"All the dreams you show up in are not your own." With those words to an interviewer at The New Yorker
, Gil Scott-Heron
tried to explain a degree of detachment from I'm New Here
(XL Recordings, 2011), his "comeback" and the final studio album before his death that year. The project was initiated by the head of XL and was the first album Scott-Heron released in the sixteen years he struggled with addiction and two drug-related terms in prison. The album was well-received by many but the kitchen sink approach of electronica, industrial, poetry, trip-hop, blues and more, left some feeling like Scott-Heron's essence was scattered to the wind. Still, I'm New Here
, gave listeners great blues readings of Robert Johnson
's "Me and the Devil," and Bobby Bland's 1959 "I'll Take Care of You" and some moving insights into Scott-Heron's roots.
XL Recordings released its first reworking of the album in 2011, converting the original dark material to post-dubstep dance music and rechristening the album as We're New Here
. It didn't take on the U.S. charts but made a dent in the UK. Not content with two versions, the label approached Chicago-based jazz drummer Makaya McCraven
in 2019 to put another unique spin on the music.
McCraven has played in strong company from both sides of the Atlantic. His acclaimed Universal Beings
(International Anthem, 2018) featured half of Rob Mazurek
's Chicago Underground Quartet in saxophonist Josh Johnson
and guitarist Jeff Parker
, and UK pioneer saxophonists Shabaka Hutchings
and Nubya Garcia
. An earlier release on that label, In the Moment
(2015) included bassist Matt Ulery
and trumpeter Marquis Hill
. McCraven frequently wears multiple hats as percussionist, electronics artist, and producer.
The song "I'm New Here" is equal parts bravado and doubt as when Scott-Heron sings "Well, I'm new here and I forget. Does that mean big or small?" McCraven's reworking of the music lends the piece a lightness in stark contrast to the message. In other cases, such as "Lily Scott (Broken Home, Pt.3)," Jeff Parker's gentle guitar and Brandee Younger
's harp add a flawless spiritual touch to the story of Scott-Heron's grandmother. McCraven wisely does not pull apart the two classic blues pieces "Me and the Devil," and "I'll Take Care of You."
Much of Scott-Heron's original recording of this material was a mixture of world-weariness, resignation, and fear of the sad, inevitable end. Those emotions come through clearly in "New York is Killing Me" and "Running." What McCraven sometimes does here is spin the substance with new instrumentation and blur the emotion. We're New Again
is an interesting addition to McCraven's impressive catalog but not a necessity for fans of Scott-Heron.
Special Tribute (Broken Home, Pt. 1); I'm New Here; Running; Blessed Parents; New York is Killing Me; The Patch (Broken Home, Pt. 2); People of the Light; Being Blessed; Where Did the Night Go; Lily Scott (Broken Home, Pt.3); I'll Take Care of You; I've Been Me; This Can't Be Real; Piano Player; The Crutch; Guided (Broken Home, Pt.4); Certain Bad Things; Me and the Devil.