Makaya McCraven: Universal Beings

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The US-based Europhile drummer Makaya McCraven was new to me until last year when I randomly got a ticket to see his show with UK sax player Nubiya Garcia at the London Jazz Festival. It was clear on arriving at the Hackney Arts Centre that I was seriously out of the loop: McCraven had attracted a huge crowd and a line of hip-looking 20 somethings extended right around the block.

So unexpected was this sight that I had to be reassured by a number of people that yes, this roadblock event is in fact a jazz gig.

I’m ashamed to say I didn’t last long inside. Possibly 2,000 people were crammed into the standing-only venue. Such was the level of chatter and poor PA quality that it was fully 15 minutes before I realised that the excellent Nubya Garcia and her band were underway; after about 25 minutes I left, defeated by the crush and the background noise.

Listening to McCraven’s new CD – and catching up on the two that precede it – I now know that was a big mistake. This is the drummer’s natural habitat.

McCraven calls his sound “organic beat music”. It’s a mash-up of tough bebop with a strong element of hip-hop and R&B (in the modern sense of the term). It’s mostly acoustic and it’s not so polished or oppressive as hip-hop, but it’s louder, more repetitive and minimalist than modern jazz is.

Universal Beings features first-take recordings made in New York, Chicago, London and L.A. with different 4/5 piece line-ups creating their own, collective sound variations on the leader’s themes and cues. The NY side for example has harp, cello and vibes producing a blissed out update on Alice Coltrane; the Chicago side, led by the UK’s radical tenorist Shabaka Hutchings has an M-Base meets Afrobeat meets Kronos Quartet feel to it.

The standout session for me (ironically, since I missed the opportunity to hear it live) is London. With luminous harmonies from Ashley Henry’s Rhodes piano and Garcia’s Coltranesque runs, it’s a more three-dimensional sound, but just as hypnotic. That said, the spiky, spontaneous, guitar led jam recorded in Jeff Parker’s own house in L.A. is a treat too. I’m so glad I got there eventually.

Discography
(1) A Queen’s Intro; Holy Lands; Young Genius; Black Lion; Tell Tales; Mantra; (2) Pharoah’s Intro; Atlantic Black; Inner Flight; Wise Man, Wiser Woman; Prosperity’s Fear (46.00)
CD2: (3) Flipped OUT; Voila; Suite Haus; The Newbies Lift Off; The Royal Outro; (4) The Count Off; Butterss’s; Turtle Tricks; The Fift Monk; Brighter Days Beginning; Universal Beings (44.00)

(1) Brandon Younger (h); Tomeka Reid (clo); Joel Ross (vib); Dezron Douglas (b); McCraven (d). New York, August 2017.
(2) Shabaka Hutchings (ts); Tomeka Reid (clo); Junius Paul (b, pc); McCraven (d). Chicago, September 2017.
(3) Nubya Garcia (ts); Ashley Henry (kyb); Daniel Casimir (b); McCraven (d). London, October 2017.
(4) Josh Johnson (as); Miguel Atwood-Ferguson (vn); Jeff Parker (g); Anna Butterss (b); Carlos Nino (pc); McCraven (d). Los Angeles, Jan 2018.
International Anthem Recording Co IARC 0022