An Interview with Makaya McCraven

Will Schube speaks with Makaya McCraven about the similarities between UK and Chicago jazz, his new mixtape, and being a worldly musician.
By    July 2, 2018

Makaya McCraven speaks like a jazz musician plays. His ideas dart and run astray, his thoughts pick up speed as he gets excited about a particular line of thinking. But when it clicks, when what he’s hinting at coheres and locks in, you know exactly where he’s going. McCraven’s familiarity with the genre—its vernacular, its pacing, its varying styles—was bred in him from an infantile age. McCraven was born in Paris, the son of a Hungarian woman who played traditional folk music and an ex-pat father who played drums for Archie Shepp and Sam Rivers. The couple embedded themselves in Parisian jazz culture before moving to Western Massachusetts where Shepp settled and Yusef Lateef called home. Those two would mentor Makaya from an early age, introducing him to a jazz language the young student would eventually morph into an inspired personal sound.

While McCraven honed his childhood chops just outside of Boston, he came into his own as a professional player a dozen years ago when he moved to Chicago. The timing was fortuitous. This was ‘06, the scene was bubbling. The co-mingling between experimental rock and free-form jazz was audacious and prevalent, the sort of genre defiance McCraven has mastered as his calling card. After a few years of moving around the scene with various musicians—playing as a drummer rather than a collaborator—McCraven stepped into the spotlight with the show stealing In the Moment. The record was put out on International Anthem during the label’s big come up, and McCraven’s grown with it—Chicago jazz pretty much runs through International Anthem in 2018. In the Moment features other Chicago staples Jeff Parker (who now resides in LA) and Joshua Abrams, and is the first example of McCraven’s pioneering cut and paste technique.

In the Moment, last year’s Highly Rare, and the just released Where We Come From, blend the live performative aspects of improvisational jazz with McCraven’s proclivities as a producer, blending and looping the best bits with his unique drum style and hip-hop embedded swagger he spent his childhood studying.

While Where We Come From follows in the footsteps of McCraven’s previous releases, he moves far outside his Chicago circle on the release, taking a performance from London in October 2017 and using it as the structure from which he builds the tape. Kamaal Williams is featured on keys, as is Joe Armon-Jones, and the result is an endlessly grooving tape that spans the ever evolving expanse of rap production and exotic strains of jazz’s historic roots.

After recording that performance, McCraven handed the record to a number of producers to chop, splice, and remix, including another Chicago jazz luminary, Ben LaMar Gay. From there, McCraven took the recordings back, once again imbuing them with his signature sense of rhythm and feel. The result is unlike anything else coming out of the Chicago jazz or rap scene, an exploration of the different iterations jazz has introduced globally, and how these sounds are more similar than we often realize. Makaya McCraven is a Chicago staple, owing some of his rise to the city’s fervent jazz community, but with Where We Come From, McCraven and his band have transcended locale. Jazz belongs to the world, it exists wherever we come from. —Will Schube

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How did the idea to make this mixtape come into being?

Makaya McCraven: A lot of it stems from the discovery of the process of being in the moment. After going through that and extrapolating that to Highly Rare and improvised shows that I would document, I moved onto sampling as a method of composition. After Highly Rare, I wanted to do it as a traveling project. I wanted to do sessions in New York, LA, Chicago, and London. It was an idea of doing more things like this, eventually hoping to travel around different regions of Africa and South America as well.

The idea came from extrapolating what I’ve been doing and taking it into a broader concept. The early stuff was focusing on a localized music scene. A lot of people ask me about Chicago, but I’m not really from Chicago. I’ve been here for twelve years. I’ve been able to come here as a transplant and embed myself in a localized music scene, but I’ve also been playing different music, involved in different scenes—LA and London—that offer interesting takes both locally and globally. As a way of both celebrating local music in a place like Chicago, that doesn’t get the same type of love and appreciation New York and LA get, and shine a light on it, but I also don’t want to beat my chest in celebrating Chicago’s scene, because my real fans and friends in Chicago, they’ll remind me that I’m not actually from there! I’m just trying to celebrate the idea of local music scenes and local cultures.

Each scene has its own vibe and its own energy, but I’m also trying to tell a larger story about how we’re all part of an international, global art scene. In this particular moment, there’s an interesting movement in jazz where it’s being redefined by young players and new audiences. This new record is a combination of expanding my process and selfishly wanting to travel and play with new people—to test my musicality and grow and learn from as many of my peers as I can. I also just want to shine a light on jazz, both locally and internationally. This particular London show took on a life of its own and that’s how this particular project came about.

