Makaya McCraven, “In These Times”
By Stewart Smith · September 22, 2022 Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD), Book/Magazine, Poster/Print

Across a series of albums and mixtapes, Makaya McCraven has been honing his process of looping, editing, and layering live jazz into new compositions. Whether reworking the improvisations of his peers in Chicago, Los Angeles, and London, or remixing hard-bop gems from the Blue Note catalog, the drummer, composer, and producer creates tracks that get one’s head nodding while losing none of the source material’s soulful spontaneity.

On In These Times, McCraven blends his “organic beat music” with original compositions and luscious orchestral arrangements that recall the symphonic soul of the 1970s. Recorded over seven years, the album brings together several of McCraven’s regular collaborators, including Jeff Parker, Junius Paul, Brandee Younger, Joel Ross, and Marquis Hill. Yet as rich as it all sounds, there’s a real urgency to the music, from the odd-metered jolt of McCraven’s drumming to the passionate tenor saxophone of Irvin Pierce.

In a nod to McCraven’s previous releases, the album opens with lively audience sounds, out of which emerge looped harp, horns, and percussion. Fed through shimmering reverb, the music swirls behind a voice sampled from Studs Terkel’s Chicago radio archive. A man talks about honoring those who died building this city by continuing their work. “We gotta finish it,” he urges, the loop accelerating behind him, before a jump cut to a slow and dignified soul elegy: a tribute to the power of community and a beautiful memorial.

“The Fours” comes on like a hip-hop Julius Eastman, as McCraven layers evolving loops over crunchy boom-bap. “High Fives” has more of a live jazz sound, with Junius Paul picking out a high modal figure on double bass over McCraven’s boom-click percussion. Acoustic piano and Fender Rhodes are stacked and shuffled, with McCraven trimming the decay from the samples so it’s all attack. Younger’s harp is given a similar treatment, with McCraven fashioning her parts into brittle percussive clusters. Younger gets a feature with “Lullaby,” her lower register figures blossoming into a reflective melody reminiscent of Alice Coltrane. On “Dream Another,” her harp is the thread that weaves together spindly electric sitar, flute, and a velvety Philly soul groove.

The expressive potential of McCraven’s real-time and digital approaches reaches an apex in the closing diptych of “The Knew Untitled” and “The Title.” On the former, the rippling romanticism of the opening piano and harp exchange is offset by an uneasy chromaticism. Woozy organ chords usher in a stunning Parker guitar solo that moves through slanted chords and dissonant harmonies before taking flight. If the focus here is on the live ensemble, the opening bars of “The Title” reveal the producer’s hand, as McCraven chops up the sample on MIDI pads. The track soon coalesces into a cool trumpet refrain over a solid groove, yet there’s no obvious digital editing here—just a seamless folding of hip-hop language into live soul jazz. With In These Times, McCraven has raised his art to a new level.

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