Makaya McCraven Is Deciphering The Message
Written by Ayana Contreras on November 18, 2021
Jazz drummer, beat scientist and bandleader Makaya McCraven keeps past music alive — but puts his own spin on it.
A Chicago resident since 2007, Makaya McCraven has established himself as an innovative and multitalented player integral to the city’s jazz scene and beyond.
McCraven acknowledges his role in the cycle of sampling or reimagining past works, while building them into something modern: reinventing the sound in new ways over and over again. This ideology is mirrored by Vocalo’s all-vinyl program Reclaimed Soul, the description of which reads, “Taking old materials … to push us all forward.”
Ayana Contreras, the host of Reclaimed Soul, sat down with McCraven at his Rogers Park residence on Sept. 20 to discuss the necessity of creating music for survival, the continuum of music and his new album Deciphering the Message, which dropped Nov. 19.
This interview originally aired on Vocalo Radio September 23.
Ayana Contreras: I’m here in lovely Rogers Park with Makaya McCraven. Hey, Makaya.
Makaya McCraven: Hey, Ayana. How you doing?
AC: I wanted to talk to you in advance of the Hyde Park Jazz Festival (McCraven played the evening of September 25), because you have so much going on in your life. You have this Blue Note remix album coming up. You have your own work with International Anthem Records. It’s a good time. Have you been really productive during this pandemic? Or how has it been for you?
MM: It’s been difficult staying productive during the pandemic, and it’s taken a lot of work to just keep myself going and keep myself engaged. But with so much going on, I’ve just been plowing through.
AC: Tell me about this Blue Note album. The first single is already out. Tell me about the process. Did they approach you? Were you able to just have at the archives, or what was the deal?
MM: Yeah. The record Deciphering the Message came about really with a meeting with me and [Blue Note label boss] Don Was. I just was presenting just different ideas I had about sampling and working the way I’ve been doing it with my own recordings, but also just a desire to work with such an incredible legacy of music. Don was into it, and we quickly kind of got the process started. From there on, I took a deep dive into the catalog, guided by some mentors of mine that I reached out to, and just went at it and then just really engaged with my creativity and just let the music speak to me and try to speak through the process of making the record.
AC: That’s exciting because I think for a lot of people, maybe a younger generation, their entry point to a lot of the Blue Note recordings have been the samples and specifically the Shades of Blue, Madlib situation and different things like that. Do you feel like you’re carrying on that lineage, or do you think it’s a completely different thing?
MM: Absolutely. I think it’s all part of a lineage, and I think the sampling itself is part of a lineage in this music. Even if you look at these classic Blue Note records, you can hear from record to record the way that musicians would use language and create language where they were using similar things or sampling from each other in one way or another. I think all this stuff is part of a continuum of music, even the way that we play jazz standards and we give them our own arrangements and our own way of re-interpreting them, so now that we can do it with recorded music using technology, we’ve had people like Pete Rock and Madlib and so many producers.
Even going back to things like the Mellotron and the tape loop and repurposing recorded sound for new things, it’s just another way of dealing with sound in the past and presenting it in the future and keeping these things alive. So I think of it as part of a continuum absolutely, and I don’t really think I’m trying to reinvent the wheel. I just try to put my own spin on it.
I sample the way I sample, and I play with the tracks to give just another dimension to it in that regard and incorporating all of my collaborators and the great people I get to work with, for them to give some flavor and just try to make something beautiful.
AC: Tell me about some of the folks that helped you on this journey — folks who are on the record.
MM: Jeff Parker, long-time collaborator and I consider a mentor. Junius Paul, Marquis Hill, some of my closest friends in this music and in life. Matt Gold, De’Sean Jones, Joel Ross, just kind of cast of particularly guys that I’ve been working with for a long time and have developed some personal relationship with and that I trust. Especially in this time with the pandemic and just not as much interaction with as many people, I just found I was falling into working with people that I trust and that we support each other.
AC: That’s a good point. I didn’t think about that, that relationships shift. I was just saying to somebody, they were like, “Do you know this person? They said that you all are really good friends.”
I was like, “Honestly, the people I consider really good friends are people that I’ve talked to at one point or another through this pandemic, because those are the people that you don’t just happen to see out and about. You had to make a concerted effort to connect with them.” So I wonder if that is impacting more than just friendship?
MM: I believe so, at least in my personal life. Yeah, this time has affected all of us in ways that we couldn’t really understand or predict, and we’ve dealt with it the ways we’ve dealt with it. I’m grateful I’ve had people that were there to talk to me and work with me through challenging circumstances, as we continue to.
AC: Yeah. Because it’s definitely not over yet. Speaking of not over yet, we are still making those moves into festivals, and you’ve been doing a couple of festivals it looks like over the past couple of months. How’s that experience been for you? Have there been any surprises? Any good things, bad things?
MM: I mean, it’s been fabulous. I mean, I’ve been surprised almost at how moved I’ve been, not only on the bandstand, but off the bandstand seeing other musicians play. So being back is great. I mean, there’s the extra rigamarole of just getting around and doing everything and getting used to getting back into this pace of life and all the interaction, but yeah, it’s been great to perform. There’s just a really great, I feel, connection with the audience and with the musicians and everything. It’s really bringing home how important these moments that I’ve missed for some time are.
AC: Absolutely. Because I know I was talking to [musician and club owner] Mike Reed in the midst of the pandemic. We weren’t sure what was going to go on with [one of his venues] Constellation, but one of the things he said was woodshedding and jamming together is such a crucial part of the music, and if that isn’t going to happen anymore, he was really concerned for that aspect of the music and how would we figure that out. I do think that now, in hindsight it’s starting to seem like, I don’t know, we’re settling into a new normal, but it’s definitely not what it was.
MM: And it won’t be. Nothing ever is really what it was. This is a particular challenge, but the music will find a way and the people that are moved by it will find a way. People will continue to play, and it can’t be stopped. It’s just survival, because it is essential to our survival and our own mental, emotional, spiritual wellbeing, so we’ll do it. Of course, I’ve got concerns, but when it comes to the music, it’s going to keep on.
AC: Also, the one thing I did want to mention is I think a lot about you in terms of live music, because I think a lot of people’s introduction to you was a live record that you augmented [In The Moment]. But, I mean, that was essentially recorded live. That energy is such an important part of the DNA of what a Makaya McCraven record is, so thinking about that aspect.
MM: Absolutely. That is really important. The live aspect is something that I’ve always felt is a unique and special place, right? When you get a lot of people, and it doesn’t even have to be music, when you get a lot of people together in one space putting their energy towards something and concentrating towards something, there is something in the air that you can feel. There’s a tangible feeling of our collective energy and our collective presence and being together.
I mean, one of my favorite things in music is in a concert when it gets really quiet, and if there’s people talking amongst the club or whatever, the murmur hushes to a pin drop, and I find that to be a really powerful moment. So the live space and the recorded space are completely different and how I treat them with my art is a completely different space. Not having that, it has been tough and, I don’t know, it’s great to be back and to be in that, and hopefully we can get back to maybe doing some recordings and trying to capture some of that magic on record again.
UPDATE: Follow Makaya McCraven on Twitter and Instagram, and stream his latest album on Spotify below.
Interview edited for length and clarity by Ayana Contreras.