Makaya McCraven – Universal Beings E&F Sides
(International Anthem IARCEF22. Review by Graham Spry)
From August 2017 to January 2018, Chicago-based drummer Makaya McCraven recorded four sessions in four cities which were collected together to become the album Universal Beings, where each side of the vinyl edition was devoted to the city where the recording took place – in turn: New York, Chicago, London and Los Angeles. If the sides can be called A, B, C and D, then the album Universal Beings E&F Sides can be considered as a continuation of this first album and, indeed, McCraven describes it as an ‘addendum’ to the original project. This relationship is shown visually on the album cover which shows a blown-up inset of Damon Locks’ illustration from the first album’s cover. Nevertheless, there is much more to this album than just a collection of off-cuts from the original sessions and should be evaluated on quite different merits.
The first album was an opportunity to hear Makaya McCraven perform with pretty much the aristocracy of new talent from what can justifiably be described as the four international poles of the most exciting and compelling jazz of our time. Amongst the stars performing with McCraven are Londoners Nubya Garcia (tenor sax), Ashley Henry (Rhodes piano), Daniel Casimir (double bass) and, on the Chicago side of the album, Shabaka Hutchings (tenor sax). There is an intimidating line-up of American musicians from New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, of which special note must be made of Jeff Parker (guitar), whose recent album Suite for Max Brown is a modern classic and in whose house the Los Angeles side was recorded.
These were not the traditional jazz sessions where four or five musicians gather together to record a few tunes by the band leader interspersed with standards. The approach McCraven used is more like that made famous by producer Teo Macero on the sessions he recorded with Miles Davis in the 1970s such as Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way. The musicians improvise relatively freely and the raw material is later distilled into individual tracks through McCraven’s postproduction process. In this way, the tracks on the released album retain the excitement and creativity of a masterclass in improvisation whilst also benefiting from a producer’s focus and vision. Indeed, McCraven describes himself as a ‘sonic collagist’, a set of skills he displayed recently on We’re New Again: his reimagination of Gil Scott-Heron’s 2010 masterpiece.
McCraven also describes himself as a ‘beat scientist’ and the listener should approach Universal Beings E&F Sides as the work of a drummer with a profound understanding of beats. It is described as unreleased ‘organic beat music’ cut from the original Universal Beings sessions revisited and produced by McCraven and used on the soundtrack of a documentary film, also called Universal Beings, directed by Chicago-based Mark Pallman. Unlike the first album, the two sides are not organised by when and where the tracks were recorded but rather by how they should best be sequenced. In fact, there are some artists who didn’t appear on the first album, such as Soweto Kinch (sax) and Kamaal Williams (keyboards) on Half Steppin’ and the final track The Way Home.
The album has fourteen short tracks, mostly about three minutes long, which are best characterised as percussive in nature. Drums are essentially the lead instrument around which the music is arranged. The album could be summed up as a collection of beats in much the same way as J Dilla’s album Donuts is a collection of loops; and like Dilla’s album it almost openly invites other musicians to sample the music for their own compositions. However, nobody could mistake this album for a hip-hop soundtrack. The music is very much within the jazz idiom even while clearly influenced by music from outside. The eloquently entitled Mak Attack is the single taken off the album, but another track that would be just as good a choice is Kings and Queens which has a feel reminiscent of the late great Tony Allen.
Although the album is a product of the studio as much as it is the original live performance, many tracks still feature the spontaneous shouts and cheers of the band and audience to preserve the excitement of a live event. The instruments used on the album include not just the familiar saxophone, keyboards and double bass of the small jazz band, but also harp played by Brandee Younger from the sessions recorded in New York and violin played by Miguel Atwood-Ferguson in the sessions from California.
This album makes a lot more sense when placed in the context of the original, but it is also a fundamentally different project, with much more of a foreground focus on the rhythm section. The album is released on the Chicago label International Anthem which is greatly informed by the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) – the wellspring of so much creative music since the 1960s – and now the source of so many essential recordings by African American musicians such as Jeff Parker, Angel Bat Dawid and Irreversible Entanglements. In this year of Black Lives Matters, International Anthem has become one of the world’s most significant jazz-aligned record labels and the Universal Beings project is typical of the challenging but still eminently listenable music that the label champions.