Live reviews

Reviews and dispatches from Montreal #FIJM 2022 (2): McKaya McCraven with Marquis Hill, Joel Ross, Jeff Parker, Junius Paul

McKaya McCraven. Quintet with Marquis Hill, Joel Ross, Jeff Parker, Junius Paul

(Centre Culturel Gesu, 1 July 2022. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

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McKaya McCraven. Photo credit – Benoit_Rousseau_FIJM

Belief, positivity and unswerving commitment feed through to people and affect them. Drummer / composer /leader Makaya McCraven has an abundance of all three. His ways of empowering those around him in the band, and of transferring his life-energy to audiences are irresistible, particularly in a little cauldron of a venue like a nearly-full Gesu.

Several rows of heads in the audience were nodding on every beat, more or less right through the set. There can also be unintended, unpredictable, less desirable results: the couple sitting in the seats immediately in front of me were fired up to try to outdo each other into manic flurries of mine’s-better-than-yours video-recording and Instagram posting. (This year MIJF seems to have no restrictions on recording or photographing). Mercifully, they did relent after about three numbers.

Makaya McCraven’s facial expression gives the clear message: that every note, every left-hand side-drummed backbeat has urgent meaning. He gave us a couple of overpowering intensity builds. You can never please everyone though: I overheard one sage complaining vaingloriously afterwards that he could have really done with a few more extended drum solos…

Having heard Jeff Parker in solo mode the previous evening, it was fascinating to watch him in the very different guise of a valued member of McCraven’s band. The two musicians know each other well from Chicago – AACM and presumably a host of other contexts – and the respect and the admiration that McCraven has for the guitarist were not only palpable, they were having their effect. Parker had a beaming smile and was clearly relishing the opportunity to play exploratory jazz solos, or to set a joyously gentle vibe going, as he did in their version of “Autumn in New York”, which as McCraven explained, he would rather call “Springtime in Chicago”.

Junius Paul is another great foil for McCraven. It would be fascinating to hear him in other contexts, but here the consequence of McCraven’s driving positivity is that he plays the electric bass with a featherlight touch and an unworried ease and freedom. As for vibraphonist Joel Ross, simples: he is a star. His solo on Joe Henderson’s “Black Narcissus” was a moment of complete melodic and rhythmic liberation. Conventional ideas of what musical phrase lengths or shapes might be like gave way to something that sounded totally individual and fresh, like a new language being heard for the first time. And trumpeter Marquis Hill really caught the attention with the emotionally affecting lyricism of “In These Times”, the title track of a new McCraven album due for release later in the year. It is a tune which I’m guessing will probably be given some words…

The freedom and the serenity of that tune was an interesting contrast with the rest of the programme. Most of what we heard came from McCraven’s most recent album, his Blue Note debut, Deciphering the Code, consisting re-workings of Blue Note classic tunes. And yet the live show was very different – and a lot more ‘jazz’ – than the album. Whereas the lazily-written narrative about what McCraven did on that album was to “breathe new life into 80-plus years of jazz history” by adding in samples and by leaning in to DJ culture, here, for the live show, we had a reversion, of all things, to the head-solos-head form. And, shock horror, surprise surprise, it worked. And the Gesu audience loved it.

L-R Marquis Hill, Joel Ross, Jeff Parker, Junius Paul, McKaya McCraven .
Photo Benoit_Rousseau/FIJM

Categories: Live reviews

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