Makaya McCraven's Utopian Vision of Jazz Could Change the World
The drummer's new album 'Universal Beings' was recorded in four cities with four bands, turning moments of improvised genius into ecstatic beatwork. It's a testament to the power of music without borders.
Makaya McCraven is skeptical of borders. The drummer and composer was born in Paris, grew up in Western Massachusetts, and has lived in Chicago for the past 12 years. Recently, aside from touring, he’s spent a fair amount of time in London, Los Angeles, and New York for work reasons. Sitting in a photographer’s apartment studio in Manhattan, recovering from the unseasonable fall heat he’s endured during a brief press jaunt in the city, he tells me that he feels connections to all these places—and none of them.
“I’m not beholden to this border or this city,” he says, absentmindedly toying with a medallion on a chain around his neck. “What is a place? Other than the people. It’s just dirt, you know?”
We find ourselves on this abstract train of thought after I bring up the current state of jazz in Chicago, a much trend-pieced phenomenon that largely involves people from outside the city fetishizing the music that McCraven and his close-knit scene of friends are making for punkish labels like International Anthem. Their vision of the genre is malleable, with players drawing on, say, hip-hop or cumbia or kosmische or techno and bringing that into their world of rhythmic improvisation. It’s a scene where gatekeeping is frowned upon: If you’re wondering if these vibrant cross-pollinations are even jazz, you’re asking the wrong questions.
McCraven allows that there is something special happening in Chicago. But the same thing’s happening more or less everywhere, he argues. London’s scene is bursting with omnivorous and hungry young jazz musicians. Los Angeles, too, has seen the rise of a new generation of experimenters and cosmic seekers. New York’s no slouch either, as jazz players here continue to shirk the established institutions in favor of newer, weirder, more democratic spaces.
“It’s a crazy time to be alive,” he says. “There’s a craving for something visceral, something honest, something vulnerable from art.”
So why limit yourself to one place—to one sound? That’s one of the questions driving the music that McCraven’s released this year, two connected but distinct projects called Where We Come From (a mixtape released back in July) and Universal Beings (a mammoth double-LP that’s came out in October). He recorded the former at a residency in London, with a band of local players that—as he announces on the set’s opening track—he’d just met. Each side of the latter features a different cast of musicians in a different city, including London, New York, Chicago, and LA. Both records begin from free improvisation, which he then edits down in software into fragmented loops and off-kilter beats. His work draws on the many legacies of jazz, but also on funk rhythms, rap production, musique concrète techniques, and a whole lot more.
“We are all interconnected, We’re all building off the past. [My music] is a vision of a world that’s less fragmented and segregated.” — Makaya McCraven
In a sense, this is borderless music, forged out of alchemical interactions between people but also a higher-level interaction between the communities those people make up. “We are all interconnected,” he says. “We’re all building off the past. It’s a vision of a world that’s less fragmented and segregated.”
McCraven, now 35, sees his childhood as the beginning of his current journey. He was born in France, to what he calls an “artistic, progressive, politically minded musician family.”
His father was an American expat, himself a jazz drummer who played with many of the era’s avant-gardists, and his mother was a folk musician from Hungary, who ended up in France when members of her band were targeted by the Hungarian government because their pan-Eastern European music didn’t fit with the government’s more nationalist inclinations. Soon they moved to Amherst, a college town in Western Massachusetts that was then home to some of Makaya’s father’s mentors, like the legendary saxophonist Archie Shepp and multi-instrumentalist Yusuf Lateef.
His dad had him on the drum set from a really young age, and he had the opportunity to sit in on rehearsals from some of the world’s all-time greatest jazz musicians. Still, he says he didn’t own his relationship to the instrument until high school, when he fell in with the school’s jazz band, then formed a band of his own with a bunch of older kids. It was an early lesson in genre-obliteration. They drew on McCraven’s upbringing in jazz, but also everything from the Roots to jam bands to Rage Against the Machine, and they had a frontman who rapped. They called themselves Cold Duck Complex.
“It was a silly name,” McCraven says, sighing. “But we did a lot.”
The band was also a lesson in DIY for McCraven. Cold Duck Complex booked their own shows, street-teamed, and did radio promo, slowly becoming something of a local phenomenon (McCraven says they were one of the biggest bands in Western Mass for a time.) They played gigs with Digable Planets, Pharcyde, and Mix Master Mike. In 2002, they even opened a college show headlined by 50 Cent, who came onstage wearing a bulletproof vest (“That was my first taste of how hype works,” he says, with a laugh.)
McCraven eventually did a brief stint at UMass himself, but dropped out soon after because he was getting enough work to sustain himself as a full-time musician, often playing weddings or with jazz bands or DJs or indie rock acts. They weren’t always the best shows in the world, but it was a living, and he figured he could learn a little bit from everyone, a philosophy that’s driven his work since. He recalls seeing Lateef, a master saxophonist and flautist, taking oboe lessons at UMass, well into his 80s, a lesson in continual forward motion.
So when he moved to Chicago in 2006—drawn westward by his wife’s acceptance of a tenure-track position at Northwestern—he took it as a opportunity for growth. He was “starting from scratch” in terms of the professional relationships, but he quickly got into the swing of things, taking on whatever gigs he could. He still felt like a bit of an outsider in whatever scene he happened to be moving in—too “inside” for avant-gardists, too out-there for straight-ahead jazz groups, too jazzy for hip-hop. But in each situation, he said, he learned a little more about himself as a musician. “Having a diverse career has been the crux to my survival as an artist,” McCraven says.
