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Makaya McCraven: Cross Border Traffic

Chris May By

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I first started hearing this ‘saviour of jazz’ stuff when Kamasi Washington was blowing up. You’d read press saying the new wave of jazz is on the West Coast. Then another day you’d read the new jazz sound is from Chicago. Or the happening scene is in London. Or New York City. I think it's baloney. I’m not in competition with other scenes, fighting for a slice of the pie. The idea is to grow the pie. Part of my reason for doing Universal Beings was to highlight the broader movement. —Makaya McCraven
Like his near contemporaries Shabaka Hutchings, Kamasi Washington, Nubya Garcia and Robert Glasper, the Chicago-based drummer, bandleader, producer and self-declared beat scientist Makaya McCraven is routinely described by the more breathless commentators writing about modern music as a "saviour" of jazz.

Certainly, McCraven and his peers are enriching jazz by their embrace of other styles, be they hip hop, dub reggae, grime, cumbia or Afrobeat. Yet as McCraven, Hutchings, Washington, Garcia and Glasper are ready to point out, they do not consider themselves to be "saving" jazz. They regard themselves instead as part of a continuum: jazz has been in a constant state of self-renewal throughout its history, and absorbing elements of other styles and cultural influences has been a part of the process. McCraven and his colleagues and collaborators are part of a tradition of permament evolution.

Syncretism is also in McCraven's bones. He was born in Paris to an American jazz drummer, Stephen McCraven, and a Hungarian folk singer, Ágnes Zsigmondi. Both parents had internationalist outlooks and McCraven was surrounded by a diversity of music from an early age. One of his father's mentors was tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp and McCraven has vivid childhood memories of hearing Shepp and his father playing with Moroccan and Senegalese musicians.

Zsigmondi's musical perspective was a formative influence, too. Before she left Hungary, her best known work had been with Kolinda, a band which blended folk traditions from across Eastern Europe and the Balkans—from Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Gypsy music, Jewish music. This was at a time when many borders in the region were being redrawn by war and their countries' cultures were talked about as lacking shared roots or even being in conflict with each other.

When McCraven was three, the family left Paris for Massachusetts. He formed his first band, Cold Duck Complex, who were pioneers of jazz and hip hop fusion, in high school in the late 1990s and the group remained together for ten years. By the time McCraven relocated in Chicago (so as to be with his partner and wife-to-be), jazz 'n' hip hop had developed into a sizable movement and Cold Duck Complex were starting to get gigs in New York.

McCraven's entrée to the Chicago scene came through weekly jam sessions organised by Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians member, tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson at the city's Velvet Lounge. He began recording under his own name in 2012 and began to make a national and international impact in 2015 with the album In The Moment (International Anthem). McCraven made his first European tour that year, playing at London's Ronnie Scott's Club and receiving rave reviews from progressively inclined radio DJs and music critics. During the tour, McCraven bonded with reeds player Shabaka Hutchings and other luminaries of London's alternative jazz scene.

2018's Universal Beings (International Anthem) was recorded with like-minded musicians in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and London, where the collaborators included Hutchings, tenor saxophonist Nubya Garcia and bassist Daniel Casimir. US collaborators included cellist Tomeka Reid, harpist Brandee Younger, vibraphonist Joel Ross and guitarist Jeff Parker. In 2019 McCraven collaborated with London trumpeter and electronicist Emma-Jean Thackray on the 12" single "Too Shy" / "Run Dem" (International Anthem).

In early 2020, McCraven released We're New Again (XL), an acclaimed reimagining of Gil Scott-Heron's late period masterpiece, I'm New Here (XL, 2010).

Universal Beings E & F Sides (International Anthem), recorded during the same series of sessions as the 2018 album, was released on download in July 2020, with vinyl and CD editions following towards the end of September 2020. Among the additional players featured on the album is saxophonist and rapper Soweto Kinch, a little older than Hutchings, Garcia and Casimir and a jazz 'n' hip hop trailblazer in Britain.

Universal Beings E & F Sides forms the soundtrack for Mark Pallman's documentary Universal Beings, which follows McCraven's travels while he was recording the album. Check the doc's "Strangers In The City" segment in the YouTube trailer below.

All About Jazz: When did you realise you wanted to be a musician?

Makaya McCraven: I don't remember there being a decisive moment. I was always surrounded by music. I began playing drums so young that I don't have a recollection of when. There are stories of my dad holding my hands with the sticks in them and playing with me. When we went to the States my mum went to the university, studying music education, and if my dad was on tour, she'd take me to the campus and have me sit through theory classes or choir rehearsals. Because I could play at a pretty young age there was a novelty there too. "Hey, listen to Makaya, he's only five, everybody come and check this out." And next thing you know you're playing with Archie Shepp at a rehearsal.

There was a moment when I was in high school when I questioned whether I wanted to be a musician though. I was thinking: OK, this involves being on the road a lot, so there's a difficulty with your family, and there's a lot of up and down financially. For a while playing football became a big part of my life.

AAJ: What brought you back to music?

MM: I started to meet other musically inclined kids at high school and we started a band. It was called Cold Duck Complex and it lasted over ten years, through university and on. We were doing jazz meets hip hop. That was a little bit more cutting edge in the late 1990s than it is in 2020. We were making up a music that didn't have a real place yet. And we were getting a really good response with it. It was a learning experience on several levels. We didn't have a record company so we were putting up posters ourselves and doing our own radio campaigns and publicity. Though I did have connections with some name jazz musicians through my dad, we ran the band on our own terms. Before I left for Chicago we were getting bookings in New York and Boston.

