kind of pushed back on those types of opportunities. I spent a lot of time working on the record Deciphering The Message, as well as my upcoming record In These Times—out in the fall—and I just had a lot of time to be in the computer working on those projects. I did the remix for [London-based saxophonist and composer] Nubya [Garcia] and a variety of other little things.

Tone Madison: What was it like working with Nubya Garcia?

Makaya McCraven: Nubya is a wonderful artist to work with. She has a really strong voice on her instrument as a saxophonist. And just a really sweet person to work with. I remember I met her in London at Total Refreshment Centre and we did a session with Ashley Henry. Part of the Where We Come From record as well. Some stuff for his record and Timmy Brands was there. But I remember we played and immediately just hit it off. I really love her, her energy that she brings to the music and to the stage. It’s been great to just see her continue to flourish and have a great platform that she’s building for herself and growing. It’s great, wonderful. 

Tone Madison: So how did it feel being granted access to the Blue Note archives for Deciphering The Message, and how did you decide what to pull from in such a sprawling, iconic collection?

Makaya McCraven: It was such a cool opportunity to get at the moment and a vast amount of material to sift through. I really had some parameters I wanted to put on myself at first. I was also in search of parameters and different ideas of ways to frame it, what my narrative was for the project. I went through lots of records, because of the opportunity to listen and learn something about the music. [To learn something about] the catalog and dig into certain records and players and things that weren’t necessarily even giving me any direct result towards the record itself. So I just kind of took the process to be a cool opportunity for myself to learn, as well as the unfurling [of] this creative process.

Tone Madison: During that process, was there anything that you discovered that was new to you or that was totally unexpected or surprising?

Makaya McCraven: [American free jazz trumpeter] Eddie Gale was an artist I came across during this process that I wasn’t very familiar with. Like, I’m covering him and talking to Damon Locks, who is a musician/artist. We were [on] the same label [International Anthem] with his Black Monument Ensemble. We talked about [Gale] and he kind of hipped me to that and I was really kind of surprised. I haven’t heard too much stuff quite in that vein from that time that was coming out on Blue Note—very forward and avant-garde. And so that was something that I got kind of put hip on and chose to include on the record.

Tone Madison: Could you talk a little bit about how your collaborators on the album interacted with the source material from the vaults?

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Makaya McCraven: [There was] Jeff Parker, you know, calling him and consulting him about the record just because he has such a vast knowledge of music and records and jazz. I knew if I had a question, we [would] call Jeff. [Laughs.] Have him help, keep me honest. I remember I sent him a track that I was working on. And he just was like, “Wow, man, this is dope. Can I play on this?” I hadn’t even gotten that far. I knew I was gonna get people to play on it. We had talked and I told him I was working on this. He just heard the track and was giving his opinion. He’s like, “This is great!” From there, it was just working and looking to people I trust as I’m making this stuff, sending people things and getting input. We’re also getting them to play and it’s developing over time. 

Tone Madison: There have been other artists in the past who have been chosen for that same honor—being able to go through the vaults and remix the Blue Note catalog. The first one that comes to mind is Shades Of Blue by Madlib, which I assume you’ve heard. How does your interpretation relate to that and what do you think of his approach?

Makaya McCraven: So Madlib, I’ve always been a big fan. He’s one of the artists who really inspired me into sampling and experimenting and beatmaking and such. And so I’m familiar with his music and some of the ways that he goes about making things—maybe not exactly how he makes it, but what his stuff sounds like on that record…

It also is the Us3 record [Hand On The Torch (1993)], where they sample [Herbie Hancock’s] “Cantaloupe Island” [on the track “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)”] and Pee Wee Marquette [on their “Intro” to Broadway & 52nd (1997)]. And I used the same sample. I was aware of that track since I was a kid. I definitely wanted to interface with everything that was there. I really wanted to include that into my record where I felt like I could be in conversation with those records in some way through sampling. I knew I didn’t want to listen to the record [Shades Of Blue] too much as I was making my project, but also, one thing that was different is I wanted to have players on this and try to keep some bits of integrity and the tunes together—not just kind of flip them into these short beats, but see if we can just transport them into this other space.

Tone Madison: You have a very unique approach where you take the raw material of live performances and then make kind of a collage of what’s happening. With Deciphering The Message, of course, you’re also taking old material and making it new. Could you talk a little bit about your methodology and your creative process?

Makaya McCraven: I really got into this through sampling and wanting to do studio stuff and studio recording, whether it’s analog synthesis or recording to tape or cutting tape or editing or making beats or sampling Mellotrons and tape loop, tape delays—all this music technology and what we can do manipulating audio to create other sounds, other moments, other music. As I got more and more into that side of music-making and creation, it led me to sample-based music and wanting to do that, and that led me to start sampling myself and working in studios and recording myself and eventually coming to In The Moment, when we did it at a live space. 

