Makaya McCraven takes his frequent-flyer status seriously. As a busy traveling musician, the drummer, composer, and bandleader regularly crosses oceans to perform, and he’s not about to risk losing sight of his or his bandmates’ gear. “Being in the early boarding group exponentially raises your chances that they’re not going to hassle you,” he says over Zoom from his Chicago home ahead of a lengthy fall tour. “That they’re not going to be like, ‘Sir, we have to take that guitar from you. We’re going to put it under the plane.’ And I’m like, ‘No, you’re not taking his guitar. You’re not taking my cymbals.’ So the status really comes in handy.”
It quickly becomes clear that, in laying out his approach to “playing the airline games,” the 39-year-old isn’t just making small talk. “I am a little obsessive about it,” he adds. “If you’re a person who travels a lot, if you give me the chance, I will lecture you, you know what I mean?”
McCraven brings that same laser-focused, deeply analytical spirit to just about any topic, whether he’s mulling his pre-tour domestic checklist (spending time with his two kids, testing his motion sensor and security system), tracing the evolution of his onstage attire (as “a performer who sweats a lot, like profusely,” he’s come to favor simple black T-shirts, accented with a striking necklace made from a circular cymbal fragment), or unpacking the unique blend of live improvisation and hip- hop-informed studio tinkering that’s helped make him one of the most talked-about jazz musicians of his generation.
Even the title of his new record, In These Times, comes packed with various meanings and inspirations. On one level, it nods to the long-running progressive Chicago magazine of the same name, where McCraven gave a candid interview in 2014 about the realities of life as a working musician, in the spirit of the publication’s late contributor Studs Terkel’s celebrated oral histories. On another, it highlights the variety of tricky time signatures McCraven employs within the compositions, informed by the Eastern-European folk music he’s played with his mother, the accomplished Hungarian singer Ágnes Zsigmondi.
I used to siT arOund and dig ThrOugh Our recOrd cOllecTiOn and be like, ‘Oh My gOsh—My dad’s gOT his Own recOrds, wiTh his picTure On iT. ThaT’s sO cOOl!’
Sonically, the album is a rich, ambitious effort— filled with lush strings and uplifting themes that recall classic ’70s soul—that in another artist’s catalog might feel like a magnum opus. But in McCraven’s discography, it’s more like the latest in a series of milestones that show off different facets of his art, taking its place alongside 2015’s In the Moment, the album that put his self-described “organic beat music” on the map; 2018’s Universal Beings, where he forged alliances with musicians in London, L.A., and New York; and recent production-centric projects Deciphering the Message and We’re New Again, which used new live instrumentation to create time-traveling dialogues with the golden-era Blue Note Records roster and the late poet and songwriter Gil Scott-Heron, respectively.
The material on In These Times is so outright lovely and melody-forward, it can be easy to for- get that the drummer is the one in charge. At a recent performance of pieces from the album at Brooklyn’s Public Records, a packed crowd blissed out to the sounds of the string quartet who appear on the album, the harp of frequent McCraven collaborator Brandee Younger, and flute, tenor sax, and trippy EWI (electronic wind instrument) from De’Sean Jones. McCraven’s sturdy odd-time funk beats anchored the whole program, but it was only in a brief moment of percussive flash near the end of the show that the leader claimed the spotlight. His chops are a given at this point; for this record, which has been in the works since even before In the Moment, he had other priorities.
“A large goal of mine, for my career, was to be more than just a drummer, and really try to be a musician, a composer, somebody who is also deal- ing with harmony and melody. So that’s driven me to do a lot of my writing from the piano,” he says. “I’m studying, I’m working on my penmanship, I’m working on arranging—all the things that I wanted to do as a composer that I was not really doing through these other records.”
That “more than just a drummer” ethos is in McCraven’s DNA. His father, Stephen, was a drummer who gave the young Makaya his first lessons in the midst of a busy career that saw him working with avant-garde jazz masters such as Archie Shepp, Marion Brown, Sam Rivers, and Yusef Lateef. Stephen also released several solo albums that spotlighted his own compositions. Turning his phone around and panning over to his record shelf, the younger McCraven zeroes in on a copy of Wooley the Newt, his father’s rare 1979 debut, and cites the cover—a black-and-white portrait against a white background—as an inspiration for the In These Times sleeve. He also points out an LP by Kolinda, his mother’s long-running Hungarian folk ensemble. (“Lullaby,” a track on In These Times, is based on a piece co-composed by Zsigmondi and Kolinda cofounder Péter Dabasi.)
“This is my inspiration,” he says of his parents’ tangible discographies. “I’ve got records with their faces on them that I grew up with. I used to sit around and dig through our record collection and be like, ‘Oh my gosh—my dad’s got his own records, with his picture on it. That’s so cool! I want to be able to do that.’”
