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Makaya McCraven's 'In These Times': A musical marvel made by meticulous process

With <em>In These Times, </em>Makaya McCraven has perfected a method in which he weaves jazz improvisation and hip-hop recording techniques together with sensitivity that masks an obsessive attention to detail.
Sulyiman Stokes
Courtesy of the artist
With In These Times, Makaya McCraven has perfected a method in which he weaves jazz improvisation and hip-hop recording techniques together with sensitivity that masks an obsessive attention to detail.

When it comes to understanding Makaya McCraven's musical output of the last decade, the proof is in the process. As a drummer, producer, bandleader and composer — "beat scientist" is the official nom de groove — McCraven forged his style out of whirring parts and deft designs. Working with unstructured group improv and loop-savvy digital postproduction, he brings an organic touch to the recursive rhythms of hip-hop, in a way that fosters interplay. His acclaimed albums in this mode, beginning with 2015's In the Moment, have all felt like part of a larger picture, as if he's less invested in devising a product than in documenting his progress.

In These Times, McCraven's radiant new offering, confirms that he's moved well past the proof-of-concept phase — showing that it's possible to use tools from across the history of jazz performance and hip-hop production, with a sensitive hand that masks an obsessive attention to detail. By far the most "finished" of his albums, it marshals a total of 15 collaborators in a sonic tapestry that shimmers as it flows. Here is a self-contained musical world brimming with rhythmic complexity and dynamic variability, but approachable from every angle. It takes nothing away from the previous entries in McCraven's catalog to suggest, as he does, that everything else was building up to this.

The album opens with its title track, and something like a manifesto. First comes applause, and a twitchy ostinato for strings. Then the voice of activist, actor and singer Harry Belafonte, pulled from an interview with Studs Terkel in 1955. There's no hint as to the context, but Belafonte is paraphrasing the African American folk hero John Henry, talking about the affront of a steam drill brought in to dig the Big Bend tunnel in West Virginia in the late 19th century.

"I'd never want to be known as anybody opposed to progress," says Belafonte, in Henry's voice, "but this is no longer a matter of progress or not progress." Alluding to those who have died on the job, he adds: "Our dignity is involved in it, our integrity and everything that we believe as working men are involved, so that I ain't really opposed to the machine, I just feel that the machine can't take the place of the soul and the sweat for the many men who died to help build this tunnel, and we got to finish it, and it just ain't no two ways about it."

McCraven surrounds the sample with a captivating swirl, moving elements in and out of the mix in a way that invokes familiar sounds while alchemizing a new brew. A skittering pulse in asymmetrical meter. Harp glissandi and pizzicato strings. A mournful, regal melody, scored for violins and sitar. After the Belafonte quote, space is cleared for alto saxophonist Greg Ward, whose lyrically beseeching solo peaks in a strangled cry. There's so much happening in the piece, which sprawls past seven minutes, twice the length of most other tracks on the album; it's an overture that lays out what McCraven is pursuing thematically, as he strikes his own negotiation between man and machine.

He may not have meant it this way, but the title of In These Times carries a double meaning, acknowledging not only our day and age but also the album's array of polymeters. "High Fives" superimposes a quintuple pulse with slanted cross-rhythms; "This Place That Place" places a briskly swinging ride cymbal over a set of oblong syncopations. These aren't the byproduct of a conservatory-borne fascination with formal intricacy, but rather the extension of a birthright. McCraven is the Paris-born son of an American jazz drummer, Steven McCraven, and a Hungarian singer, Ágnes Zsigmondi. In a 2019 episode of Jazz Night in America, he pulled back the curtain on his bohemian upbringing, and notably the influence of his mother; the episode includes a lullaby adapted from a song she wrote with Péter Dabasi, for their folk group Kolinda.

The same song appears here, as "Lullaby," with a melody introduced by Brandee Younger's harp and then picked up by pizzicato strings. Younger is one of a handful of intuitive improvisers who constitute McCraven's inner circle, and most of the others — including Ward, trumpeter Marquis Hill (on "The Calling") and flutist De'Sean Jones (on "Seventh String") — have moments here to shine. Among the other crucial partners in the mix are guitarists Jeff Parker and Matt Gold, vibraphonist Joel Ross and especially bassist Junius Paul. I caught McCraven's band in action on three occasions this summer, each time with a slightly different lineup — but Paul was a constant, his bass lines forming the flexible spine for every tune. As always, experiencing this music live can inspire Inception-like rumination, since the musicians are abstracting compositions whose raw material they previously generated on other stages.

Melody has always been a secret weapon in McCraven's music, which often weaves a few different hooks into a chain. In These Times features some of the most appealing themes he has ever crafted. One of these, "So Ubuji," has a marimba melody, a head-nod tempo and the rare distinction, on this album, of unrolling in a straightforward 4/4 cadence.

But the standout, in hummable terms, is "Dream Another," featuring a simple yet sinuous line for flute and sitar over Motown-esque electric bass and a beat that evokes a dusty hip-hop break. (The song, for what it's worth, is set in a 7/4 so smooth that it doesn't feel the slightest bit askew.) You might think of a Stevie Wonder outro as you listen, or a deep cut by the Mizell Brothers. You might think about just how this bespoke musical admixture relates to our ever-evolving ideal of "jazz," and how far its influence will travel. Or you might just put thinking aside, and surrender to feeling. However fascinating McCraven's working methods may be, what matters is the spell he creates with the groove, which doesn't ask how we got here but points in the direction we're headed, one step at a time.

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