I always liked to do improvisation as well. It’s a part of me. So when we did the series for In The Moment, we called the gig a spontaneous composition series.

The idea was, we are playing without any prescript in a way that we’re trying to improvise together but, find little nuggets of this and that, and we’re recording the whole time to potentially do—who knew what we were going to do with it? When I started to just experiment with the sampling of that, it just developed into a new space. I found something special, at least for myself. [It was like that feeling you get] when you play something for the very first time and it clicks with a band, the first take you get—start to finish—of a song in a rehearsal. There’s something special in those moments of creation and inspiration when everybody is there in the moment. Capturing that and then using that as fodder to make my migration just was an interesting path to take me down. And that led to all these other projects and having other opportunities to not only sample myself but work with historical material and engage in this space. But it always came from my draw to music technology and these types of things.



Tone Madison: You said in an interview with The Guardian that you see your creative process as a continuation of tradition rather than a break from the norm. Could you elaborate on how your music relates to the history of jazz and advancements in technology?

Makaya McCraven: Well, for one, I think jazz is also a product of technological advance[s]. Without invention of the drum set and the kick drum pedal and the “high sock” cymbal and moving these bands from marching bands and this music for that to be able to play in smaller venues and everything, I think, is a big part of the development of Black American music and American music in general. On all contemporary music at this point, when you come to music that is centered around [the] drum set and certain rhythms that we use… I look up to Miles Davis and Duke Ellington and [Charles] Mingus and all these cats. A lot of them talked about feeling boxed in by the word “jazz.” 

Coming in the tradition of playing my instrument, interacting with the music that came before me, trying to achieve mastery on the instrument, playing, improvising, and learning vocabulary, you’ll hear similar intros and outros and hits and licks and people writing different melodies over the same changes of this song or that song. [Part of musical] vocabulary is reusing and repurposing sounds and ideas in a way as well. 

[When] it comes to sampling and the stuff that I do with technology, how I make my records, I mean, this stuff isn’t new either. They’ve been cutting tape on record, editing records [for a long time]. Miles already did records like this in the ’70s, which was much more complicated to do than my process. We’ve been sampling jazz records. I mean, you were talking about that Us3 track [“Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)”]. I remember hearing that “Cantaloupe Island” record track when I was a kid, and being excited because I was learning the song “Cantaloupe Island” in a youth jazz band. I was like, “Oh, look, it’s on MTV.” 

Miles Davis was trying to work within hip-hop and like, you know, if you look at jazz, like look at bossa nova music—bossa nova, that means “the new thing.” And this was an innovation that was happening at that time. It became a very popular part of the canon, and now it’s under a more straight-ahead jazz space. And we consider that, like, normal. What I think I’m trying to do is the same thing as all of this, is grow the music, interact with what’s here, now, and what’s before me and the players before, and play with people while pulling all of my own influences together to make my music. 

This was the music of Duke Ellington, and this is the music of Makaya McCraven. Not necessarily narrowly fitting into what an idea of genre is, yet we still use terminology and genre as a way for us to sell music—commodified music—and talk about music when language generally isn’t that sufficient to [give] the descriptions around instrumental music, because it’s hard to talk about abstract things. Language becomes important, right? But in reality, to me, the language is very limited in terms of what you’re supposed to do or what you can do or what has actually been done in the past. I’d like to do what they did, is what I’m saying. And I’m saying they were trying to play jazz. Miles Davis was trying to play his music and talks about that in interviews. And so that’s what I try to do. I’m trying to not play what the people before me played, but try to understand what they thought and why they did what they did, and take part in the tradition. 

Tone Madison: Yeah, I understand that you’re ambivalent about using the word “jazz.”

Makaya McCraven: Just because I find it terribly insufficient, at best, in describing the phenomenon. Maybe it’s insufficient at best and it’s offensive at worst. Depending on who you’re speaking to, what does it mean to play jazz? It could mean all those conceptual things I said. We can also talk about things like blues and swing and the nuts and bolts of idiomatic periods of jazz. Or are we talking about music that is lacking of time and feel, is more of texture and squeaking and squawking, or are we talking about smooth jazz? Or could we be here and somebody hears a saxophone solo in a rock and roll song, which used to be common, and be like, “Wow, this is like jazz.” 

Somebody might see a piano and immediately call it jazz just because there’s—depending on who you are, your knowledge base, where you come from, and your understanding of the nuances of the discussion we’re talking about—I would code switch so I can discuss this with you in a way that we can be talking on the same plane, you know? In that sense when I say jazz, it means something different to different people. Right? Then it’s like, does it actually mean anything? Am I describing myself?

It’s just complicated. So I’m ambivalent about the word just because I often say and feel like I have to explain myself if I’m going to use it in one way or another.

