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Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Makaya McCraven - In These Times (International Anthem, 2022)

By Martin Schray

The first thing that stands out is the impossibility of pigeonholing this music: the comparison with Kamasi Washington mentioned by some critics doesn't really fit (thank God), symphonic soul jazz doesn’t fit either, avant-garde is completely off the mark. Free Jazz? Not even remotely. If you still need references: most likely 1970s fusion in the style of the quiet pieces of George Duke or Billy Cobham. Possibly Alice Coltrane, but without their tendency to the uplifting hymnal. Rather, a gossamer ambient fog lies over these eleven complexly interlaced compositions.

What distinguishes this music in any case is its lightness, you are inclined to let yourself drift away. In These Times is the perfect soundtrack that Elton John’s rocket man might have on his headphones in his space capsule in the infinity of the universe. Doolittle, one of the astronauts in John Carpenter’s Dark Star may listen to it when he surfs into the atmosphere to die as a falling star. The lightness of the music simultaneously creates a kind of kinetic energy: everything is in flux, a constant becoming, being and passing away.

The first ten minutes alone: McCraven lays out a polyphonic carpet for a kind of ambient music here with harpist Brandee Younger and a larger string section, which he then gently tears down with his drum loops and a free saxophone. By the third track, “High Fives“, the album has touched on several genres: spoken words jazz reminiscent of the Last Poets, grand pop gestures in the style of Serge Gainsbourg, drum’n’bass, spiritual jazz, ambient, epic soundtracks, minimal music, etc. That the whole thing doesn’t end in chaos is ensured by McCraven’s rhythmic framework, which keeps the ship on course despite all the stylistic complexity. McCraven sometimes draws on years of his own recordings and improvisations, from which he pulls loops for his personal reimagining. The result is a track like “Dream Another“ that could also make an off-the-wall easy listening soundtrack à la Herb Alpert - thanks to De’Sean Jones’s flute and Jeff Parker’s guitar. You might not even call this music jazz; McCraven and his Band of Fifteen detach themselves playfully and as if guided by digital magic from the attributions associated with times, places and styles.

It took McCraven a whole seven years for In These Times, from the first idea to the final album. There was always something in between, like his album Universal Beings, which was conceptually simpler and came together more quickly. In These Times, on the other hand, is a truly orchestral work, an early opus magnum. It’s a suite with extremely refined arrangements, a total of sixteen musicians were involved, including the aforementioned Jeff Parker (guitar), Brandee Younger (harp), who has worked most recently with Beyoncé and Kanye West. In addition, Greg Ward (alto sax) and Irvin Pierce (tenor sax) and many more. By the end of the work the music has come across even more styles: reggae and South African mbaqanga (“So Ubuji“), jazz rock (“The Knew Untitled“), and folk (“Lullaby“). It’s what jazz means beyond improvisation and swing - a melting pot of different musics that creates something new.

For regular readers of this blog, the album might be too mainstream. But maybe you know someone who wants to start with jazz in the broadest sense. For them, this is a good place to start. An album for those who are ready for it.

In These Times is available on vinyl, as a CD and a download. You can listen to it and order it via bandcamp: 


Anonymous said...

A very odd album from an artist who had entered “buy w/out listening” territory for me. Sounds like 21st century black library music. A head-scratcher.

Anonymous said...

A very odd comment from an anonymous poster who clearly believes library music should be divided along racial lines. McCraven's 'universal beings' message missed entirely here, "buy w/out listening" indeed. A head-scratcher.

Ken Blanchard said...

I liked the "black library music" reference. Googled it. Nothing showed up, but it made me think. Surely it's okay to attach demographic labels to genres (e.g., Celtic music).

This music does seem to me to fit into a genre. Call it "soundtrack". Sometimes only the film is missing. Such music can be very bland (elevator muzak). But it can also be brilliant. Think of Al Dimeola's Elegant Gypsy.