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Makaya McCraven’s time has come

Makaya McCraven's path to prominence has been unique, and much of it took place in Massachusetts.SULYIMAN

“In These Times,” the title of Makaya McCraven’s new release, contains several meanings. There are the unusual odd-meter time signatures that, in McCraven’s hands, come off as appealing and even danceable rather than intended to impress other musicians.

There are the strange times we’ve all been living through of late, and the tough times McCraven worked through en route to his five-pronged success today: drummer, composer, bandleader, producer, “beat scientist.”

And there’s the fact that music recorded for the album was performed live in the Chicago headquarters of the left-leaning monthly magazine In These Times.

That last bit came about because McCraven had been among the interviewees for a 2014 project the publication did to celebrate the 40th anniversary of “Working,” Studs Terkel’s renowned book of interviews with people about their jobs.


They profiled me as a working musician,” recalled McCraven, 38, in an interview at this summer’s Newport Jazz Festival. “I gave a very candid look at what it was like for my career at the time: from playing festivals, weddings, and birthday parties to playing jazz clubs — the whole gamut — and talking about how artists often stratify class in a way that most other professionals don’t.

“That article when it came up was meaningful to me in my career, because I wasn’t in the place I am now. And it just kind of tied into the record — you know, with the title. We even ended up recording some of the music in the In These Times office.”

Nothing from that live set made it onto the 11-song, 41-minute album, which comes out Friday. But some of what did make the cut was recorded live at larger, more prestigious venues: the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, which with the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation had commissioned a multimedia performance distilled from work McCraven had been developing for years, and at Symphony Center in Chicago, McCraven’s adopted hometown.


McCraven’s path to prominence has been unique, and much of it took place in Massachusetts. He was born in Paris to a Hungarian folksinger, flutist mother from Budapest, Ágnes Zsigmondi, and an African American expatriate jazz drummer father from Connecticut, Stephen McCraven. The couple wanted to raise Makaya in the United States, and relocated to the Northampton area, drawn by Stephen McCraven’s associates Archie Shepp, Yusef Lateef, and Marion Brown.

“My mom used to walk me to Marion’s house every day,” recalls McCraven from Chicago in a follow-up phone interview. “She was best friends with his girlfriend at the time, and they were so close — family kind of stuff. He always had butterscotch candies.”

McCraven started playing alongside his parents and their friends at a very young age, and by his teens was in his own bands. The most successful of them, the collaborative hip-hop/jazz group Cold Duck Complex, recorded three albums and performed regularly throughout the Northeast in the early aughts — maybe you caught them at the Middle East or Paradise. McCraven dropped in and out of UMass Amherst as his touring schedule allowed, eventually departing without a degree. He also became the musical director of Pushkin, a performance space in Greenfield, where he began producing records for other musicians.

Then love led him to Chicago. He met his wife-to-be, Nitasha Tamar Sharma, while she was teaching a post-doctorate year at Amherst College. When she landed a tenure-track job at Northwestern University, he eventually joined her full time.


“When I came to Chicago I was pretty ambitious,” McCraven recalls. “I had had a pretty robust thing happening in Western Mass, with Cold Duck Complex, with a bunch of jazz gigs on the side. I was the musical director for this sort of DIY venue and studio. So when I came to Chicago, my mindset was, ‘I am not getting a job. I’m not taking a step back in my career.’ ”

That meant being open-minded and accepting every reasonable gig he found. Shepp had advised him to seek out pianist Willie Pickens, whom McCraven wound up working with a few times. He played with guitarist Bobby Broom. He played with trumpeter Corey Wilkes. He played street festivals in a band called Magic Carpet — “We did North African music, Middle Eastern music, Ethiopian kind of stuff.” And he played the sorts of workaday gigs spelled out in his In These Times interview.

“I just hit the ground running and I worked my butt off,” he says.

That approach led to meeting and forming family-like bonds with a core group of mostly Chicago musicians. Trumpeter Marquis Hill was with him on “In the Moment,” vibraphonist Joel Ross and harpist Brandee Younger both joined him on his celebrated 2018 album “Universal Beings.” All three, though rising stars themselves, were in McCraven’s band at the Newport Jazz Festival, where they played material from his previous album, “Deciphering the Message,” and two extended pieces from “In These Times.”


McCraven considers the new album the culmination of everything he has built his career toward. Its title track includes a clip from a Studs Terkel interview with Harry Belafonte that sets the tone for the music to follow, which mixes jazz, hip-hop, classical, and other influences. McCraven composed all the music save the ballad “Lullaby,” a song his mother adapted from a folk song she had performed while touring with the Hungarian band Kolinda.

Younger’s harp is prominent on the album. Though she has never resided in Chicago, Younger has known McCraven longer than the band members he met there. She and her now-husband, bassist Dezron Douglas, are graduates of the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford, and McCraven used to drive down from Amherst for jam sessions, where he befriended both of them.

Younger cites practical reasons for continuing to play with McCraven. First, he’s willing to make a place in his music for harp, an instrument difficult to compose for and accommodate on tours. “Sonically, it’s always an issue, because you can never hear it,” she explains. “I mean, recordings are cool, but live performances are always a struggle.”

Maybe most importantly, McCraven makes music that engages audiences. “Anybody can listen to it and appreciate it,” Younger says. “It’s not just for musicians.”

For his part, McCraven is happy to accommodate Younger’s harp. “To me, it’s not even about the instrument.” If Younger can’t make a gig, he says, “I am not necessarily looking for another harp. If Joel [Ross] can’t make it — again, I’m not looking for another vibraphonist. I’m looking for a special person. The instrument is secondary to me; the person I play with comes first. We’ll find a place for your voice.”


As for engaging audiences, McCraven was already doing plenty of that on the innovative, studio-enhanced albums that made his name. “In These Times” reaches back to music he began writing earlier and never stopped performing live. It’s more personal than his other albums, and even more accessible.

“This record is music I’ve been writing since before I started doing [’In the Moment’],” he explains. “I’ve been writing music, working on these rhythms — you know, 7/8, 5/8, 11s — playing them in a way that translates across to different audiences, is easier to take in, not just this intellectual exercise. Stuff I was introduced to through my mother’s work in Hungarian folk music — 7/8s with dances associated so people can feel this. Usually in the jazz context we think [that when] you start getting to odd meter, [you] get away from feelings of dance or things that connect with people.

“And so I’ve been working on these rhythms, and this brought me to these difficult times or hard times” — the times he was writing his way through when he did that 2014 interview with In These Times.

Bill Beuttler can be reached at bill@billbeuttler.com.