Eventually, the founders of International Anthem approached him with an opportunity to put together a series of improvised music nights in Chicago. An engineer would record each performance, with the idea that McCraven would use them as demos for his debut on the label. McCraven started loading the files into Ableton, adding effects and tweaking the EQ, just to make it sound a little better as he listened back. But then he started doing something strange.
Since his days in Cold Duck Complex, McCraven had nursed a fascination with rap beats. He’d tried making them before, coming home from backbreaking days of gigs to spend all night in front of a laptop, flipping samples and programming drum parts. Surveying the raw audio of these improvised sessions, he finally saw an opportunity to marry the two sides of his work.
“There’s some beautiful things that happen in these improvised concerts,” he says. “There can be awkward moments when I get musicians who have never met [before in front of an audience]. There’s some danger there. Is it going to suck? It kinda sucks right now! There’s something magical and vulnerable about that.”
Scrolling through hours of jams—filled with the hesitation and musical “Oh, excuse me you first”s that characterize improvisational efforts—he would find the best moments and loop them. Sometimes, those passages last only seconds, but through editing the pieces, McCraven can linger in them for as long as he likes.
In 2015, he made a record that demonstrated the power of this technique, and it vaulted him to the forefront of a generation of jazz musicians playing with the strictures of the form. Though he describes that album, In the Moment, as a “process of discovery,” it still holds much of the magic that fuels his music now, taking traditionally freaky tropes of avant-garde jazz—woody bleats of saxophone splatter-painted across his hopscotching snare—and using software to present them in a new context. Inspired by Madlib’s flips of Sun Ra or Don Cherry records (which warped out-jazz experiments into wooly beatwork, and brought those sounds to new audiences in the process) he sees these edits, in part, as a way of reaching open-minded listeners who might not otherwise listen to jazz. Twisting those sounds into more familiar forms, like rap beats, offers a way in.
“Realizing that DJs and crate-diggers might know more about jazz records than people spending 50 dollars and a two-drink minimum to go see me play at a club in New York—that was inspiring,” he says.
His greatest challenge since then has been figuring out how far he can push this new style. He can make something cool out of flipping these improvisations, sure—2017’s Highly Rare has some pieces that feel pretty unlike anything I’ve ever heard from experimental electronic music or jazz—but what could he say with them? Where We Come From is small in scope, based on a single set of performances in the UK, but it was the first time McCraven pushed his sound to some of its natural conclusions.
If you listen to the record without reading along with the tracklist, you’ll notice that certain snippets of melody and vocals appear across multiple tracks. That’s partly because McCraven uses some of them as motifs, trying to wring different emotions out of a restrained palette. But it’s also because after he edited them, he passed them to some producer friends who then edited them again, turning them into bruising beats or dancefloor-ready jams. The result demonstrates the astonishing versatility of the technique he created. Some of the pieces on Where We Come From feel like an even more radical version of the mutant L.A. jazz on To Pimp a Butterfly, by which I mean, Kendrick, please get at Mayaka if you want to explore new worlds.
Universal Beings though, is a different beast entirely. At 91 minutes and 22 tracks, it’s a behemoth of a record, and the music is occasionally as intimidating as its runtime suggests. There’s gnarled 10-minute jams full of contortionist rhythmic interplay (“Atlantic Black”), nauseous two-stepping grooves (“Flipped OUT”), and a track described on by one the players on a trippy interlude as a “gust of energy coming down this mountain that I feel on my back kinda vibe” (“Butterss’s”).
"[Editing improvisations is] a way of transporting us to a magical space,” McCraven says. “Anything can happen.”
The playing drips with sort of electric energy that can only come from a group of people in a room free-associating together. But it’s made all the more strange and alluring by McCraven’s editing. Sometimes you feel the jump cuts in your chest; sometimes they happen without you noticing, but either way, you understand intuitively why he loops the sections he does; they’re grooves you never really want to leave. He’s taking something happened in a room somewhere, between some people, and sending it to another place.
“I’m going to flip it and recontextualize it and change it; it’s a way of transporting us to a magical space,” he says. “Anything can happen.”
Universal Beings fulfills this promise more than any of his other records so far, with McCraven enlisting dozens of players from around the world into his search for the perfect moment. There are indicators that some bits were recorded in certain places with specific groups of people—when the delicate breeze of a harp shows up on “Holy Lands,” for example, you can check the liner notes and see that it was recorded at H0l0 in Ridgewood, Queens, the only room where McCraven had a harpist in tow.
And yet, there’s something about his approach that draws all these disparate players into the same universe—something that makes the mystical malleted percussion of “Black Lion” (recorded in Queens) feel like it shares mutated DNA with the hopscotching sax of “Suite Haus” (recorded in London). You could blame it on McCraven’s coherent taste as a bandleader, or you could take could come to a more metaphysical understanding. One player does, on the dialogue sampled on “Brighter Days Beginning.” Amid a discussion about privilege, collectivity, and the strange power of this music, someone comes to a realization: “We’re universal beings.”
On the record, and in McCraven’s world writ large, borders dissolve, barriers crumble. Everything is available to you. All of humanity is in conversation. All you have to do is just start playing, on his count.
Olivia Locher is a photographer based in New York. Find more of her work on Instagram.
Colin Joyce is an editor at Noisey and is on Twitter.