Is your writing process now exclusively made up of that improvisation and splicing method?

Makaya McCraven: That’s one way I go about songwriting. I have a studio record that I’ve been working on as well but this took precedent because of the momentum and the narrative we’ve been building regarding the process. One thing I really enjoy, too, is the improvised concerts. They’re unique experiences and it’s a time when we can get together. Ideally, I’d like to put them in non-traditional venues where they’re a little more accessible to the public and a little more low pressure than a concert hall or a festival stage. I’m trying to create an interesting space where creative musicians can simply express themselves, I’m trying to create an environment that’s free. For the audience, too, I think there’s something unique about it, something exhilarating about improvised music and that journey. There’s something really unique about the first moment a new idea comes together. That moment when everybody clicks in is something special and something I want to investigate and document.

On studio recordings, I’m not necessarily interested in documenting improvisation. I don’t think it’s the right place for that. With those, I’m using beat making ideas to bring certain pieces together. In one way, I’m composing, but it’s more about the entire process, it’s about creating communities and interesting experiences that take us beyond where we’re used to being. A lot of music today is very quantized and perfectly played. One thing that I love about jazz and improvisation is that it’s about the unknown. At the same time, I spend most of my time, chopping this stuff up on my computer or sitting behind a piano or with a bass, composing and writing. I’m just trying to grow as a musician. It’s all part of the process of my growth towards mastery of the craft. This is a challenge and about the process of growing a sustainable career as an artist which is nearly impossible.

Was your idea originally to take these live recordings and then give it to producers to chop up and remix before handing it back to you for more additions?

Makaya McCraven: In the Moment was a series of performances which we’d record, and then I’d chop it up and pass it along to producers. From there, I try to weave it all together which adds to the mixtape vibe as well. Also, it exemplifies what I’m trying to make in terms of samples, sounds, and repurposing ideas—recontextualizing music to make new music. I’ve always been really drawn to sample based hip-hop, and that was my first love in the genre. Just trying to figure out how producers create samples. The idea that I can create something, and then I can recontextualize that music and make something new, then pass that piece to another person, and then they can take something new out of that same live audio, and then that person can pass that back to me and I can flip it again. From that whole process, we had four different pieces of music all coming from the same catalyst. I’m just trying to investigate what’s possible.

What’s your idea of the difference between a mixtape and an LP?

Makaya McCraven: I think a mixtape generally has more voices in there, as opposed to just one artist. With Where We Come From, it really jumps around from the life of the performance, to a mix from a producer, to another artist, so instead of it feeling like an album as a set of songs or a narrative, it takes a couple different directions and it’s mixed up from different sounds and different perspectives. Also, it’s like a continuous play. You’re basically listening to a DJ weaving music together rather than a song starting and ending. It’s curated for you with transitions and it plays smoothly through.

That’s what I felt with Highly Rare, too. Also, we literally put this record on tapes! This is my mix, this is featuring all of the transitions. It’s from the perspective of a DJ.

How did you go about recruiting the live group that made up the Where We Come From performance?

Makaya McCraven: I wasn’t entirely familiar with the musicians I was playing with. I had been in touch with Kamaal Williams a few times before. In London, we were talked about in similar press around that time. We had some mutual connections that were interested in seeing us collaborate. It didn’t come through the time before so I saw this as a good opportunity to reach out and pull him into something. I was familiar with most of their music, but I hadn’t met most of them, I knew loosely of the scene from Sons of Kemet. It was more brainstorming, like, after I knew I had people like Shabaka [Hutchings] involved, I was just searching for people that would be interesting for the movement. It was a little bit like, ‘Who knows how this is gonna go?,’ because I didn’t really know them or their playing that intimately. But it turned out great and I think I really made some connections that will last a long time.

There’s a lot of talk about the London scene, but I feel like I can get together with these musicians halfway across the world without ever really talking about it, and we can create something beautiful together, something powerful, especially when the world is telling us we should be apart based on our nationalities or race. I was born in Paris, my mother is from Hungary, my dad was an ex-pat living in Paris. Going overseas to play with musicians is full circle and part of my life story. I’m not just pulling it out of thin air, either.

My father was 21 when he moved to Paris, he integrated with the French jazz scene. Archie Shepp was living there. I’ve always looked to my parents as inspirations. A big part of this project is traveling to get a better sense of my history. We need more of this now. We’re trying to be divided and othered. It’s not that crazy of an idea to go overseas and play with other musicians. It’s pretty simple. Music is much more powerful than the borders that divide us. If it wasn’t, musicians wouldn’t be traveling on tour. You would just listen to the people outside of your door. I meet musicians from all over the world because we’re all playing the same festivals, we’re all hanging backstage.

