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The genre ambiguity of a beat scientist

Makaya McCraven blends jazz, electronica, hip-hop and soul with a scientist’s precision. His latest reimagining of a spoken word recording pushes the boundaries of modern jazz

Makaya McCraven at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam in July 2017
Makaya McCraven at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam in July 2017 (Getty Images)

I would have missed getting acquainted with the music of Makaya McCraven had it not been for the late Gil Scott-Heron. A Chicago-born poet, author, jazz and soul musician, Scott-Heron’s spoken-word performances and recordings were hugely influential through the 1970s and later, inspiring many soul, hip hop and jazz performers through the four decades that he was active till he died at age 62 in 2011. His work, particularly the lyrics of his compositions, was infused with powerful comments on political and social issues, often laced with wit and humour.

The music on much of Scott-Heron’s discography (17 studio albums, plus live and compilation releases) features jazz, soul and blues, a consequence of his long-time collaboration with the noted jazz and soul keyboardist Brian Jackson. Scott-Heron’s most famous composition (and one that I would recommend as compulsory listening) is probably The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, a title taken from a famous slogan of the Black Power movement in America during the 1960s. The poetry in that song’s lyrics (You will not be able to stay home, brother/ You will not be able to plug in, turn on and drop out/ You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip/ Skip out for beer during commercials / Because the revolution will not be televised…) and Scott-Heron’s melismatic style, in which he sings a single syllable in different notes, are riveting.

But I digress from Makaya McCraven. A jazz drummer, composer and bandleader, McCraven, 36, describes himself as a “beat scientist". It was McCraven’s 2015 album, In The Moment, which got him into the limelight as a bleeding-edge composer who blurred the lines between traditional jazz and electronic music. Since then, McCraven, a rising influence on the Chicago jazz scene, has released six more albums. But it was his latest, this year’s We’re New Again: A Reimagining, which brought him to my notice. The reason? It is a posthumous collaboration with Scott-Heron.

In 2010, Scott-Heron released I’m Not Here, a stark but compelling album that explored his own life—his upbringing (he was raised by women relatives), his addictions and his regrets. Ten years later, McCraven, whose characteristic style is to sample and remix his own jazz and electronic compositions, has reimagined that album with additional layers of old jazz samples and fresh instrumental riffs. For those familiar with Scott-Heron’s tracks from the original (songs such as New York Is Killing Me; On Coming From A Broken Home Pts. 1 and 2; and Where Did The Night Go), the album is a recreated Ver. 2.0 and serves as a contrasting companion piece to the 2010 one. While the older album is minimalistic (Scott-Heron’s piano and sparingly used loops of recorded music) McCraven’s version weaves in a rich tapestry of electronics and new jazz instrumentation.

Ironically, for those unfamiliar with Scott-Heron’s 2010 album or his music, McCraven’s version could be an entry point to the late poet-singer’s body of work. More importantly, though, it could be the stepping stone towards exploring McCraven’s own repertoire of compositions. McCraven’s work is a melting point where the ingredients—jazz, hip hop, international (or world) music and rock—blend together without the faintest sign of jarring. A masterful producer, the drummer mixes up different genres so seamlessly that the outcome is as refreshingly original as it is novel.

For me, this year’s release reimagining Scott-Heron’s 2010 masterpiece led to McCraven’s 2018 release, Universal Beings. McCraven’s description of himself as a beat scientist is apt. His style of taking recordings of live performances (his own and those of other bandmates) and then dicing, slicing and looping them to make new compositions is not a new technique in jazz. Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew (1970) was partly an outcome of that process. But McCraven does it in a manner that blends different (often sharply contrasting) genres to make a final composition that defies classification. For Universal Beings, a double album, McCraven and his band recorded live performances in four places (New York, London, Los Angeles and Chicago). The band comprised bassists, cellists, saxophonists and violinists.

Those recordings were the starting point for the album, which featured edited, spliced and remixed parts from the four different gigs. The result is a genre-defying set of 22 tracks that run for an hour and a half and feature influences ranging from traditional jazz to world music with everything else in between—funk, soul, Afro-beat rhythms, and even hip hop beats.

This technique first featured in McCraven’s breakthrough album, In The Moment (2015), for which he took 48 hours of recordings (of gigs at a single venue for the duration of a year) and culled them into an album that granted him instant acclaim. There’s a deluxe version of In the Moment with 28 exquisite tracks. Much of McCraven’s work is like that of a scientist in a lab, synthesizing this with that; adding, subtracting, and enhancing. But cut, edited and spliced though it may be, his music can seem like spontaneous improvisation. Riffs and segments are often repeated but they are never boring and when different genres get thrown into the same tune, they gel, never clash.

Jazz is a genre that seemed to be facing near-extinction but is, fortunately, witnessing a revival. Not in the least because of a new breed of innovators. McCraven, who is still young, is one of them. His savvy ability to meld compositions, shift smoothly from genre to genre and use technology masterfully makes him a vanguard for jazz’s new era.

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.


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