Tone Madison: What do you envision as the future of this musical phenomenon, as you call it?

Makaya McCraven: [Laughs.] I think it just is, right? We’re going to always have young musicians that want to play well, and I’m going to look back and look for people who can help them learn and show them the way, and we’re going to look in what we have examples for in this great music that’s left in front of us, and in all its forms and developments. The conversation of if it was gonna go away or not—no. I think there’s just gonna be another group of musicians. Music is developing and changing. And these young guys I keep on meeting, you know, players who are 18 to 21 years old, who are incredibly inspiring, and have their own ideas and are really doing it. I think the big thing is, what’s going to happen with the audience and where are the platforms? Where are the places that play and what does the environment look like, on the business level? And I don’t know about that. It’s changing all the time. I try not to think about it. I’m just trying to make music that’s for me and the people around me, and I’m trying to create meaningful engagement with the world.

Tone Madison: In an interview for Rolling Stone, you were talking about the current enthusiasm among young hip hop fans for what you call more “challenging” music and you mentioned Flying Lotus and Madlib. Obviously, we talked about Madlib before and I’m a huge fan of him and Flying Lotus. What’s your relationship to their music and how do you think that relates to the future of this phenomenon?

Makaya McCraven: I will say I’m a fan of their music. I really enjoy the way that they have their influence in music, that they like jazz, and where they come from and it’s part of their sound, it’s part of their music. That immediately turned me on to Madlib, coming up playing jazz and coming up playing around avant-garde, progressive musicians. Hearing that represented in this kind of space of hip-hop beats was very validating to me and the things that I liked and was into and my efforts to find the place where seemingly disparate musics come together. It really tells a narrative of the music I grew up with. There was this idea of like, you know, we’re talking about what jazz means to different people, but this idea that jazz was this nerdy thing and [as] a young person, you want to be cool. 

You’re trying to avoid the word jazz. I mean, I still talk about that, but for different reasons. Because I was feeling like that was a dead-end street for your career, because you get pigeonholed. But that wasn’t the musicians I grew up with. That wasn’t the world I grew up in, you know, that idea of it. So having representation, that was really putting the music in the light that I understood it in a historical context, how it’s related to hip hop and Black music, and all these things in general.

That narrative being told from somebody with the clout in that space was validating for a young musician that wants to do this and feels like, “Is there an audience for this? Is there space for this? Is it acceptable?” Madlib definitely, you know, maybe Flying Lotus [is] a little closer to my age or whatever. But still, similar things. A fan, maybe not as much like sampling super old jazz records, but just being very progressive with this approach and doing kind of progressive instrumental electronic music that could be weird and left of center and not as simple to the palate. That stuff was coming across and really resonating with more commercial audiences. I found [it] very, very exciting, and on top of it, I like the music, so…

Tone Madison: What do you have planned for the Madison show, and how has your live setup evolved in the last few years? Obviously, you haven’t been playing live for a while.

Makaya McCraven: I think one of the major developments has been, the addition of playing these larger ensemble kind[s] of shows. Universal Beings was mostly trios and quartets. And same with In The Moment. Universal Beings‘ concerts ended up kind of pulling everybody together and doing a full-on, large group ensemble concert of the music. We did it in Chicago, we did it in New York, and that started to develop more. Eventually, I’ve taken the large group concept and applied it to other music that I’ve been writing. For my upcoming record In These Times, some of it was recorded at Chicago Symphony Orchestra Hall. [At the] Walker Art Center [in Minneapolis], I put together a string quartet and a larger iteration of my band with Brandee Younger and harp, a few horn players, and all of that. It’s not like what I do on all my tours, but I have this record coming out in September that really featured around this kind of larger band and larger presentation and sounds. That’s been kind of an exciting development, and it’s also represented in the record that now has kind of a lot of streams. And it’s still kind of going in between some live elements and studio elements, but now it’s just kind of an expanded group.



Tone Madison: You’ve collaborated with a lot of different artists from around the world. Is there anyone in particular that you haven’t worked with yet that you would really want to work with?

Makaya McCraven: I mean, Madlib, Herbie Hancock… There’s a lot of people I would love to work with, but I generally tend to keep—knowing myself—my relationships that come, they come very organically and close, for the most part. It’s like, a person to a person, to the next person to the next person. I’m grateful that I’ve had such a strong network that I’ve been able to surround myself with. 

Tone Madison: How do you see the music community around you evolving in the future?

Makaya McCraven: I think that the number of young musicians that are coming up, that’s what gives me excitement for the future. I’m playing with a new lead piano player, Jahari Stampley, in Chicago. He’s been doing some gigs with me and he is just such a wonderful musician, and it’s just inspiring to me. I just hope to see everybody growing and doing their thing. I’m excited that  more and more young instrumental music seems to be consumed by a lot of different people. I’m hopeful. 

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