Makaya McCraven’s debut on Blue Note Records, Decrypt the messageasked the Chicago drummer and remixer to comb through the archives of the famed jazz label, which he approached like a crate digger leafing through dusty LP boxes in a record store.
The gems aren’t hard to find in a catalog that includes artists such as Herbie Hancock, Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk and many more, but McCraven, a self-styled “beat scientist” known for remixing jazz recordings and to weave his own performances into the music, was not looking to make a The best of the blue note compilation. He wanted to make something of his own. To do this, he tapped into the catalog as a lifelong student of music and as an avid listener ready to be moved and surprised.
“Part of it is trying to not necessarily prescribe what I want to do, but to use it as a moment of discovery, and seeing what things can spark that moment of creativity that really connects me and that I can follow. and investigate,” said McCraven, who started the process with some limitations. “I wanted to work with the older part of the catalog, before the end of the 60s and 70s, not really wanting to do anything that touched on the electric periods of music – no backbeat.”
From there, McCraven began looking for themes that could connect the different samples. “Where can I find some through the lines and the narrative to tie it all together?” he said.
At the end, Decrypt the messagereleased on Blue Note in November, pays homage to the label by pushing musical boundaries in revolutionary ways, using hip-hop techniques and studio technology to mix old recordings with new music, manipulating sounds so that the two eras often become indecipherable.
“I like that there is a game between what is played live, what could have been played live and recorded live, what was recorded in the studio, what was manipulated, what was cut or screwed or sampled. I like it to be blurry,” said McCraven, who will perform at the Wexner Center tonight (Monday, May 16). “I find it interesting, and it’s part of my investigation of experimental studio techniques and sampling, electronic music and music technology.”
Musical exploration has been a part of McCraven’s life since he was born in 1983 in Paris, France, with his father Stephen McCraven, a jazz drummer who played with Archie Shepp and Yusef Lateef, and his mother Agnes Zsigmondi, a singer. Hungarian folk known for mixing Eastern European folk music with jazz-like improvisations.
“[My parents] started playing together, mixing their influences, and that has always been normal for me. Those genre ideas weren’t that strict or easy to define,” said McCraven, who also grew up in hip-hop. “My dad used to listen to Jimi Hendrix and Fela and Miles and ‘Trane. In our house, music was meant to be music.
These loose boundaries carry over to McCraven’s ideas of jazz, which he describes not as a specific genre, but rather as a “general phenomenon that continues to evolve and change”.
“What’s really amazing about this music that we call jazz is that it’s so layered. It’s so wide. It has touched so many things for so many years and is defined differently by different people in different times,” he said. “To me, the word ‘jazz’ is at best totally inadequate and at worst offensive when it comes to describing what we’re talking about. When you say “jazz”, you could be talking about Kenny G. We could be talking about Ornette Coleman. We could talk about a rock band that has a piano solo. It really depends on who you’re talking to.
Bossa nova, for example, was once new and revolutionary. It was not part of the jazz canon. “But it’s no longer a new and fresh thing that comes from somewhere else. Now it’s old and part of the regular canon,” said McCraven, who is often asked about the current state of jazz and the future of jazz. “What is purity in jazz? And how do we decipher that? And what are we even talking about? … These are very nuanced discussions, and as long as we can talk about them in a nuanced and informed way, there is plenty of room for a healthy discussion where a lot of things can exist and be true at the same time.