Drummer, composer, and producer Makaya McCraven uses the 21st century tenet of genre-blending creative music to push at the boundaries of sound and rhythm in pursuit of new musical directions. Commonly referred to as a "beat scientist," McCraven's seamless meld of jazz, hip-hop, rock, and global rhythmic traditions draws equally on established traditions from jazz-funk, post-bop, and fusion, and rubs them up against finger-popping left-field beat explorations, as displayed on his acclaimed 2015 set In the Moment. In addition to his own creations, he's been a member of guitarist Bobby Broom's trio, worked in another trio with pianist Greg Spero, and later with his Spirit Fingers group, played with trumpeter and 21st century fusion soul pioneer Marquis Hill. He has headlined his own albums and tours in configurations ranging from trios to orchestras. 2018's Universal Beings was recorded live in three cities with a rotating cast of musicians, and made jazz critics' year-end lists across the globe.
McCraven was born in Paris in 1983, the son of jazz drummer Stephen McCraven (Sam Rivers, Archie Shepp) and Hungarian folk singer Agnes Zsigmondi. When he was a child, his family relocated to Massachusetts' Pioneer Valley, an area that Shepp and Yusef Lateef called home. Shepp and Lateef helped his parents mentor the boy by exposing him to a broad range of musical traditions. He began playing drums before he was ten, and in high school he pursued music studies seriously. His Cold Duck Complex cut three albums and toured regionally in the opening slot for hip-hop acts, and was a favorite at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Matriculating there, McCraven furthered his studies and played in the University Jazz Orchestra.
He relocated to Chicago in 2006 and almost instantly became an integral part of its thriving music scene, working with musicians ranging from Ari Brown and Broom to Corey Wilkes and Henry Johnson. He told Chicago Magazine that his reason for relocating to the Windy City was predicated by "a tradition in Chicago that's not stuck in the same trends as a place like New York. Chicago has a tradition of subversive music, and that, to me, is really intriguing, especially today, in times of political resistance. The tradition of a lot of Chicago music is one of resistance or labor or oppression and corruption." The drummer established his bona fides by playing on recordings by Apollo Sunshine and Kris Delmhorst.
McCraven's first leader date was the trio offering Split Decision, issued by Chicago Sessions in 2012 and featuring bassist Tim Seisser and pianist Andrew Toombs. Touring hard both locally and across the country, McCraven was working on what would become his next outing — and the one that put him on the map — In the Moment, issued by International Anthem in 2015. McCraven recorded a total of 28 live concerts at Chicago's The Bedford with a cast of revolving musicians including Jeff Parker, Joshua Abrams, Hill, and bassist Junius Paul over the course of a year. He ended up with a total of 48 hours of music. He then edited and remixed it into a double-length offering of high-potency jazz/beat/improvisational music. The album made dozens of media year-end best-of lists and garnered positive reviews from publications including the New York Times and Jazz Times. In 2016, he compiled an additional 40 minutes and released it as In the Moment E & F Sides. This method became an M.O. for McCraven.
That same year, he served as Hill's drummer for The Way We Play on Concord. McCraven and his band(s) toured Europe playing the festival circuit as well as North American jazz festivals from Newport to Detroit to Los Angeles, and headlined a widely celebrated date at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City. Also in 2016, he and his band packed an audience into Chicago dive Danny's Tavern armed with a four-track cassette machine. After the gig was captured in glorious bootleg quality, the drummer went to work editing and remixing, eventually ending up with 2017's Highly Rare, a lo-fi free-jazz-meets-hip-hop suite he made from a live four-track recording. Its initial release was a limited-edition cassette packaged in screen-printed, string-sealed, firecracker-red envelopes, and later digitally and on LP on his own International Phonograph.
The following year, McCraven contributed to producer MAST's (Tim Conley) Thelonious Sphere Monk, a radical reenvisioning of the great composer's and pianist's best-loved tunes. His next effort, Where We Come From, followed in the footsteps of previous releases but with a twist: He moved outside his usual Chicago stable of players and taped a London performance in October of 2017 with Kamaal Williams and Joe Armon-Jones on keyboards. He used a recording of the gig as the base structure from which to build an elaborate mix. After recording, McCraven provided the tape to a slew of producers to chop, splice, and remix. When they finished, he took the recordings back, and added his own signature sense of rhythm and feel. The result took exotic elements from jazz's history and grafted them onto hip-hop production and deep, funky grooves. Where We Come From was issued by International Anthem — which advanced the set with four documentary promo videos — in the summer of 2018.
That fall, International Anthem released Universal Beings, a double-length offering that features four different sessions in four cities: New York, Chicago, London, and Los Angeles, with four groups of musicians that included, variously, Tomeka Reid, Junius Paul, Jeff Parker, Nubya Garcia, Shabaka Hutchings, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, and Carlos Niño. The album debuted inside the Top 20 on the Jazz Albums chart and made best-of-year lists from an international cast of jazz and pop critics. Less than a year later, McCraven and French trumpeter Antoine Berjeaut released the limited-edition Moving Cities. The album bridged the modern jazz directions of Paris and Chicago with an international cast of sidemen who included bassist Junius Paul, saxophonist Julien Lourau, synthesist Arnaud Roulin, electronicist Lorenzo Bianchi Hoesch, and guitarists Guillaume Magne and Matt Gold.
To mark the tenth anniversary of musician, poet, and author Gil Scott-Heron's final studio album, I'm New Here, XL Recordings label boss (and producer of said recording) Richard Russell enlisted McCraven to record his own "reimagining" of the music. Titled We're New Again: A Reimagining, the album saw release in February 2020, exactly ten years after the release of Scott-Heron's original. Following in the aesthetic footsteps of Jamie xx's highly acclaimed 2011 remix album We're New Here, it marked McCraven's first release of 2020 and included assistance from Brandee Younger, Jeff Parker, Ben Lamar Gay, and Paul.
McCraven then revisited the leftover material from Universal Beings. He was seeking music to complete director Mark Pallman's documentary film on the album's creation, the global tour, and the drummer's overall musical approach. McCraven discovered unused tracks offering the same level of inspired creativity displayed on the previously released outing. Using the new tapes from those concerts as source material, he added studio edits and fresh overdubs, resulting in the album Universal Beings E&F Sides. International Anthem issued it as a stand-alone release during the summer of 2020. ~ Thom Jurek