Makaya McCraven - In These Times Music Album Reviews

Makaya McCraven - In These Times Music Album Reviews
The hybrid jazz drummer and producer’s latest album uses his familiar post-production techniques but feels more deftly orchestrated and rhythmically complex.

In These Times opens with a rhythmic ostinato, a smattering of applause, and a quote from Harry Belafonte. It’s a sample of a radio interview that the folk singer and scholar gave with Studs Terkel, in which he discusses his interpretation of the John Henry story. In Belafonte’s view, the legendary rail tunnel worker was not necessarily against the steam drill that overseers wanted to bring in to finish the job of digging the Big Bend Tunnel on the C&O Railroad, or the human progress it represented. He only wanted to preserve the dignity of those who had given their lives to the tunnel. “I ain’t really opposed to the machine, I just feel that the machine can’t take the place of the soul and the sweat for the many men who died to help build this tunnel,” Belafonte says, speaking in Henry’s voice. “And we got to finish it, and it just ain’t no two ways about it.”

It’s easy to understand the resonance of this quote for Makaya McCraven, a drummer and composer who has spent his career thus far working by hand and by machine, fusing live-in-the-room jazz improvisation with the electronic manipulations of hip-hop. On albums like 2015’s In the Moment and 2018’s Universal Beings, that meant recording open-ended concerts and then taking a digital scalpel to the tapes of his ensembles’ performances: cutting, looping, rearranging, and occasionally overdubbing new parts; sculpting melodic themes out of stray bits of improvisation and whittling down rhythms to their hypnotic essences. In a series of remarkable performances after the release of Universal Beings, McCraven and his band recreated the album for the stage, playing meticulous arrangements of the bandleader’s hybrid creations and elaborating upon them with even more improv, as if he’d charted them out that way in the first place. The music had started fairly recognizably as jazz, then assumed a mutant electronic form, then came out the other side as jazz again.

In These Times, McCraven’s latest album, reminds me at times of the Universal Beings live show. (Putting numbers to his discography is difficult: not unlike a rapper’s, it is filled with mixtapes, collaborations, and expanded editions that can be just as vital as his “official” albums.) Though it uses some of the same compositional techniques as previous records, it is clearly the product of more deliberate work done in advance of the musicians picking up their instruments. For the first time, it sounds mostly like they are reading notation from a score. And yet it retains the unmistakable rhythmic imprint of hip-hop. McCraven favors meters that are just a sliver of a beat shorter or longer than you’d expect, which gives the effect of a looping sample that has been cut at slightly the wrong length. Like the Universal Beings live players—many of whom appear on *In These Times—*the musicians are imitating the sound of a chopped-up recording, playing with extreme precision that masquerades as a certain cobbled-together sloppiness. It often recalls J Dilla, who, in declining to quantize his beats to the rigid rhythmic grid that governed other producers’ work, brought new human unpredictability to the instrumental sound of ’90s and 2000s rap.

On the album-opening title track, McCraven deftly switches between emphasizing the asymmetrical jaggedness of the meter and downplaying it. At first, the band is shredding through obviously technical and difficult material; then, at the drop of a hat, they are practically playing a waltz—albeit one with a little limp in its step. The pulse hasn’t changed, but the feel of the music is on a different planet.

If that makes In These Times sound dry and academic, it isn’t. The title track is anchored in its first half by a wistful theme for string quartet and in its second by a breathtaking solo from alto saxophonist Greg Ward, neither of which requires any knowledge of arcane time signatures to get its hooks in you. Whereas most difficult music is imposing at first, and requires repeated listening to reveal its pleasures, In These Times works in the opposite fashion. It is groovy, tuneful, and approachable; only after careful study might you apprehend the music’s astounding intricacy, if you care to discover it at all. I came to deeper engagement with the album after listening closely to the rhythms, but I can imagine someone else delighting primarily in its lushly arranged melodies. You could play it at a dinner party without raising an eyebrow.

The best moments of In These Times come when an outburst of individual spontaneity is allowed to briefly rupture the album’s luxuriant surfaces and highly ordered inner workings: Ward’s sax solo on the title track; McCraven’s own quietly thunderous drumming on “This Place That Place”; a showcase for Jeff Parker on “The Knew Untitled,” who continues his current hot streak by laying down one of the most exhilarating guitar solos of recent memory, in any genre. McCraven’s previous albums were nearly all spontaneity. Even after his meticulous reorganization of the source material, there was no telling, on first listen, where a particular track might go. In These Times is more elegant, and more ambitious. Its rhythmic experiments represent a genuinely new development in the fertile interzone between hip-hop and jazz. But the album suffers slightly from its own sophistication. I found myself wishing to hear something that would raise an eyebrow at a dinner party: something like “Atlantic Black” a feverish group improvisation from *Universal Beings—*the sound of a band in unknown territory, in danger of collapsing with one false move.

You can read the title of In These Times in a few ways: as a gesture at the uncertainty of our era, an acknowledgement of the music’s resolutely contemporary nature, or a sly joke about its dizzying array of time signatures. Deliberately or not, it also reads like metacommentary on the broadening of McCraven’s music since In the Moment, the album that gave many listeners their first exposure to his blend of composition and improv. In 2015, he was capturing moments; in 2022, he is speaking to the times.

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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Makaya McCraven - In These Times Music Album Reviews Makaya McCraven - In These Times Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on October 04, 2022 Rating: 5


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