Makaya McCraven is a drummer. More specifically, he is a self-described “beat scientist” and “sonic collagist” who blends an array of genres and rhythms — onstage and most meticulously, in his studio/laboratory — to produce some of today’s most inventive music.
Is it jazz? Sure, you can call it that, and many do. For the Chicago-based McCraven, though, jazz is merely an umbrella term. With disparate elements that include melodies and beats from different cultures, hip-hop samples and other morsels, his proprietary blend defies strict categorization.
“As a result of his wide-ranging work, the music he makes now … has layers of history built into it,” New York Times jazz critic Giovanni Russonello wrote in 2018. “You can hear the spiritual-jazz influences of Idris Muhammad and Lonnie Liston Smith, the clatter of Gnawa percussion, and the ecumenism of hip-hop producers across generations: DJ Premier, Madlib, Knxwledge.”
But if McCraven’s work is tough to pigeonhole stylistically, its artistic intent is clear. As he told Rolling Stone magazine, he aims for “a recontextualization of avant-garde concepts in jazz, making them more digestible and palatable to a broader amount of people.” In other words, he offers a sort of universality conveyed through dynamics, pitch, timbre, tempo and rhythm.
“It’s debatable if music is really a language in technical terms, because we’re not using it to give direct commands or say anything literal to each other,” McCraven said. “But I do believe it can communicate real feelings and palpable energy that people connect to and that, in the end, is ultimately very difficult or impossible to describe with words.”
After returning from a brief European jaunt, McCraven will make his Symphony Center debut Jan. 31 with an SCP Jazz concert titled “In These Times.” Accompanied by a skilled ensemble that includes guitarist Matt Gold, trumpeter Marquis Hill, bassist Junius Paul, saxophonist Greg Ward and harpist Brandee Younger, he’ll lead a sociopolitical-themed performance of poly-metered repertoire (in unusual time signatures of (7/8, 11/8, 5/8). Complemented by archival film footage of black musicians and activists, it also will feature a spoken-word element that draws on interviews by the late oral historian Studs Terkel (a regular contributor to the progressive magazine In These Times). Revolving around material McCraven has written and performed while on the road, including a Hungarian folk song learned from his mother, his SCP program will mark a significant departure from his instrumentally focused and improvisation-infused club sessions.
“I’ve been using some of [Terkel’s] interviews and listening to a lot of artists and activists, and using some of that material to kind of create a narrative,” McCraven said of the multimedia program. “It’s kind of weaving between music, art and, indeed, these times — what’s going on.”
The Paris-born son of jazz drummer Stephen McCraven and Hungarian folk singer Ágnes Zsigmondi, McCraven grew up in Connecticut and began playing jazz and hip-hop in high school. After a truncated stint at the University of Massachusetts, he continued gigging while bouncing back and forth between the East Coast and Chicago after his then-girlfriend (and future wife), Nitasha Tamar Sharma, got a teaching job at Northwestern University in Evanston. She’s still there, now an associate professor of African American and Asian American studies. McCraven found Chicago to be more welcoming than the economically infeasible and fiercely competitive music scenes of New York or L.A., and he embraced the city as a solid base from which to develop and refine his craft. It remains so 14 years later.
“I’ve long said Chicago has one of the best working-class music scenes in America,” he said. “That doesn’t always mean that we get the most shine or the most media or attention. But there are so many incredible players working here, and there are quite a lot of opportunities to live and work as a musician in the city. In the last five or 10 years, I feel like I’ve seen an uptick in young musicians who are moving here and see Chicago as a viable option.”
And they’re all helping to maintain what McCraven calls “another space to deal with the issues of the world where we can’t yell at each other.” In a fractious society where matters of money and politics too often push us apart, art is and always has been a powerful unifying force.
“I believe it brings people together in tried and true ways,” he said. “When people feel like the world is letting them down, or they’re looking for answers, it can give you some hope or identity or just let you forget about your day.”
TOP: Makaya McCraven. | Photo by Kristie Kahns