I’ve always wanted to play with as many musicians as I can, across as many differences—racially, ethnically, geographically, in terms of genre—as possible. There are blues musicians I can sit in with and play circles around technically, but if I can’t play their music with authenticity and make it feel right, then I’m defeated. I want to be informed and educated in a cultural sense. I would like to be able to sit down anywhere in the world with any band and be able to hold my own.

When you’re playing with this group of British musicians, are you conscious of the way your style of jazz varies from their music? Are you trying to alter your style to get closer to their sound, or are you trying to see how these two different worlds can potentially co-exist?

Makaya McCraven: I would argue that our styles aren’t so different. It’s not so clear how different American and British versions of jazz are. I would say that, because of those groups of players having a long history specific to their scene, they maybe understand each other better. Part of me wants to take part of that, but part of me also wants to challenge that. I’m a musician that wants to play with people, I like to listen and respond. Hopefully the musicians I’m playing with feel the same way, in which case we’ll all meet somewhere.

It’s not pure improvisation, though—we’re not avoiding things that are more familiar sounding. Also, the type of show we’re doing will drastically affect the way we play. If we did Highly Rare in a tavern, we’ll go in a more out there direction, but I’ll always try to bring it back. We did Where We Come From in a bigger room, so it had more of a standing room rock show feel. The circumstances add a lot to the music, it’s not just about the musicians. The fact that we’re playing a song in front of a lot of people who are very hyped and have a lot of energy, means we’re going to be excited, I’m going to play the drums louder, I’m going to look for more extraordinary grooves. We’re not isolated, the audience is there, too. I can’t stress enough that the music would be completely different without the audience. We’re going to give back what they give us.

I really like when I hear somebody hooting or hollering, which I really like to loop once or twice after the fact. It gives a little window to the set, and it’s funny to hear somebody yelling along to the music. ‘Yeah! Yeah!’ Even mistakes and little weird moments provide better loops than a really tight sounding band. That’s the best thing about sampling from improvised source material. You have all of these little nuggets, unbelievable moments that would be impossible to write or come up with. It’s chance. Chance is a motherfucker. When little things happen that are hard to dream up, there’s more to pull from. That’s what’s beautiful about improvisation.

One of the only thing that remains true in this world is that chaos exists. We all improvise, but as jazz musicians, we’re just navigating the unexpected. Everybody does this in their everyday lives. We have schedules, but if there’s a traffic jam you’ve gotta improvise. We do our best to compartmentalize and organize everything so we can minimize the unknown, but no matter how much structure we build, we still have to improvise.

Before you moved to Chicago where were you based out of?

Makaya McCraven: I was based out of Western Massachusetts. There was a vibrant jazz scene there, my father moved there from Paris and Archie Shepp was teaching at UMass. Yusef Lateef lived there, too. There are all sorts of interesting people because there are five colleges out there. It was a small, rural area but it was a really liberal, forward thinking art community. A lot of really great careers emerged out of that community. When I moved to Chicago I felt like a small fish in a big pond because of the success I had in Massachusetts. I kind of had to start over. I was playing in hip-hop bands and on folk sessions on the East Coast but when I moved to Chicago I started doing straight ahead jazz and that began to take over.

But there was a period where I was a full time musician but I was making beats as a hobby. I was trying to sell beats to emcees and that sort of stuff, but it’s not like anyone was interested in a Herbie Hancock-style beat I made. That was really disheartening for me. But being a player and a producer sort of met up, and I was able to do both. It was really inspiring to realize I could do both. That was big because as a young musician, you weren’t supposed to be a jazz player. If someone asked, you were supposed to say that you played all kinds of music. Jazz was a bad word. The prospect of having a sustainable career went out the window, but jazz was accepted wherever I lived. I haven’t had a real job since I was 18 years old. I’m a full-time working musician. In Chicago that means I’m very working class, but I get to tour the world.

Now, the narrative of the record is about all of these really young jazz musicians who are doing really well, but there’s not really a budding audience for it. That is something I really want to tap into. I just want to reach a larger audience and be a positive influence. I want to reach as many people as I can. I love hip-hop and I love beats and I find that that style has a platform, but finding a place where my jazz music finds that audience—where I can pay homage to my father’s music, who was playing with avant-garde jazz legends—to show we can create some sort of life, some sort of antithesis to all the negative shit we’re dealing with in this world. Art is important and the rest of the shit we have to deal with sucks. Art matters.

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