Makaya McCraven ‘Universal Beings’ 2LP/2CD/DIG (International Anthem) 5/5

With only three years since his ground breaking album, ‘In The Moment’ (2015), placing Makaya as a vanguard for contemporary East Coast jazz, ‘Universal Beings’ utilises a slightly different concept here for the drummer, composer and improviser. This release is essentially a compilation of four different recording sessions, with four different ensembles, in four different cities: New York, Chicago, London and Los Angeles. As per previous releases, the source material is then edited in what McCraven describes as a ‘recontextualization’, but the editing is less pronounced and obvious than with earlier projects, with ‘Universal Beings’ feeling more a kin to a live jam than a produced recording.

On vinyl, the album is pressed as a double vinyl release with each of the four sides representing the different city where the recordings took place, and thus, New York, Chicago, London and LA are the creative catalyst for the project. This methodical approach to the track listing does allow one to compare and contrast the various sessions, but also it showcases how the different contributors impacted upon the final product.

New York Side:
The album begins with six tracks recorded at H0L0, a venue in Queens in August 2017 and featuring Brandee Younger (harp), Joel Ross (vibraphone), Tomeka Reid (cello) and Dezron Douglas (double bass). Compositions ‘Holy Lands’ and ‘Mantra’ are somewhat led by Brandee Younger, with Dorothy Ashby’s Cadet catalogue being an obvious reference point here. The disjointed (in a good way) ‘Young Genius’ evokes the quirky production values of Madlib and ‘Black Lion’ offers a vibes-centric formulation with loop type circulating patterns propping up this short 3-minute piece.

Chicago Side:
Makaya’s adopted hometown session was recorded in September 2017 at the brilliantly named Co-Prosperity Sphere. This date featured Tomeka Reid (cello), Junius Paul (double bass) and UK guest Shabaka Hutchings (tenor saxophone). ‘Atlantic Black’ is a boisterous piece set over 9 minutes with Shabaka’s headstrong voicings a kin to his work with Sons of Kemet. ‘Inner Flight’ is more groove focused and ‘Prosperity’s Fear’ holds a textured quality offering cellist Junius Paul space to manoeuvre before the ensemble moves into a more freeform aesthetic for the final three minutes.

London Side:
Recorded in October 2017 at the now defunct (as of November 2018) Total Refreshment Centre, Stoke Newington, which became somewhat of a spiritual hub for the UK’s new young jazz players sees Makaya joined by Nubya Garcia (tenor saxophone), Ashley Henry (Fender Rhodes) and Daniel Casimir (double bass), and interestingly this was the only formation that included a keyboard player. Of the five pieces, two are short rehearsal jams that are still enjoyable, but the other three include the lively and brisk ‘Suite Haus’, which highlights Nubya’s strong sense of melody with its uptempo rhythm track and almost ska-like sensibility. ‘The Newbies Lift Off’ pushes Ashley Henry front and centre as his Rhodes playing leads the way, including an effective downbeat tempo change near the mid-point. ‘Voila’ possess a strong hip-hop quality and heavily features bassist Daniel Casimir.

Los Angeles Side:
The final six tracks were recorded at Jeff Parker’s house, Altadena, LA on 30th January 2018. The group here featured Josh Johnson (alto saxophone), Miguel Atwood-Ferguson (violin), Jeff Parker (guitar), Carlos Niño (percussion) and Anna Butterss (double bass). The brief ‘Count Off’ begins proceedings while the 6/8 ‘Turtle Tricks’ showcases some tight but steady rim shot playing while its slightly ‘proggy’ overtone allows Parker, a regular collaborator to Makaya, freedom and space to augment the backing with distorted guitar riffs and lines.

With initial plays, it was difficult to fully absorb, digest and deconstruct ‘Universal Beings’ due to its large track count of 22 and the differences in timbre, form and temperament offered by its large rotating cast members. One later listened to the album in sections as presented by the different ensembles and thus the album made more sense. This varying personnel, instrumentation and configuration allowed for different ideas, themes and conservations to be made, sanctioning and informing the global jazz community narrative that has been so embraced by Makaya and his peers.

‘Universal Beings’ may be seen by some as being less edgy than his previous material, but it still feels very fresh and captures a forward thinking attitude with its mesh of spontaneous spiritual jazz, bebop and hip-hop. With the featured super musicians (in their own right) given room and freedom by Makaya to explore and investigate without restriction, albums like ‘Universal Beings’ are now not rare and exceptional and are becoming the norm, with music that was once thought of as ‘challenging’ becoming quite mainstream. Maybe times have changed.

Live dates this month take Makaya to Band On The Wall, Manchester 14th and the EFG London Jazz Festival 24th.

Damian Wilkes