Makaya McCraven and the art of blurring lines

The Chicago drummer and 'beat scientist' performs at the Wexner Center on Monday, May 16, on the heels of groundbreaking Blue Note debut, 'Deciphering the Message'

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Makaya McCraven

Makaya McCraven’s Blue Note Records debut, Deciphering the Message, required the Chicago drummer and remix artist to comb through the famed jazz label’s archive, which he approached like a crate-digger flipping through boxes of dusty LPs in a record store.  

Gems aren’t hard to find in a catalog that includes artists such as Herbie Hancock, Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk and more, but McCraven, a so-called "beat scientist" known for remixing jazz recordings and weaving his own performances into the music, wasn’t looking to make a Best of Blue Note compilation. He wanted to craft something of his own. To do so, he dug into the catalog as both a lifelong student of the music and as a passionate listener ready to be moved and surprised. 

“Part of it is trying to not necessarily prescribe what I want to do, but use it as a moment of discovery, and see what things can spark that moment of creativity that really connects with me and that I can follow through and investigate,” said McCraven, who began the process by giving himself some limitations. “I wanted to work with the older part of the catalog, before the late ’60s and ’70s, not really wanting to do anything that was going to be touching into electric periods of music — no backbeat.” 

From there, McCraven began to look for themes that could connect the different samples. “Where can I find some through lines and narrative to tie the whole thing together?” he said.  

In the end, Deciphering the Message, released on Blue Note in November, pays tribute to the label by pushing musical boundaries in groundbreaking ways, using hip-hop techniques and studio technology to mix old recordings with new music, manipulating the sounds so that the two eras often become indecipherable.

“I like there to be a play between what is performed live, what might have been performed in a live space and recorded live, what was recorded in a studio, what's been manipulated, what's been chopped up or screwed or sampled. I like that to be blurry,” said McCraven, who will perform at the Wexner Center tonight (Monday, May 16). “I find that interesting, and that's part of my investigation of experimental studio techniques and sampling and electronic music and music technology.”

Musical exploration has been a part of McCraven’s life since his 1983 birth in Paris, France, to father Stephen McCraven, a jazz drummer who has played with the likes of Archie Shepp and Yusef Lateef, and mother Agnes Zsigmondi, a Hungarian folk singer known for blending eastern European folk music with jazz-like improvisations. 

“[My parents] started playing together, mixing their influences, and that was always normal to me. These ideas of genre were not that strict or easy to define,” said McCraven, who also grew up steeped in hip-hop. “My dad was listening to Jimi Hendrix and Fela and Miles and 'Trane. In our house, music was supposed to be music.” 

Those loose boundaries carry over to McCraven's ideas of jazz, which he describes not as a specific genre but rather a “broad phenomenon that continues to evolve and change.”

“What's really amazing about this music we call jazz is that it is so layered. It is so broad. It has touched so many things for so many years and is defined differently by different people in different eras,” he said. “To me, the word ‘jazz’ is totally insufficient at best and offensive at worst 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 be talking about a rock band that has a piano solo in it. It really depends on who you're speaking to.” 

Bossa nova, for instance, used to be new and groundbreaking. It wasn’t part of the jazz canon. “But it's no longer a new, fresh thing that's 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 speak about them in nuanced ways and informed ways, then there's a lot of room for healthy discussion where many things can exist and be true at the same time.”