Makaya McCraven

Universal Beings

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Universal Beings Review

by Thom Jurek

Guiding the undulating, polyrhythmic, genre-ambiguous flow of drummer Makaya McCraven's ever-evolving "organic beat music," is a strategy not far removed from the one employed by Teo Macero and Miles Davis on Bitches Brew and subsequent dates: Here, moments from continuous improvised performances are digitally looped, cut, spliced, and edited into entirely new compositions. McCraven has been developing the approach for some time, though it came to fruition on 2015's brilliant In the Moment, culled from nearly 48 hours of live improvised performance at a single venue over a year, then processed and remixed into 19 individual pieces. McCraven takes a leap further out on the double-length Universal Beings. The set was recorded in four cities (New York, Chicago, London, and Los Angeles) with four ensembles. The players on these include bassist and fellow Chicagoan Junius Paul, cellist and former Chicagoan Tomeka Reid, U.K.-based saxophonists Nubya Garcia and Shabaka Hutchings, L.A. violist/arranger Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, percussionist Carlos Nino, and Chicago ex-pat and current Angeleno guitarist Jeff Parker, to name a few.

As indicated by the drummer's genre term, the root of this utterly holistic music lies in wholly improvised sessions. All are different in feel. The New York session revolves around a gradually ratcheting spiritual dimension due in large part to Reid's canny interaction with transcendent harpist Brandee Younger. The rhythm section -- vibraphonist Joel Ross, bassist Dezron Douglas, and McCraven -- offer hypnotic hip-hop shuffles, riff-like feints, and drones in an incantatory pace across a suite of six pieces ranging in duration from 33 seconds to five-and-a-half minutes. The spirit and inspiration of Alice Coltrane permeates the music's flow in rhapsodic whole tones. The Chicago side commencing with "Pharaoh's Intro" stars Hutchings and Paul communicating in post-bop cadences carried by McCraven's frenetic drumming. It follows to "Atlantic Black" with fiery, Nigerian funk rhythms colored by cello and bassline pulses and saxophone loops over a spacy electric piano and a spiky Reid solo pushing the tune outward. It's brought back inside by the Afro-beat rhythms and dubwise basslines undergirding "Inner Flight." The London side skates between trippy, soulful, syncopated jazz-funk and modal jazz courtesy of Garcia's illustrious horn and Ashley Henry's Rhodes piano as the interplay between McCraven and bassist Daniel Casimir balances both ends of the spectrum; they create emphasis, tension, and release. The Los Angeles side contains virtually everything that previously transpired but goes somewhere new. Between frontline players -- guitarist Parker, alto saxophonist Josh Johnson, and Atwood-Ferguson -- harmonic ideas are introduced, exchanged, embellished, then repurposed to suit the polyrhythmic flow generated by McCraven, Nino, and bassist Anna Butterss. The seductive, groove-laden, post-midnight jazz in "Fifth Monk" is a stellar example. At the end of the recording, McCraven says "You guys got all that?" then laughs. Given all that's here, one wonders who he was speaking to, the engineers or the listeners? Universal Beings is unique from any other jazz recording in 2018: It marries virtuoso musicianship, technological savvy, a keen editor's ear for creative inspiration, and a plethora of almighty grooves.

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