AAJ: How come you upped sticks and moved to Chicago?

MM: I had been dating a woman who later became my wife and she got a job just outside the city. So I had to start over. But the Chicago scene connected with me right away. I got to meet other young black and otherwise musicians who were my age, who could play straight-ahead and avant-garde and also listened to hip hop and house music and contemporary rock. I integrated into that community pretty quickly.

Also I hit the ground running. Alongside Cold Duck Complex I had been making a living as a sideman. I was versatile. I could play with a blues band, with African musicians, I could play Eastern European folk music and reggae and do straight-ahead and avant-garde. Being flexible allowed me to earn a living playing the drums.

AAJ: How did your connection with the London scene begin?

MM: I met Shabaka in 2015 when my band was on the same gig as Sons of Kemet in Belgium. It was my first international tour. And we started to bump into each other when I was in London. I started to play there later that year with my band and we had a really great reception. We played Ronnie Scott's and the show sold out and I had really good press and BBC DJ Gilles Peterson was raving about the album. The scene felt special, like a home from home.

AAJ: Hutchings and his peers are frequently feted in the UK as "saviours of jazz." You have been described by some US commentators in much the same way. How do you feel about that?

MM: It's ridiculous really. Talking about the "rebirth of jazz" or calling certain musicians "saviours of jazz" misses the point. What we're doing is part of a continuum. The discussion about whether jazz is dead or needs to be revitalised, it's so tired. The vocabulary that's used around it is insufficient at best. It doesn't describe the breadth and legacy and diversity within the music. There's always been talk about what is most important in jazz: progression or preservation. But those two things are not mutually exclusive. They can be going on simultaneously.

I first started hearing this "saviour of jazz" stuff in the US when Kamasi Washington was blowing up [in Los Angeles]. You'd read all this press saying the new wave of jazz is on the West Coast. Then another day you'd read the new jazz sound is from Chicago. Or the new scene is London. Or New York City. I was travelling around with my band and seeing how the press was trying to spin each scene and say their own one was the most happening. I think it's baloney basically.

I don't think I'm in some sort a competition with other musicians or cities or countries or scenes, fighting for a slice of the pie. The idea is to grow the pie and bring the music to more people. I just want to make good music that is honest and honourable and put it out there, to be positive with my work and let it be what music can be: a force for good in the world, an agent of change.

AAJ: Was this what led you to the concept of Universal Beings?

MM: Certainly. Part of my reason for doing Universal Beings was to go beyond that kind of journalistic oversimplification and highlight the multiple scenes that are happening. Together they make up a broader movement, a broader collection of musicians over a wide location. Musicians who are obviously influenced by similar things yet maintain their own sound and style. To me that's really exciting. Much more so than just tooting my horn and going Chicago, Chicago. To really celebrate what binds together us younger jazz musicians who are exploring the genre on our own terms.

If you look at the history of jazz it's always being rebooted by young people. That's something that has been overlooked as the years have gone by, because we look at our elders and we want to give them respect and honour them. But most of the elders were in their twenties when they did much of their influential work. That's something you don't want to lose sight of. You have to honour the elders but also allow space for the younger musicians to be creative and find their voice.

AAJ: Ethnicity and identity have been important formative influences on the new London scene. How important are they to you?

MM: I think that identity in music, particularly in jazz, has long been a part of the creative process and the legacy, so I don't think there's much about the idea that is new or different. But more than that, I think that while those things are important they're not all important. 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.

The way I grew up, Archie Shepp and Yusef Lateef and my father were constantly connecting with African musicians or going to Africa or collaborating with African musicians. That's a big part of my personal identity. But it's not just Africa. For me, I also connect with my mother and her work within Eastern European folk music. It's all part of my fabric as a musician. I want to find my own voice in this time, but I also want to connect with the legacy, to touch on the diaspora and acknowledge what built this music from the ground up.

When Iook at the older musicians I'd like to honour or emulate in some way, rather than only transcribing what they played, the notes that they made, I'm much more interested in who they were, why they played what they played, what was important to them culturally, what did they think the music was about beyond just the notes.

AAJ: That really comes through in your Gil Scott-Heron album.

MM: There was a lot of weight to that project. I felt pressure to honour him and his work. I wanted to get into him and his material. And then put myself into it. I definitely wanted to put a lot of myself into it and to take responsibility for doing that on myself too. I enjoyed throwing stuff at it, working with collaborators that I trust, that I know are kind of influenced by him. It was really rewarding and a lot of fun.

AAJ: Would you agree that one thing that marks your generation of musicians out from the past is the idea of using the studio as an instrument?

MM: Again, I see it more as part of a continuum. Over the last hundred years recording has come a long way. Fifty years ago you had the Beatles doing all that creative editing, and Teo Macero and Miles Davis, and Jon Hassell and tape loops, and instruments that are made out of tape loops like a Mellotron. All these guys were using technology to manipulate audio and to create new and interesting sounds that do not exist in the natural world. Dub reggae was a big influence on me in that respect.

Reimagining sound, or looking at it from a different perspective, or playing the sound backwards, or topping it up, or juxtaposing one sound from one session and using it on top of something else... the possibilities become ever more infinite as technology goes forward and more people use it and try to do different things with it. It's exciting. That's kind of where I'm at right now.

Photo Credit: David Marques

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