Click here to [close]

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Makaya McCraven - Universal Beings E & F Sides (International Anthem, 2020) ****½

By Martin Schray

In two earlier reviews from this year (on two re-issues by drummer Rashied Ali ), I raised the question to what extent there can be new developments in jazz today, or whether many things are just a refinement of what is already musically known. Today, this discussion will be deepened with two further examples: Makaya McCraven’s new album is in the focus but there will also be some short references to Jeff Parker’s album Suite for Max Brown, which was reviewed by Lee yesterday.

Both Chicago-based drummer, pianist and composer Makaya McCraven and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Parker belong to a new musical world, which they seem to know like the back of their hands - but they still rediscover it again and again with the eyes of children. In this avant-garde, the established elements don’t create a cosmos we know.

Neither is its novelty pastiche or postmodernism; it’s a different way of baling, stretching, contracting and reading the time that has passed between free jazz or fire music than one might imagine when thinking in categories such as “reference“, “quotation“, “nostalgia“ or “revival“, as the German critic Diedrich Diederichsen has pointed out. What you recognise in this music are certain elements we might define as jazz - the swing, the blue notes, the rhythm, some typical sounds of the instruments.

At the moment you can listen to a lot of music, which is different, unheard, hip, contemporary “jazz“ and it often refers to the revolutionary freedom and soulfulness of the 1960s, but also to funk and hiphop. Some jazz artists and labels could even be called en vogue - at least for a certain in-crowd - and have played a central role in this “hype“ in the last years (just think of Matana Roberts’s ambitious Coin Coin project, of the prolific British scene around Shabaka Hutchings, of the way hiphop superstar Kendrick Lamar has integrated jazz sounds in his music). One of the spearheads of this new Black avant-garde is the International Anthem label - and Makaya McCraven and Jeff Parker are two of their most prominent representatives.

On his previous records the drummer was known more for mapping new worlds between fire music and wicked bass grooves. On his new album, an extension of his opus magnum Universal Beings, he continues to spin this wheel. Once again he uses classical jazz elements and enriches them with lots of funkiness, hiphop beats and drum’n’bass sounds. In this way, he brings the problem of jazz’s staleness to the point that historical consciousness must not stop at the adoration of the achievements of the forefathers (McCraven’s parents are both musicians), but can hit the nerve of a younger generation when viewed from the perspective of a newly added subjectivity. You don’t look at the historic fire music like an artefact in a museum (this would be the Marsalis approach), but at their novelty character, and thus it’s how it acquires a new social relevance.

Universal Beings was put together from recordings of four live shows at four different locations, each of which featured different musicians (again Jeff Parker among them). A short documentary film with interviews and studio scenes is now available. The soundtrack to this film is the present album Universal Beings E&F Sides, which works like a supplement to Universal Beings, however here McCraven manages to present relatively short miniatures of 1:27 to 4:36 minutes as a distillate of his music (Universal Beings also included some longer tracks). Based on polyrhythmic cells and melodic-harmonic motifs, these new or redesigned compositions also perfectly integrate the practices inherent in digital culture. Thus, the instruments of this ensemble reproduce the processes of filtering, looping, and remixing musical works, as is the case in hiphop or electronic music, with the difference that these processes are performed in real time by traditional instruments and by musicians experienced in jazz practice, who combine improvisation with excellent musicianship. This sometimes reminds me of A Tribe Called Quest’s hiphop masterpiece The Low End Theory, e.g. in “Everybody Cool“ with its repetitive vibraphone motif and dry bass lines. “The Hunt“ goes back to the deep triphop sounds of the 1990s, say early Massive Attack. “Half Steppin’“ delves into the breakbeat madness of Roni Size & Reprazent’s New Form. Jeff Parker’s approach on Suite for Max Brown is similar, when he uses samples like in the very short “C’Mon Now“ but also more jazzy, e.g. in “Fusion Girl“, a reminiscence to Herbie Hancock’s jazz/rock phase.

This style mix of samples and loops is an important characteristic of modern avant-garde jazz culture. On the one hand, McCraven integrates everything that is around him into his music, on the other hand he is deeply rooted in the musical tradition (with his Hungarian-Jewish mother he recorded Eastern European folk songs, his African-American father, also a drummer, introduced him to jazz at an early age). Jeff Parker goes even further: He covers John Coltrane’s “After the Rain“. In the film McCraven says that his band always starts jamming in a completely chaotic way and then creates something organized out of it. If you - seemingly out of nowhere - find the one moment when everything comes together, then you have to hold it and from that point on you have to develop something worth to be elaborated. In the new pieces, short, repetitive saxophone and guitar interjections meet complex rhythm and relaxed bass lines like in “Dadada’“, which reflects the sound of big cities in its hyper-nervousness. Everything flows into each other. “Kings and Queens“ could also be on a Sons of Komet album.

Some people might be disturbed by the fact that the new album, like many of McCraven’s productions, is a live recording reworked in the studio with cuts and repetition loops and therefore might ask whether he wants to create “organic“ music that re-imagines the spontaneously improvisational flow of a concert, or post-produce beats like a studio artist. The underlying accusation is whether this can work. Of course it can, and it’s a possibility how modern jazz can attract a new, young audience.

Universal Beings E&F Sides is available on vinyl (in September), as a CD and as a download.

Watch the documentary here: