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Makaya McCraven - Universal Beings Music Album Reviews

The jazz drummer and producer’s hypnotic double album is culled from a year’s worth of gig tapes that he’s layered and spliced together into something wholly new and radically communal.

In the final moments of Universal Beings—at the end of a radiant hour and a half of polymorphic pulse and atmospheric shimmer—Makaya McCraven breaks a blissful silence with a practical question. “You guys got all that?” he asks, presumably addressing the mobile recording crew set up in a garage behind a house in Los Angeles.

McCraven, a drummer and producer with an alchemist’s touch, and Jeff Parker, a guitarist possessed of similar magic, have just glided through the impromptu dreamscape that will provide this album with a title track. They’re crowded into that garage with a handful of peers, including saxophonist Josh Johnson and violinist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. At face value, McCraven’s question feels like routine studio patter. By including it on the album, he extends his check-in to the listener, with a tone at once solicitous and roguish. You guys got all that?

There’s a lot to unpack in Universal Beings, the latest and most deeply assured in a series of releases under the rubric McCraven likes to call “organic beat music.” Recorded not only in Los Angeles but also in New York, Chicago, and London—four metro areas shaping the contour of improvised music, now as ever—the album transmits at a coolly utopian frequency. Informed by ambient and hip-hop protocols as well as state-of-the-art jazz hyperfluency, it suggests both the spark of discovery and the sheen of an obsessively sculptured art object.

McCraven, who has spent the last decade in Chicago, began developing this model several years ago. His second album—In the Moment, released on International Anthem in 2015—was its first proper manifestation. A hypnotic double album culled from a year’s worth of gig tapes, it took shape through a painstaking process of digital looping, layering and splicing, like an Ableton software-enabled successor to Teo Macero’s machinations with Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.

There’s an ascendant generation of jazz drummers who understand hip-hop production from the inside, and have been working to melt the edges. Chris Dave, a D’Angelo confrere and emeritus member of the Robert Glasper Experiment, recently released a long-awaited album with his group the Drumhedz. Karriem Riggins has put out two albums of beat-driven instrumentals, including last year’s Headnod Suite; he’s a member of August Greene, alongside Glasper and Common. A brilliant array of other figures—from Eric Harland to Justin Brown to Jamire Williams to Louis Cole—marks this multiphase skillset as not just a vogue style but a new reality.

What sets McCraven apart is twofold. For one thing, he builds his tracks on the basis of live performance, typically with a bare minimum of premeditated music. In the Moment established this working method, which yielded two subsequent mixtapes: Highly Rare, in 2017, and Where We Come From (CHICAGOxLONDON Mixtape), earlier this year. The spontaneous-composition mode gives McCraven a wealth of raw material to work with, including the dimensions of a room. One reason these tracks never feel cold or sterile is because they exude a sense of place.

Which leads us to McCraven’s second insight: the lasting power of communion. Producing tracks, making beats—it can often be the most insular form of music-making, no more tactile or social than writing code. But the collaborative energies on Universal Beings are pervasive and tangible. Taking in this music, you get the impression that every contributor has a stake in the outcome, post-production tinkering or no. And with that stake comes a tacit understanding: This music subsumes even the boldest solo heroics within a collectivist whole.

McCraven convened a different crew in each of his four host cities, so it isn’t just the environs that change from one section to the next. (In the deluxe double-vinyl release, each session takes up one side of an LP: New York on side 1, Chicago on side 2, then London and L.A.) The shift from one locale to the next is subtle, because of a certain unity of purpose—and, surely, the careful work of streamlining all of this material into a coherent form.

The New York crew, recorded in Ridgewood, Queens last summer, features harpist Brandee Younger, cellist Tomeka Reid, vibraphonist Joel Ross, and bassist Dezron Douglas. On a track called “Young Genius,” they begin with the looking-through-a-smudged-glass feeling of a vintage J Dilla track, all loopy rhythm and harp twinkle, before the beat snaps into focus. Then, suddenly, McCraven and Douglas are swinging à la Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison, setting up one of the album’s few conventional solo turns, by Ross. It’s as if an entire range of rhythmic approaches has been compressed into a slippery five and a half minutes.

A few other pieces on the album feel similarly packed with incident. “Suite Haus,” from the London session, has Nubya Garcia on tenor saxophone, Ashley Henry on Fender Rhodes, and Daniel Casimir on bass. It feels like a fully formed composition, with an arc and mood and a set of motifs. As the title implies, it also gestures toward house music, with McCraven’s beat shapeshifting in subtle yet perceptible ways. Garcia is obviously deep in her element here, owning the track without ever pushing into the red.

Her fellow British tenor hero, Shabaka Hutchings, turns up on the Chicago side, alongside Tomeka Reid, and bassist Junius Paul. The scrappiest and most cathartic of the four sessions, it includes some flamethrower-expressive Hutchings in the middle of “Prosperity’s Fear,” the stretch on the album that veers closest to freeform abstraction. But this unit also foregrounds groove: “Inner Flight” serves notice that McCraven draws rhythmic mojo from Tony Allen as well as Tony Williams. And the concussive tumble of “Atlantic Black” maintains its sense of form largely because of Reid, one of this album’s MVPs.

This shouldn’t need to be said, but it probably does: Every one of McCraven’s bands finds a central place for a woman. This is notable mainly in light of a contemporary scene—at the convergence of jazz, R&B and hip-hop—that can still so often resemble a boy’s club. One track from the L.A. session, “Butterss’s,” is a showcase for bassist Anna Butterss, who exerts her authority from the ground up and the inside, rather than up top or out front.

That inner-workings ideal is central to any understanding of McCraven’s larger project, and one reason Universal Beings is likely to make more intuitive sense to a crate-digger than to a jazz loyalist. The tracks on this album coalesce and morph, more than they progress. They get more traction from a good drone than from an elegant harmonic resolution. There’s a process of real-time exchange and dynamic micro-attunement that only jazz musicians can achieve, but not many of the cathartic peaks you might expect from a jazz performance. What matters is a vibe.

And to that end, the occasional interpolation of musician banter feels deeper than filler. On “Brighter Days Beginning,” the penultimate track, McCraven and his L.A. cohort spend some time trading philosophical reflections—about the responsibility of the individual in a society, and the power of a collective, and the corrupting influence of corporate media. “We’re universal beings,” someone says, sparking appreciative laughter. It’s a quip with high-minded connotations, and McCraven makes sure the rest of the album sets it up as dawning truth.

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