‘Beat scientist’ Makaya McCraven mixes lush instrumentation with heavy grooves
Step into Makaya McCraven’s house and you’ll know you’re in a musician’s house. There is a double bass and a piano near the door. In the living room, where some people might put a TV, there is a paper clip.
“I have random trumpets and stuff like that that I don’t really play around with,” he says. “In case it doesn’t really work out, a horn can also be a work of art.”
In the basement workshop, the collection continues. A drum kit is crammed into a side room that the previous owners of the house used as a wine cellar. There is still a wine rack on the wall.
“That’s how I mount the microphones,” he says.
McCraven’s parents are musicians. Among many musical memories, he still has the first instrument they ever gave him: a handmade fretless electric bass.
It was in this home studio that McCraven, a self-proclaimed “beat scientist”, composed much of his new album, “In These Times”. But he’s been tweaking some of the album’s 11 original compositions for years.
His previous albums interpreted jazz classics from the Blue Note archives and “reinvented” Gil Scott-Heron. On the new record, he used some of the same post-production techniques from those recordings, mixing live improvisation with the kind of studio remixing more commonly done by a hip-hop producer than a jazz drummer.
“In These Times” is packed with lush instruments – harps, strings and horns – all locked in heavy grooves that McCraven cut from odd time signatures.
It’s a way of interpreting the title of the album, he says, but it also evokes something more ethereal.
“This idea of moving forward through time and through challenges,” McCraven says. “I like questions, things to think about and think about. I’d rather it be some sort of discussion than an actual prescription on my part.
The music was recorded at five different studios and multiple shows in four live performance spaces before McCraven brought it back to the studio to put it all together.
“A lot of the music I write, I write it on the piano first,” he says. “But sometimes also I write in a more technological way, where I might sample myself or something that happened. And then it’s like, ‘how do I put this all together? How do I make it coherent?” And then it becomes an obstacle, and the obstacle becomes a space for me to become creative.
As for exotic beats, McCraven says he’s explored different grooves since his early gigs in Western Massachusetts. Her mother, singer Ágnes Zsigmondi, taught her folk music from her native Hungary and other parts of Eastern Europe.
“She had a lot of music in ⅝, ⅞ or 9/8,” he says. “There are dances associated with these rhythms. So that was a big part of my rhythm concept, exploring how rhythm moves people. It’s definitely a conscious thing that I’ve tried to develop and that’s been behind a lot of these compositions.
McCraven’s tour in support of the album begins Saturday.
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