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Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Gil Scott-Heron & Makaya McCraven - We’re New Again (a Reimagining by Makaya McCraven) (XL Recordings, 2020) ****

By Martin Schray

I’m New Here was Gil Scott-Heron’s final album before he passed away in 2011. It was an unusual one. Scott-Heron was a prominent figure of black music, especially in the 1970s. He influenced musicians across genres, not only jazz, but also soul and hip-hop artists. But then his career slowed down due to drug, health, and legal difficulties, which led to imprisonment. His last album before I’m New Here was released more than a decade earlier.

Eventually, Richard Russell from the hipster label XL Recordings (The Prodigy, The White Stripes etc.) tracked him down and told him that he wanted to produce a new album by him. Russell finally persuaded Scott-Heron, who was a bit reluctant first. In the end he agreed to deliver fragments with which Russell could work. Nevertheless, Scott-Heron thought that “this is Richard’s CD. My only knowledge when I got to the studio was how he seemed to have wanted this for a long time. (…) All the dreams you show up in are not your own.” The whole thing could have gone terribly wrong, but I’m New Here is a masterpiece. Russell used Scott-Heron’s lyrics and voice as a blueprint, he was like a theater director dealing with his literary source. He transferred the old hero into the musical present. I'm New Here is not a retro album, no standstill on a high level. A stripped-down production, heavy bass-drunk dub tracks, mighty swinging beats and electronic soundscapes transplanted Gil Scott-Heron into a completely new world of sound. In this environment, Russell focused on one of Scott-Heron’s main qualities: his rumbling baritone, which aims directly at the listener’s guts. The result is a dark, melancholic, yet proud and self-confident piece of music.

Ten years later drummer Makaya McCraven chose a very different approach. The man, who is one of the most interesting and successful jazz musicians at the moment, took his familiar crew (Jeff Parker on guitar, Brandee Younger on harp, Junius Paul on bass) plus Ben Lamar Gay on different instruments and invented arrangements, which sound more like a modern version of Scott-Heron’s music from the beginning of his career. With its crystal-clear harp sounds McCraven’s morphs “I’m New Here“ into a Don-Ellis-French-Connection-like soundtrack, including Gospel Choir on the refrain that brings the track close to soul-jazz, a genre Scott-Heron is mostly associated with.

What is more, McCraven splits “On Coming From a Broken Home” into four parts, which makes sure that the central topic of the album, the early life of a black youth in a so-called “broken home“ is always in the focus. Scott-Heron was raised by his grandmother Lily Scott, he pays tribute to her with these lyrics stating that the upbringing in such surroundings doesn’t necessarily have to lead to a personal disaster: “I want to make this a special tribute / To a family that contradicts the concepts / Heard the rules, but wouldn't accept / And womenfolk raised me / And I was full-grown before I knew / I came from a broken home“. The four parts are backed by very different music: electronic textures, acoustic blues guitar, ambient jazz, African percussion and flutes, each highlighting the different lyrical themes. Finally, McCraven chooses a different order of the pieces. While Richard Russell’s version puts Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil“ at the beginning of the album and therefore suggests that the demons of the young man are there from the beginning, McCraven uses it to close the album. Musically he takes a horn sample from one of his father’s recordings (Stephen McCraven was a jazz drummer who worked with Archie Shepp), a gloomy groove reminiscent of Ron Carter and a rock guitar. The individual demons a man has to fight might be the result of the circumstances of life in general.

All in all, We’re New Again (a Reimagining by Makaya McCraven) is a very good album, an interesting approach with which Scott-Heron would have certainly been satisfied with. For me, the original version is a new classic. McCraven's version, while it doesn't replace the original, is a must hear.

We’re New Again (a Reimagining by Makaya McCraven) is available on vinyl and as a CD.

Listen to “I’m New Here“ here: