Makaya McCraven: Deciphering the Message’s Album Review

By the time Blue Note gave Makaya McCraven access to their archives to form the basis of his new album, the self-proclaimed “beat scientist” had been swimming there for years. The catalog was so central to the canon of jazz – and McCraven’s style in general – that he had worked with some tracks before, such as trumpeter Kenny Dorham’s 1961 hard bop track “Sunsets.” The theme persists throughout Decipher the message; McCraven not only explores Blue Note’s catalog, but his own relationship with it.

With such a sprawling collection of works, McCraven has focused on records from the ’60s and before, which helps Decipher the message maintain consistency of a single session despite extracting more than a dozen different records. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers form the connective tissue; McCraven uses vocal samples from Blakey’s records as a de facto MC, like the “Pee Wee Marquette Ad” by A Night at Birdland, Vol. 1 or “Introduction by Art Blakey” from Around the World’s Jazz Corner, Vol. 1. And sitting in the center of his own orbit of talented contemporary musicians, McCraven spends as much of the album in conversation with Blakey – the drummer, the conductor, the mentor – as he does with his music.

During the second half of the 20th century, the Art group Blakey served as a sort of finishing school for some of jazz’s brightest young stars, providing early platforms to Lonnie Liston Smith, Terence Blanchard, to both Wynton and Branford Marsalis, and many, many more. Here, McCraven manages to assemble a virtual group of stars made up of alumni of Jazz Messenger (Horace Silver, Kenny Dorham, Hank Mobley, Wayne Shorter) and his own team of contemporary virtuosos (Jeff Parker, Junius Paul, Marquis Hill , Greg Ward). It intentionally blurs the line between samples and new recordings, between drum machines and drum kits. The result is something familiar but from another world, an album full of collaborations between young talents and old legends, some of whom have passed away long ago.

As it is collaborative, Decipher the message began as a lonely process, with McCraven digging through Blue Note’s crates on his own to build a foundation. He pulled loops and rearranged parts, then layered bass, keyboards, and drums. It mirrors the workflow of a hip-hop producer, much like J Dilla and Madlib, who are his closest contemporary analogs. He would send these sketches to friends like Parker, Paul, and Hill, who would record their parts and send them back, giving him another pass for the arrangement with fresh material informed by the originals.

There is a scholarly approach to the record, a study of nonlinear composition, and although there is infinitely more vibration here than an academic text, closer examination reveals a thesis on McCraven’s philosophy of using the recording studio as an instrument. He lingered there on the first track, inserting his own drum, bass and percussion tracks into saxophonist Hank Mobley’s 1966 song, “A Slice of the Top”. McCraven’s beats inject new energy, propelling old songs into the new millennium with a rhythmic hip-hop feel. And the vibraphone of Joel Ross, the guitars of Jeff Parker and Matt Gold, the trumpet of Marquis Hill, the bass of Junius Paul, the viola of Greg Ward and the tenor saxophones of De’Sean Jones … piercing the mix for attract attention, like the familiar intonation of Parker’s electric guitar to Kenny Dorham’s “Sunset”, which rises and falls like a horn with a screech filtered by a distortion pedal.

McCraven has carved out his own place in contemporary jazz on In the moment (2015) and Universal beings (2018), sampling her own group’s improvised sessions, then pulling, stretching and rearranging the pieces until they shape something new. And his superb recreation of Gil-Scott Heron I am new here gave a new context to the incendiary lyrics of the famous poet and musician. With each subsequent project, he continues a lifelong conversation with the music that shaped him, in turn leaving his own mark on it.

Decipher the message goes further: it blurs the line of what a “real” group is. Is it a group of people in a room or can it span over time, including both the living and the dead? McCraven said he wanted to introduce a new generation to these records which were fundamental not only to him, but also to the music itself. These artists helped draft a blueprint for how contemporary musicians improvise; hovering and swerving in and out of the pocket, but still pulled back by the gravitational pull of the rhythm section. With these improvised riffs, they forged the building blocks for an entire hip-hop wave. define a generation. Decipher the message helps connect these dots. But it also plays out as a fantasy come to life, a dream unfolding at the Blue Note, with long-lost titans beaming from the afterlife to sit with young blood, like proud parents watching their infamous children. surpass.

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