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Makaya McCraven – Universal Beings

Dan Webb

Sungenre Album of the Month – November 2018

Makaya McCraven is a Paris-born, Chicago-based drummer, composer, producer and self-professed ‘beat scientist’. The compositions on his debut album Split Decision (2012) were comprised of a piano/drums/bass jazz trio. The following year he released Living Beats – an EP which attempted to blur the lines of digital production and live performance. Since then he has carved out a unique and unrestrained path, navigating diverse yet complimentary styles and textures; In The Moment (2016) was an expansive work which sets the template for this new double LP, whilst Highly Rare (2017) explored lo-fi free jazz and hip hop grooves. The most recent album came a mere five months ago in the form of Where We Come From, featuring the likes of Kamaal Williams and Nubya Garcia. While the timing of release of Universal Beings comes as somewhat of a surprise, the work presented here comes across as a culmination of ideas explored thus far.

“A Queen’s Intro” sets the scene with a cut-up mix of live and studio elements over a solid beat before “Holy Lands” ventures into hypnotic Alice Coltrane territory courtesy of female harpist, Pharoah Sanders and Lauryn Hill collaborator Brandee Younger. And indeed it should be noted that McCraven has opted to include female artists on each and every track presented here. Next, the first portion of “Young Genius” displays McCraven’s ability playing ahead of the beat over a downtempo, repetitive syncopated arrangement. The back end of the track features an intricate vibraphone solo by Joel Ross over a cool, steady walking bassline courtesy of Ravi Coltrane Quartet member Dezron Douglas.

“Pharaoh’s Intro” introduces British-Barbadian saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings and Chicagoan bassist Junius Paul into the mix. The next track “Atlantic Black” is a highlight, picking up the pace considerably with frenetic afrofunk percussion layered with dissonant cello and saxophone loops over smooth Rhodes keyboard chords. It recalls moments of George Gershwin’s masterpiece “Rhapsody In Blue” around the midway mark with a series of rhythmically displaced semitones. “Wise Man, Wiser Woman” piques interest with Tomeka Reid’s distorted electric cello lines providing a contrasting undercurrent to Hutchings’ silky smooth tone, while an all-out free jazz section in “Prosperity’s Fear” shows off McCraven’s virtuosity.

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“Flipped OUT” ventures into distinctly London new-wave jazz territory while introducing the next batch of talented instrumentalists to feature on this record – keyboardist Ashley Henry, Nubya Garcia on tenor sax and Daniel Casimir on double bass. “Suite Haus” opens with shades of “My Favorite Things” by John Coltrane, but adopts more of a propulsive lounge style which wouldn’t sound out of place on a Verve Remixed compilation. “The Royal Outro” and “The Count Off” serve as intimate portraiture interludes, the latter featuring an explosive post-bop groove – with between-take conversations recalling those synonymous with Robert Glasper Experiment records.

The remaining tracks, recorded in Los Angeles, feature yet another ensemble – guitarist Jeff Parker, saxophonist Josh Johnson, Adelaide-born bassist Anna Butterss, Carlos Niño on percussion and Brainfeeder artist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson on violin. Repetitive and choppy cut “The Fifth Monk” provides another standout, while “Brighter Days Beginning” plunges head-first into metaphysical murmurings before the casual title track closes proceedings; “We’re universal beings… we’re here to do what we’re here to do.”

On the double LP Universal Beings, Makaya McCraven has delivered his most inclusive, expansive and ambitious undertaking to date. Recorded across four cities in both live and studio settings and showcasing some of the hottest emerging talent in the world of modern jazz, it’s a rewarding listen from start to finish given the right mindset – despite the 89-minute asking price.