It’s been more than a decade since Blue Note Records released an album by a Chicago artist. The last time anyone based here appeared on the roster of this definitive jazz label, it was vocalists Patricia Barber and Kurt Elling, whose most recent Blue Note records as bandleaders arrived in the 2000s.
But on November 19, Blue Note plans to release Makaya McCraven’s latest project, Deciphering the Message, a 13-track exploration of the label’s catalog, sampled and incorporated into the performances of a cast of jazz players with whom the drummer has worked since moving to Chicago in 2007.
In the years since his arrival, McCraven has distilled the voice he’d begun to develop while living in western Massachusetts and using his performances along the east coast to engage the region’s creative communities. His knowledge of jazz complemented his interest in hip-hop and production, deepening a desire to pair the two in an improvisational setting.
“It’s so expansive, what’s available to be inspired by,” he says, speaking over Zoom from his north-side home. “There’s no bull’s-eye, you just keep searching and trying to find things that inspire.”
McCraven soon began working among Chicago’s creative-music cognoscenti, and in the early 2010s he forged a relationship with guitarist Jeff Parker. And though Parker was living full-time in Los Angeles by 2013, he and the drummer have maintained a close-knit partnership that’s also blossomed into an enduring friendship.
Parker contributed to three tracks on Deciphering, and guitarist Matt Gold appears on four others. The seven guest musicians who make up McCraven’s cast of characters on the album all have ties to the city—though vibraphonist Joel Ross (another Blue Note bandleader) has left town to pursue music in New York, as has trumpeter Marquis Hill. Bassist Junius Paul has recorded and performed with the current incarnation of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and other members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, including Ernest Dawkins and Kahil El’Zabar. Saxophonist Greg Ward continues to serve as both a dedicated bandleader and perpetually engaged sideman. Reedist De’Sean Jones, a longtime McCraven collaborator who recently gigged with him in France, lives in Detroit, but the bandleader says he’s granted Jones honorary Chicago citizenship. It’s all the midwest, after all.
These musicians recorded Deciphering the Message during the pandemic, without anyone convening in the same room. The complement of players augmenting each archival Blue Note track ranges from one (McCraven alone) to six, though it’s usually two to four. Every member received the audio of the tracks where they would be featured, recorded themselves playing to them, and sent McCraven the results.
Parker says his parts appear on the album more or less as he recorded them. “They were pretty much what I gave him; he didn’t really [change things] too much,” he explains over the phone from Los Angeles. “I mean, Makaya’s one of my good friends; I talk to him almost every day. So while we were doing this, we were in pretty much constant contact. I knew what he wanted, and he knew what I wanted to get out of it.”
McCraven says he used Parker as a sounding board for ideas, trusting his musicality and his understanding of the intersection of jazz, creative music, and sampling. (Parker’s 2020 album Suite for Max Brown features McCraven on drums and sampler.) They met, McCraven recalls, through MySpace, where they bonded over the beats, instrumentals, and other production work each was posting.
“One thing we talked about, I asked, ‘Why don’t you use more familiar Blue Note staples, like “Song for My Father” or “Sidewinder”—stuff that Blue Note’s really known for,’” recalls Parker. “He specifically picked stuff that was more obscure to listeners.”
With access to Blue Note’s vast catalog, stretching back to its 1939 founding, McCraven sorted through decades of genre development, innovation, and improvisation. His selections do include work from widely recognized figures such as drummer Art Blakey, guitarist Kenny Burrell, and tenorist Dexter Gordon, but he also incorporates songs by lesser-known stalwarts, among them trumpeter Kenny Dorham and Chicago-born pianist Jack Wilson.
McCraven says he’s still deciphering some of the patterns that emerged in his selection of samples. “A lot of it was the process of listening and finding inspiration and creating. I listened to a lot of stuff,” he explains. “I did a lot of listening and sampling and working and letting things take me. . . . There are certain through lines, with Blakey and the Jazz Messengers being a big theme. Just this idea of these young musicians going through this band, this cohort of musicians that kind of go out [into the world]. Same with me—I wanted to bring people from my family, my musical family.”
McCraven’s regular musical associates during his almost two decades in Chicago could constitute several bands themselves—and many of them lead their own ensembles. While the city’s jazz scene doesn’t get the attention that’s showered upon New York (or Los Angeles, which benefits from being adjacent to Hollywood), it’s long hosted a bounty of top-tier creative musicians.
Upon arriving in Chicago, McCraven cut albums with keyboardist Greg Spero (in 2008) and bassist Marlene Rosenberg (in 2012). And as the drummer connected with more and more local players, he found like-minded colleagues among Haitian musicians, played in a couple bands led by guitarist Bobby Broom (he appears on records released in 2012 and 2014), and gigged at an Ethiopian restaurant and across the city’s bustling creative-music scene.
