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Makaya McCraven’s renown as a sound visionary and innovative “beat scientist” would seem to be encoded in his family’s DNA. His dad is jazz drummer Stephen McCraven, whose expansive résumé includes Yusef Lateef, Freddie Hubbard and years playing with Archie Shepp, and his mom is Hungarian singer Agnes Zsigmondi of the band Kolinda, whose boundary-pushing Euro-folk music sparked the younger McCraven’s passion for odd-metered and polyrhythmic music. When the Paris-born McCraven started his first band in high school in Massachusetts, Agnes was the first to hire them to play her new music. “She taught us different ways of processing odd meters that were not accessible to the average listener,” he reflects.
Speaking of his parents’ influence, around the time he released his third album — Highly Rare, in 2017 — McCraven acknowledged to Medium.com that “it wasn’t that they genetically bestowed on me the gift of music, but that they were willing to let me put many, many hours of my life into it.” A tangential blessing was having the opportunity to listen to tons of classic jazz vinyl in the house — including many classic Blue Note sides — and “growing up being able to pull out records with mom and dad’s faces on them. I always wanted that for myself.”
McCraven achieved that twice over the years with Split Decision (2012) and In the Moment (2015). But it was a recording without a photo — a remix/re-imagining of Gil Scott Heron’s final album I’m New Here titled We’re New Again — that piqued the interest of Blue Note Records President Don Was and laid the foundation for the late 2021 release Deciphering the Message. This full band remix album finds the beat maven “crate digging” — his favorite expression to describe the aesthetic of making exciting discoveries from the past — through the label’s legendary catalog and putting fresh twists on pieces by the likes of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (“When Your Lover Has Gone,” “Mr. Jin”), Hank Mobley (“A Slice of the Top”), Kenny Dorham (“Sunset”), Horace Silver (“Ecaroh”), Bobby Hutcherson (“Tranquility”), Kenny Burrell (“Autumn in New York”) and others.
Due to COVID-19 issues, some of the elements of the 13-track collection were recorded remotely. However, McCraven wanted, as much as was safe and creatively possible, to approximate the ensemble energy of the original recordings. So he invited to the sessions — in his longtime home base of Chicago — a group of musicians that have, in his words, “become like an extended family over time. Making music can be an intimate and vulnerable experience, so working with those you know and trust is beautiful, and something I felt I could learn from.” Deciphering the Message features vibraphonist Joel Ross, trumpeter Marquis Hill, alto saxophonist Greg Ward, guitarists Matt Gold and Jeff Parker, bassist Junius Paul and tenor saxophonist/flutist De’Sean Jones.
“The previous self-samplings and collaborations I had done gave me an opportunity to sit down with Don [Was] and talk about this idea that it might be cool to sample classic works from records I grew up on from a contemporary musician’s perspective, seeing what it might be like to play with those same tunes now,” McCraven says. “He was immediately on board with my vision of creating a dialogue with the history of this music from the perspective of where I and some of my longtime colleagues were at at the present time. To me, it’s unfortunate that so many say that jazz is not for young people and is dead as far as that generation of listeners is concerned. I’ve spent my career pushing against those ideas and concepts. “One of the most inspiring aspects of working on this project was listening to these classic records and realizing just how fresh they were. Before these guys were legends, they were young cats making hip music in clubs, sometimes 18-20 year-olds breaking boundaries while just doing their thing. When I was choosing the material, I was intrigued by the idea of capturing them as they worked their way up through bands on their way to greatness. Creating a kind of narrative flow between these different eras offered a unique time-traveling experience. Pushing myself to sample in ways I have not done before, I came up with themes and ideas with the tracks that really resonated with me — but more than a compilation of beats, I wanted to make new music out of them and find some narrative in there.”
To that end, McCraven found a unique way to create a through-line to make it feel like we’re listening to a single set at an actual venue — using occasional intros by Pee Wee Marquette, master of ceremonies at the original Birdland jazz club in New York City from 1949 to 1965, as narration for a period in jazz that approximates its evolution from bebop to hard bop. For purposes of focus, he purposely stayed away from later eras of Blue Note’s history that included more R&B/funk elements.
When an artist has been living the groove as long as McCraven has, sometimes building a powerful new track from an already dynamic source is a matter of trusting his percussive gut — and bouncing ideas off his trusted compadres. His approach to Kenny Dorham’s “Sunset” was fairly straightforward. He sent a drum machine sketch of beats to Jeff Parker, whose response — “Yo this is dope” — was all the encouragement the drummer needed to find a path forward. “My main concern was, What kind of musicality is there?” he says. “Is there a loop I can create that can build on the integrity of the original piece? Or does re-imagining it require more original composing?”
McCraven showcases a dynamic example of the latter approach on Jack Wilson’s “Frank’s Tune,” which he refashions into a seductive, ’80s soul-flavored, two-stepping slow dance. Parker’s dreamy guitar and De’Sean Jones’ breathy flute are so much a part of the aural landscape that McCraven parenthetically titled it “De’Jeff’s Tune.” The drummer-producer extrapolated pieces of the original intro melody, rearranging some of the timing and order of the chords into A and B sections, then adding the skeleton of the drum track and playing bass and keyboard parts himself. Once the track started taking shape, he turned to his fellow musicians to contribute solos and solo sections, which inspired further drum elements.
As for the title, Deciphering the Message, it comes from a Hank Mobley-penned track deep in the mix of The Jazz Messengers’ self-titled first studio album, released in 1956. Though released by Columbia, that collection’s inclusion of Mobley, Blakey and Silver ties it perfectly into the thematic flow of McCraven’s album. “Art was a huge influence of mine, as well as my father, and both of us grew up with him as the mecca of drumming,” he says. “I love the way his band evolved, where all the members wrote music and was a rite of passage for future greats to come through. The album represents the jazz lineage, a sense of youthfulness and the importance of music mentorship and community whose ideals I attempt to imitate in how I put my bands together. Just as they kept the music alive and vibing then, we’re creating new sounds to keep jazz alive and vibing now.” - Jonathan Widran https://open.spotify.com/album/3yrDdyKK5WdYFAHUNmradZ?si=yHvoOxcoQ9WRBVTWww38Yg