2018 is Makaya's year. Following the release of the mixtape Where We Come From, Makaya McCraven gave us Universal Beings, a 21-track album-epic with several sought-after guests: Brandee Younger, Shabaka Hutchings, Jeff Parker, and Nubya Garcia.
Since 2015 and In the Moment, Makaya has been busy filling the pages of his personal mythology, starting with the creation of a self-appoint nickname to reflect the surgical precision of his playing: The Beat Scientist. Amen. This era couldn’t have hoped to produce better offspring from its most recent, great, musical movements. As a jazz drummer who is amazed by the precision of drum’n’bass machines, Makaya grew up with hip-hop whilst being raised by a jazz musician father. Here, the key elements that drive his music were already present, becoming further incorporated and clearer over time. Thus, Makaya became Makaya – the man with a recognizable touch that blends diffuse latency with concise, explosive energy.
The interest surrounding Makaya McCraven makes him epiphenomenal to a renewed perception of jazz music. It has been present for several years, via the works of Robert Glasper, Madlib or Flying Lotus – most recently being confirmed by Kamasi Washington’s tremendous ascension: the idea that jazz is not old-fashioned or intended for the elderly is finally exploding before the world as an intangible truth. Makaya is it’s latest and most credible incarnation. But it has been a question of time and long-held wishes. The last decade has been disappointing for the Chicago drummer, who wouldn’t dare proclaim his love for jazz loudly and clearly. At times, he has even struggled to recognise himself in the jazz environment: “I don’t want to always be in the situation where it is a 40 dollar cover and a 2 drink minimum, where people that might be really moved don’t wanna come or can’t afford it or don’t feel welcome. I want to have more of a dialogue with a broader section of people because I feel like those people.”
Boosted by Madlib’s intuition and the good taste of hip hop producers in making infinite sample libraries for jazz, the young Makaya slowly designed the cut of his future look: hand-stitched, authentic, and solid. Indeed, reusing old materials in this way can give them a new glimmer, freeing them from the tatty appearance that might have had lovers running a mile. “Doing the new thing is what the old thing has always been about. So i’m actually doing the old thing.” His previous early-summer release featured central performances from leading figures in the new English jazz scene. On the first six tracks of Universal Beings, recorded with the harpist Brandee Younger, the Chicagoan added new forms to the foundations by infusing hip-hop conceptions of time with a jazz atmosphere.
It wasn’t long before a younger audience was showing up: “It has been bubbling for a while now and finally it has enough power to be recognized.” As a rhythm engineer, Makaya took a hit along with others when electronics and drum’n’bass surfaced. “The drums have come a long way! The history of electronically-produced music has changed everything. The idea of mixing hip-hop and jazz isn’t new; but the music itself has evolved. Electronic drums used to imitate live musicians. But, after a while, it became the drummers who wanted to copy the virtuosity of computerized drum’n’bass beats, of sampled beats. All this information fueled younger drummers. What kind of virtuosity would it require for a drummer to accomplish what this computer can!? We wanted to be able to do the same thing!” Makaya has arguably achieved this, along with his colleagues Yussef Dayes and Nate Smith, on whom time has also done its work: “It’s part of our language now. Some people choose to dig this path because they are attracted to it. For us it was an inevitable progression.”
Live music versus Ableton
When he is not engaged in spontaneous collective compositions on stage, the drummer dissects these same live shows on the Ableton software, of which he has presumably become a great technician. The freedom Makaya brings on stage is not replicated in his off-stage work. There, the control he exerts tips notions of freedom into a kind of tailspin as they are overtaken by his meticulousness. “If you wanna make music that touches people you have to simplify it – to water it down. That works to an extent, if you just wanna play for people, but I want to make music that shakes things up, that asks questions. Innovation is a driving force.” Without oversimplifying things, the drummer removes insignificant sections of the recording, justifying the action by pointing out the different modes of listening and their separate inherent requirements.
At concerts, it’s the uncertainty of the moment and the pleasure of music being made instantaneously that gives way to roughness. On albums, the strongest part of the experience is redesigned and improved: “Come to the show. It would cheapen it for me to just give our improvisation in recorded form for you to listen to – no, that was a moment in time and it is for that moment. But, by using it as a resource for material and as a brainstorming platform, as building blocks for composition, I feel I can present certain magical moments with a different interpretation. A window, a snapshot, a picture of a moment rather than the transferral of an experience that was intimate and fleeting.” Makaya has the freedom to play with both moments, to draw from his multiple recordings and to make ever newer works from them with the possibility of interweaving everything. The drummer has forged a concept that is endlessly applicable without the result necessarily becoming too repetitive.
“The editing process is something I often do alone”
With most artists accustomed to group work, jazz is not the place for individual omniscience. Historically, of course, there are legendary leaders, dictators or benevolent democrats, but Makaya prefers leadership styles that are widely used in the hip-hop world. His initiative, his name, his vision. When asked how much he includes the musicians who played on the original recordings after the fact, he said: “When I am working on it I don’t share it with anyone but normally I give it to them just before it gets released. The editing process is a thing that I do a lot on my own. I take my computer with me everywhere. I edited whilst touring all over Europe: Turkey, Tel Aviv and the ancient holy lands – Hawaii, Chicago, everywhere I go, I am working on multiple projects at once.”
On Universal Beings, the musicians in question are no less than guitarist Jeff Parker (Chicago); saxophonist and frontrunner of the English scene Shabaka Hutchings, his fellow power-saxophonist, Nubya Garcia (also London); English pianist and member of Christine and the Queens, Ashley Henry; cellist and AACM member Tomeika Reid (Chicago), and Junius Paul (Chicago), Makaya’s faithful bassist, who, like Tomeika Reid, can be found in the new version of the historic Art Ensemble of Chicago. It’s a line-up that we can only hope to one day find on stage in its entirety.
Makaya carefully chooses the musicians who will accompany him in his spontaneous compositions. They are usually very busy people. He needs them unruly, inventive, and sufficiently talented. Those able to go onstage fearlessly despite zero planning ahead of the ruleless jam sessions invariably end up with the drummer’s seal of approval. Nevertheless, even the best among them are vulnerable: “There is an awkward moment when we are all there and I haven’t given anyone directions. We normally just do something fun, but there is that weird moment when nobody knows who will start and I just say ‘ready set go’ or ‘123’ or ‘5678’ or ‘everybody go’ and then we have to listen to each other like a big band. Sometimes someone starts quiet and creeps in, but there is a moment of tension in the silence and it is awesome.” But even after the sound emerges from post-production, it looses none of its energy. Makaya McCraven’s albums are bubbling with life.
For half a century, the AACM has proven its faith in at least two fundamental principles: originality and collectivity. Makaya McCraven shines in the International Anthem, who have made these ideas their cornerstones, too. This process includes parties in the name of the label – a simple marketing operation, and fruitful exchanges between the musicians who eventually build the catalogue. Makaya, the original, has applied this principle of meeting as the very source of his projects. In barely five years of existence, International Anthem have already accumulated enough interesting releases for the press to celebrate the renewal of jazz in Chicago since the formation of the AACM, who have never really ceased to shine. Jeff Parker, Ben LaMar Gay, Jaimie Branch, and the group Irreversible Entanglement make up the creative richness of this catalogue, navigating between labels and the expectations placed on musical adventures of jazz and affiliated music with an exciting sense of freedom. These artists utilise the unexpected, superimposing creative layers that only the most curious will want to scrape away.
Makaya McCraven, Universal Beings (International Anthem)
Read our blindfold test with Makaya McCraven!