Each day we have so many choices to make and we are constantly improvising them, just like playing jazz,” says the drummer-composer Makaya McCraven. “Even when we try to organise and sanitise the world so that we can function – that’s us improvising in different frameworks. It’s all an expression of life.”
Wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Listen more” – as if signposting to his interviewer – the 38-year-old McCraven is fizzing with energy while speaking from his basement home studio in Chicago. As he philosophically explores his unique style of composition – improvising while playing live and then chopping up the subsequent recordings to create a patchwork of samples – his wife calls out from upstairs that she’s got his lunch.
“One second,” he turns away from the webcam. “I’m doing an interview with an international newspaper!” he shouts back, smiling mischievously. “See – always improvising.”
McCraven moved to Chicago from western Massachusetts in 2007. “I was following love, since my wife got a position at Northwestern University here,” he says. It was an inspired move: his wife, Nitasha Tamar Sharma, is now a professor of African American studies and Asian American studies, while McCraven has spent the past decade cementing his status as one of the most individual voices in jazz, pioneering his technique with a group of local collaborators to create a sound that straddles instrumental improvisation and the hip-hop mentality of splicing samples.
The result has been a spate of critically acclaimed records, such as 2015’s In the Moment, the 2018 mixtape collaboration Universal Beings, and We’re New Again, his 2020 reimagining of Gil Scott-Heron’s final album I’m New Here. This cut-and-paste approach reaches its apex on his latest album, Deciphering the Message, which is also his debut on the Blue Note label – home to such legendary jazz innovators as Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock. On it, McCraven was given free rein to recontextualise tracks from the the Blue Note archive using his production process.
Speaking in ever-branching tangents, as if following the improvisatory lines of a solo, McCraven explains how he sees his methodology as a continuation of tradition rather than a break from the norm. “Sampling is a play between future and past,” he says. “I want to honour the music we came from, and there’s so much sampling in the history of jazz already. You’ll hear similar intros on different tracks, or people who are trading licks and playing the same ideas. They have been engaging with the music in the way that sampling engages with it, but now we’re just using technology.”
As such, Deciphering the Message traces the legacies of these licks and musical similarities through the prism of drummer Art Blakey, leader of the Jazz Messengers – an incubator of talent who saw the likes of saxophonist Hank Mobley, trumpeter Kenny Dorham and guitarist Kenny Burrell pass through his orbit. McCraven flips Mobley’s A Slice of the Top into a boom-bap introduction, slips a rhythmic shuffle beneath the languorous changes of Burrell’s Autumn in New York, while Dorham’s Whistle Stop is transmuted into a sludgy funk.
“I wanted to highlight the familial side of this music; I’ve always loved that a band of musicians can become a community and affect a whole scene or moment in time,” he says. “So many musicians are deeply connected to each other, they’ve cut their teeth together, and when the younger guys come in, they help them up, too.”
Born to musical parents in Paris – his mother is a Hungarian folk musician and his father a drummer who played for John Coltrane collaborator Archie Shepp – McCraven is accustomed to the ancestral communality of the jazz scene. “There was an extended musical family, where a lot of different cats would be popping in and out at home for jam sessions and stuff that probably shouldn’t be going on around a kid,” he laughs. “These musicians were pushing the boundaries, and guys like Archie Shepp taught me about the oral tradition of this music: how it’s about the culture, more than texts.”
McCraven cut his teeth gigging around Massachusetts’ college towns of Amherst and Northampton, where he would play with rock bands, reggae groups, jazzers and wedding outfits. “I was just keeping busy, playing as much as I could, self-recording and experimenting,” he says. “Creating that sense of community, since I’ve always believed that if you do right for the music, the music will do right for you.”
It is an open-eared ethos that has led him to a wide group of collaborators, from younger British musicians such as the Mercury prize-nominated saxophonist Nubya Garcia to his fellow Chicagoans Junius Paul and Ben LaMar Gay. “I only really want to make music with people I feel I can be vulnerable around and trust,” McCraven says. “Especially when we’re playing live, you create this magic of bringing people together and it’s something that produces real emotion. We crave it.”
The vitality of the live scene is what has drawn McCraven to London in recent years. “Young musicians define this music; it’s kids like Lee Morgan or Herbie Hancock who were 19 or 20 years old and shaping its sound,” he says. It was seeing young musicians such as Garcia and saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings on stage, playing to their peers, that caught his attention. “There wasn’t a discussion of gatekeeping or honouring tradition. It felt like people realising that evolution is part of the tradition. And culture only evolves when people travel and trade ideas.”
Progress as being intrinsic to the form is McCraven’s mantra and a reason why jazz is so hard to define as an entity – it is always changing. Is that the underlying “message” he is trying to decipher on this album? “If I knew what it was, I wouldn’t be asking you to work it out by listening,” he laughs. “I just want to honour this music: improvised music, Black American music, whatever you want to call it. I’m not reinventing the wheel, I’m just learning how it’s constructed and using that knowledge to make a statement that will stand the test of time.”
• This article was amended on 25 January 2022. The leader of the Jazz Messengers was Art Blakey, not Horace Silver as stated in an earlier version.
Deciphering the Message is out now