Seeing his father release albums on small labels instilled a DIY spirit that McCraven carried over into his own work. While attending high school in Western Mass., he cofounded Cold Duck Complex, a band that played funky live hip-hop. They put out their own records and opened for national acts across the Northeast. (In 2003, at UMass Amherst, they set the stage for a very era-appropriate bill featuring 50 Cent, Rahzel, and Reel Big Fish.) He later moved to Chicago after his partner—and now wife—settled there, and immersed himself in that city’s storied forward-thinking jazz scene. Soon he met Scott McNiece, the future cofounder of the drummer’s current label, International Anthem, which has also put out acclaimed releases by Tortoise guitarist Jeff Parker (a frequent McCraven collaborator), Irreversible Entanglements (a free-jazz collective featuring the incendiary poet Moor Mother), and jaimie branch, a brilliant trumpeter-composer who died suddenly this past August. McNiece urged McCraven to launch a weekly performance residency and record each gig. Already a bedroom beatmaker, McCraven started doing some light postproduction work on these show tapes. The process yielded a eureka moment.
“Every time I would get one of these rough mixes from that series, the first thing I would do is just kind of throw it in Ableton and throw on some reverb or boost the bass, or put a compressor on it, just to kind of make my listening experience better,” he says. “But I was always making beats, too, so next I was like, ‘Let me just grab that moment. Let’s see what happens...’ And it was like, bing: ‘Whoa, this is way cooler than any beat I’ve made.’”
The results of these experiments became In the Moment, McCraven’s breakthrough album. Jazz had seen plenty of remix projects before, including Blue Note-backed effortsThe New Groove, from 1996, and Shades of Blue, a 2003 release by one of McCraven’s favorite producers, Madlib, but the material that emerged when McCraven combined his drummer-bandleader talents with what he refers to as his “beat scientist” persona captured a new and distinctive flavor. The tracks on In the Moment prized the live environment that birthed them, highlighting the deep listening and methodical real-time development honed by McCraven and his collaborators—including guitarist Parker, multi-instrumentalist Jones, trumpeter Marquis Hill, and bassist Junius Paul, all of whom also appear on In These Times—and even making crafty use of background audi- ence chatter and McCraven’s playful banter. (“You’ve been listening to spontaneous compositions by us,” the drummer tells the audience at the end of one track. “That basically means we’re just making shit up.”) But they also capitalized on the hypnotic power of looping and the warmth and grit of McCraven’s Ableton treatments, effectively uniting the crate-digging producer and the musician on the prized piece of rare vinyl under one musical roof.
McCraven’s genre-splicing creations arrived at an opportune time. Within a few months of the album’s release, widespread acclaim for Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly—which featured production and performance by jazz artists including Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper, and Terrace Martin—and, soon after, Washington’s own sprawling retro opus The Epic, released by Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label, culminated in a rare moment of mass- media buzz for contemporary jazz. But the widely circulated narrative of the genre becoming cool again didn’t quite sit right with McCraven, who had grown up proudly immersed in the music via his father and his associates—and had never accepted the idea that it should be considered anything less.
“When I came up, as a 16-, 17-year-old playing in a hip-hop jazzy band and working with a lot of artists, there was this feeling that entering the professional world and calling yourself a jazz musician was like a death sentence, because you’re playing old, crusty, white-people music,” he says. “And that’s not how I grew up. I grew up around Archie Shepp, Yusef Lateef, Marion Brown, all these cats, very progressive, very poignant provocateurs as musicians, and so this narrative of what jazz was, was really painful to me. And I was like, ‘I want to reappropriate jazz for myself.’”
These days, he’s wary of even employing the term “jazz,” describing it as “offensive at worst and insufficient at best,” and using it only as a necessary shorthand. His “organic beat music” coinage seems like a better catchall descriptor for the contents of his revelatory discography to date, from Universal Beings to Deciphering the Message, where he raided the Blue Note vaults à la Madlib but emerged with a fresh hybrid sound. The latter project helped reinforce for him that no matter how the public perception of jazz may have shifted across the decades, the music of his forebears still contained the same spark that he and his peers—like London saxophonists Shabaka Hutchings and Nubya Garcia or New York luminaries like Brandee Younger and vibraphonist Joel Ross—carry on today.
“Working on this Blue Note record was profound for me,” he says. “Many things I took away from that: One, cats like Lee Morgan, Herbie Hancock, and Wayne Shorter, they were, like, 20 years old. This is young people’s music. It’s hip. Now it’s relegated to these other spaces, and young people generally don’t really have the same connection, but if I look at what the music was, it was funky, it was swinging. It’s cool music—black music.”
Working on this Blue Note record was profound for me...This is young people’s music. It’s hip...it was funky, it was swinging. It’s cool music—black music.
In These Times is all of these things as well. But more than any of McCraven’s prior projects, which embrace the grit of their on-the-fly origins to various extents, it feels downright luxurious, in the way pieces like “Dream Another’’ and the transporting title track slow down and let their beauty breathe. It’s a hip record, yes, but it’s also a healing one.
“Speaking to the times right now, I feel like there’s a lot of dark art,” McCraven says. “A lot of dark-sounding music, a lot of dark TV and film. I mean, Winnie-the-Pooh is now a horror film. The world’s at war, we’re slipping back into old ideologies. So I really wanted to make something that felt beautiful and hopeful, rather than just, like, doubling down on our reality.”
He pauses, quickly catching his breath before reiterating the core idea of his latest impassioned mini-lecture: “To me, the antithesis of the moment is hopefulness and beauty.”