Makaya McCraven with London Contemporary Orchestra
Barbican Centre, Main Hall In These Times
November 11, 2023
Jazz, said Whitney Balliett in 1958, is the sound of surprise. The New Yorker
critic, who passed in 2007 but remains one of jazz literature's most felicitous writers, was describing jazz in a broad generic sense. Yet the aphorism applies equally well to the London concert premiere of Makaya McCraven
's In These Times
(International Anthem, 2022). McCraven's presentation of his album scrambled expectations and produced what may prove to be the slam-dunk London jazz gig of 2023.
Recorded over seven years, as funds permitted, and with more post-production interventions than Teo Macero
could have waved a stick at, In These Times
was perhaps the most strikingly beautiful jazz album to be released in 2022. Well, OK, let us just say it was on a par with Oded Tzur
(ECM), with which it shares certain defining characteristics: lush sound, sublime lyricism, elegance, rhythmic sophistication, inner sinew.
Most, perhaps all, Barbican audience members would likely have been expecting a faithful recreation of the album. But McCraven extended the sonic palette. The performance was oftentimes volcanic, a ramped-up, colour-saturated IMAX epic which several times reached a level of intensity which is heard on the album only on the concluding section of one track, "This Place That Place," midway through the disc. The album's flute and harp had gone and its string quartet was replaced by the London Contemporary Orchestra's eighteen-piece (count 'em) string ensemble. The core banda quintet completed by vibraphonist Joel Ross
, guitarist Matt Gold
, electric bassist Junius Paul
and trumpeter Marquis Hill
, all heard on the albumwere given expanded roles. Each was outstanding: Hill soulful and sonorous, Gold raw and off kilter, Ross mercurial and emphatic, like Cecil Taylor
with sticks, McCraven colossal, a Buddy Rich
for our age (in the best way).
To make time for extended solos and beefed-up string arrangements, only seven of the recorded suite's eleven parts were performed, and their running order was radically different from that on the album. First up, for instance, was track eight, "Seventh String," while track one, "In These Times," became the closer; on the album, "In These Times" is a warm-up track, but at the Barbican it built to an eruptive and cathartic conclusion. Robert Ames' conduction of the LCO was unfailingly on song and the players themselves never missed a beat.
And the beats were complex...
Given the direction of much of McCraven's recent work, not least regarding the last words of Gil Scott-Heron
, the title In These Times
might suggest a programme of politically inclined material. But the album is in fact more Dave Brubeck
's Time Out
(Columbia, 1959) than Bob Dylan
's The Times They Are A-Changin'
(Columbia, 1964), even if the title track's inclusion of a soundbite from the Studs Terkel Radio Archive (not used in-concert) is presumably intended to lend a socio-political context. Lest there be any doubt as to what the suite is about, McCraven has told AAJ: "This is a record of my compositions that feature odd time signatures and different types of rhythms. At the crux of my concept since I started writing and playing drums is that I like to play complex rhythms. In these times
it's in the title." For whatever reason, two of the album tracks with the most Einsteinian time signatures, "The Fours" and "High Fives," were not included in the concert's revamped suite.
Unlike the esteemed Brubeck's work, however, a political dimension runs through all McCraven's output, even if it is an attitude more often felt by the listener than a message made explicit by McCraven himself. At International Anthem, with whom he began recording in 2015 and who describe him as "the pillar of our label family," he is part of a milieu which has included Irreversible Entanglements
(now with Impulse!) and the late Jaimie Branch
(a Best Of her recorded legacy can be read here
). In a 2020 interview with AAJ, McCraven said: "As a person of mixed race, nationality and ethnicity, I want my identity and contributions to paint a world not bound by genre, race or national boundaries but unified through a love of music, culture and community. I'd like to think my identity is shaped by my politics, not my politics by my identity." Yes to that.
(McCraven's interview can be found here
Seventh String; Dream Another; The Knew Untitled; The Calling; Lullaby; This Place That Place; In These Times.
Makaya McCraven: drums, percussion; Marquis Hill: trumpet, percussion; Matt Gold: guitar, percussion; Joel Ross: vibraphone, percussion; Junius Paul: bass guitar, percussion; London Contemporary Orchestra conducted by Robert Ames.