In a recent interview, somebody dared to ask the composer, “Is Jazz dead?”. (He provided an apt and abrupt answer to that question). I think we need to take a step higher and ask ourselves “What is Jazz?” And at the end of that road, we definitively land with Makaya McCraven.
For better or for worse, and obviously open to much debate, here’s my definition of Jazz… Music that grooves with a soul; played with an instrumental virtuosic inventiveness and daring; intended for the masses, yet appealing to the intellect. Giving a think towards Hip-Hop, simply swap-out the instrument for the DJ rig or studio, and the same definitions applies.
Makaya McCraven straddles both genres with Universal Beings. The performances are recorded live, and further interpreted in the studio. (By the way, if you find this approach blasphemous, then toss your copy of Bitches Brew)
Drawn from four separate live sessions, with four very distinct musical personalities (the personality belonging to the group that evening, and no particular individual). The first set (recorded in New York) is the smoothest. Very bass-riff heavy. These are the tracks that a sample-crazed artist would look to steal from. If you think of this set as one end of the album’s musical spectrum, them consider the Chicago set (immediately following) as the other end. Sure, there are moments that still rely on an easy flow and groove, but by the time the listener gets to the end of “Prosperity’s Fear”, we’re miles away with a bombastic drumming, pointed saxophone melodies, and Tomeka Reid’s cello soaring above the other instruments, to deliver the listener home. The London set returns back to that laid-back approach. The recording is not as polished as the first set, but that’s a good thing – No need to rehash the same sound over and over. The final (Los Angeles) set teases us with the most drastic departure, with the group attempting at a frenetic melody that kind of falls off to some chatter, and a “Count Off” to the rest of the set.
Makaya McCraven has given us three very richly distinct collections over the last two years. Along with Highly Rare and Where We Come From, Universal Beings truly represents the sound of jazz to come.