Often introducing himself as a “beat scientist”, Chicago-based drummer Makaya McCraven is a startling new voice on the music scene. Released in 2015, his outstanding breakthrough on the international stage In the Moment LP already highlighted his novel synthesis of live jazz and hip-hop production techniques. Using collaborative jazz improvisations in a live context as raw material, the musician then samples and reworks selected patterns by adding loops, overdubs and beats in post-production, thus creating a new synergic balance between live performance and studio mastering.

Released on Chicago-based post-jazz label International Anthem on 26 October 2018 last, Universal Beings sees Makaya McCraven broaden and fine-tune his unique organic beat concept. The double LP was recorded in four different live venues or pop-up studios in New-York, Chicago, London and Los Angeles alongside 15 young jazz musicians. Culled from the same sessions and introducing new remixes, Universal Beings E&F Sides was released on 31 July 2020 last.

Makaya McCraven - Universal Beings (2018)
Makaya McCraven – Universal Beings (2018)

Universal Beings A,B,C&D Sides

Born in Paris to an American jazz drummer and a Hungarian folk singer and educated in Massachusetts, the musician moved to Chicago in 2007. Since then, he has been making his mark on the local jazz scene and started collaborating with an increasing range of musicians.

A multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and artistic background has been key to the working method the musician has been perfecting ever since. Deriving most of his material from improvisation as most jazz musicians would, Makaya McCraven also grew up listening to hip-hop. Like hip-hop producers, the musicians integrates sampling and post production in his approach to create an all-encompassing and dynamic contemporary sound.

Emulating American instrumental jazz collective Snarky Puppy and their superb series of live in the studio albums – Family Dinner Volume I & II (2013 / 2016) or We Like it Here (2014) – all the raw material for Makaya McCraven’s records to date was recorded live in front of a small audience.

As well as that, departing from the traditional leader-based band format playing rehearsed compositions, Makaya McCraven likes to surround himself with a lot of “new” players coming from different backgrounds or scenes. The spontaneous interaction between the musicians, the instruments and the audience on the day gives each session a unique energy and character.

Hence the aptly-titled In the Moment presented as “nearly 48 hours of live improvised performance recorded at 1 venue over 12 months and 28 shows”.

A lot of background noises, false starts, applause, snippets of conversation or interjections are preserved in the final mix, sometimes generating song titles (“Voila”). The end result sounds natural and “ambient”, so much so that playing the record sounds like inadvertently walking into the same room as the musicians. What is entirely new here is the post-production work and sonic collage that goes into the making of each record.

Basically what I do is I sample myself. So you’re hearing me playing drums, you’re hearing me with all the musicians performing together and then I take that material as the source material for my production. So the output is me as a producer, but the source material would be me and my cohort of musicians playing live. Makaya McCraven

There are so many highlights to mention – “Black Lion” and “Mantra” (Chicago) slowly emerge from magnificent motifs on vibraphone (Joel Ross) and cello (Tomeka Reid) respectively, and the entire session is beautifully coloured by Brandee Younger’s harp. Saxophone player Shabaka Hutchings leads the Chicago sessions with an infectious and mesmerising urgency. On the London side, drum and saxophone (Nubya Garcia) lock into an impressive groove on “Suite Haus” with Ashley Henry on Rhodes. The final track in Los Angeles is imbued with a quasi-ambient feel with gorgeous ornamentations on the violin by Miguel Atwood-Ferguson.

On Universal Beings, the drummer provides ample space to four female musicians on every single track – namely harpist Brandee Younger in New-York, cellist Tomeka Reid in New-York and Chicago, saxophonist Nubya Garcia in London and double-bass player Anna Butterss in Los Angeles.

Despite the geographical spread of the four recording sessions, the project’s objective is not to highlight the specific sound of the local jazz scene in New-York, Chicago, London and Los Angeles. On the contrary, Makaya McCraven’s superb time keeping and post-production wizardry lends the entire project a cohesive signature sound throughout.

“I never felt I fit anywhere” notes the musician. “When people ask me where I’m from, to me it’s more about a story than it is about a location”. Transcending regionalism, borders, history and genres, Universal Beings celebrates a deep love of music, artistic creativity and community.

Universal Beings E&F Sides

“You guys got all that?” asks Makaya McCraven at the very end of Universal Beings. If the question was aimed at the recording engineers capturing the sessions, it was perhaps also aimed at the listener. Did we get all that? Probably not. There is so much material to take in that Universal Beings is an open invitation to repeated listening.

Makaya McCraven - Universal Beings E&F Sides (2020)
Makaya McCraven – Universal Beings E&F Sides (2020)

The 14 new tracks on Universal Beings E&F Sides were gleaned from additional recording sessions in the same locations of New-York, Chicago, Los Angeles and London, while some pieces were simply reworked and updated. The record also coincides with the release of the Universal Beings documentary by Director Mark Pallman. The short film documents the making of the original 2018 album and is illustrated with music from the E&F sides.

By constantly accentuating compositional snippets within each improvised jam, isolating loops and re-contextualising them into specific beat patterns, Makaya McCraven’s ingenious blend of analogue jazz and digital hip-hop is without doubt injecting a wild dose of creativity into the jazz tradition.