Makaya McCraven is one of the most important musicians/composers working today. For sure in the world of modern jazz, but for modern music itself. The Chicago-based drummer/studio wizard has blended the worlds of jazz, soul, and hip hop and on his records makes music that feels very much grounded in the classic 60s/70s world of hard bop, fusion, and free jazz, but has gotten there through contemporary, forward-thinking means. Recording sessions live, then going back and cutting and pasting these performances in a very Teo Macero kind of way into something that flows like raw creation but was a product of studio wizardry.
Others have said similar things about Mr. McCraven in far more eloquent and academic terms. I’m just talking from a very gut level. A gut with maybe a beer buzz.
Working with some of the best contemporary jazz players, McCraven has built this next-level community of artists, while also collaborating with others that are working at his own level of musical excellence. Makaya McCraven is about the music, and where he can take it to and who can help him get it there.
On his latest album, the subtle and brilliant In These Times, the approach feels more laid back. The compositions are as grounded in 70s soul music as they are the world of jazz and the results resonate on a very spiritual level. There’s an urgency, while at the same time a feeling of taking in everything we see and experience while getting there.
According to McCraven’s record label International Anthem, “This is the album McCraven has been trying to make since he started making records.” McCraven’s intention was to make In These Times be his follow-up to his 2015 debut In The Moment, but instead he released revelatory albums like Universal Beings, his Gil-Scott-Heron album We’re New Again : A Reimagining By Makaya McCraven, as well as the Blue Note remix album Deciphering The Message. He also released a couple really great live releases(check out Highly Rare if you haven’t.) But after a seven year writing/recording process In These Times is here and it was worth the wait.
Title track “In These Times” opens the album with a sense of urgency and a relevance with strings accompanying sitar, guitar, and vibes. It’s like Marvin Gaye coming together with those Freddie Hubbard CTI albums like Red Clay and First Light. There’s a heaviness of cultural and social relevance here, and this is just the first cut. “High Fives” is one of my favorite cuts here, with a playful, percussive foundation it seems to float along like smoke from a Havana night from long, long ago. Musically it grooves hard without going too far. It still carries with it a touch of melancholy in the guitar work courtesy of the brilliant Jeff Parker. “Dream Another” locks into some early 70s soul/R&B vibes, done in the the Chicago groove vernacular.
The list of collaborators is long and jaw-droppingly filled with the best of the jazz scene, but a few familiar names include the aforementioned Jeff Parker, as well as Junius Paul, Joel Ross, De’Sean Jones, and Brandee Younger to name a few, In These Times couldn’t be anything less than brilliant. “Lullaby”, “Seventh String”, and the breezy album closer ‘The Title” come together to make an album of emotional, intellectual, and visceral heft.
As I stated at the start, Makaya McCraven is one of our most important musician/composers working today, not only in jazz but modern music at large. It’s hard to say if In These Times is his best album as everything he’s released thus far is next-level brilliant. But In These Times might be his most concise and honed in LP, and is certainly one of the best albums you’ll listen to in 2022.