This all led to McCraven’s 2015 album In the Moment, issued by local label International Anthem, which he refers to as his breakout recording. It’s the album where he first samples his own ensemble’s live performances, recontextualizing sounds from the stage as fodder for studio-based compositions (though the technique of overdubbing new performances onto existing recordings would come later). The album earned accolades nationally, and McCraven followed it up with 2018’s Universal Beings, a sprawling double LP that expanded his musical and philosophical solar system. It combines live performances from four different ensembles in four different cities on both sides of the Atlantic, and includes contributions from more than a dozen players.
McCraven’s dogged exploration of sound, space, and postproduction composition led to higher-profile work, including a reimagining of Gil Scott-Heron’s final studio album, I’m New Here, which the drummer titled We’re New Again and released in early 2020 through XL Recordings. In its sampling from a previously released album, it’s something of a precursor to Deciphering the Message. But the initial idea of combining recorded work drawn from different bands, different times, and different settings—whether in the studio, on the stage, or from the archives—arose from McCraven’s regular gigging around the city.
Throughout 2013 and into early 2014, McCraven gigged regularly at the Bedford in Wicker Park, bringing in new collaborators each week. He intended to use these performances to workshop ideas for a forthcoming album, but he also recorded them—and eventually he began editing the live tapes in Ableton, layering and looping them and tinkering with their pitch. He never ended up taking a band into the studio at all, instead transforming those Bedford gigs into the material on In the Moment.
The recordings on Moment and Universal both make use of venue atmospherics. “When we’re in a unique, creative space—and it’s small and intimate—there’s a lot of room for interesting moments to be captured,” McCraven says. “There is something to being in these different types of venues, these different kinds of spaces. I really did want to capture that with In the Moment, not for the sake of the Bedford, but for the sake of the narrative.”
By including crowd noise from a night’s performance or snippets of his own voice as he introduces a piece, McCraven helps tell the stories of those spaces—and though he didn’t know it at the time, he was also creating memorials for them. The Bedford closed in 2017, and Danny’s Tavern—where McCraven recorded Highly Rare, another of his live-studio hybrids—shut down in late 2020.
The Bedford recordings get some of their flavor from the juxtaposition of the jazz performances with the regular patrons of the Bedford, who might just be on a date or getting drinks. “Our scene and that scene were different,” McCraven says. “People talking over the music, or the clinking of glasses.” His editing techniques turn those differences into a source of creative energy. “We’re doing this thing that in another space people would celebrate. But we’re here, we’re doing our thing. When I started sampling it, hearing the beats and hearing the things that were more accessible in a recorded space. . . . It plays with the ideas of how we look at the music differently depending on how it’s presented and how you’re looking at it.”
The presentation of historical music on Deciphering the Message is colored by some of the same considerations of setting and context—McCraven hasn’t just picked from among notes pressed into decades-old vinyl, but has also underlined the importance of live albums, replete with the voices of their masters of ceremonies. On Deciphering you can hear a few of them, including Pee Wee Marquette, the emcee at New York’s Birdland club for decades; he’s a part of jazz history, and guides listeners through several live recordings in the Blue Note catalog. Over the years his high-pitched, blithesome voice has been repurposed many times and sampled by a variety of beat-centric acts—UK group Us3, for instance, scored a hit in 1993 with “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)” off their Blue Note album Hand on the Torch.
Splicing vocal snippets into Deciphering doesn’t just help create a storytelling arc, McCraven says, but also alludes to the popularity of skits on hip-hop albums dating back to the 90s. It summons a layered, shared history.
“It’s like we’re transported into a new place, and the record can have flow and narrative, so the record feels like one piece,” he says. “Whether it’s crowd noise or jingles of glass in the live space—using that as another vehicle to transport this recording into another world we can live in for a little while.”
McCraven also credits Madlib’s Shades of Blue, a Blue Note-sanctioned 2003 sample treatment of the label’s catalog, as something of a jumping-off point.
On Deciphering, the bandleader references the disparate legacies of jazz and sample-based music. The triumphant melody, the tight snare-drum tone, and the brittle-sounding hi-hat on “Sunset” all call to mind the work of producer and rapper MF Doom. The title of “Tranquillity” contrasts with the drummer’s fevered pace, and Ross’s gossamer vibraphone and Gold’s knotty guitar float assuredly above the fray as the ensemble toys with the underlying Bobby Hutcherson tune.
Ending the album is one of the lesser-known samples on Deciphering. Eddie Gale, who died in 2020 after battling cancer, released “Black Rhythm Happening” in 1969, and McCraven remakes the three-minute tune, injecting its low-key swinging jazz with a more celebratory 70s funk vibe. It’s a closing bit of revelry on an album that considers the development of Black music as it’s seeped into every culture across the globe.
Veteran percussionist Hamid Drake offers a perspective that helps explain McCraven’s genre-bounding approach. “Chicago drummers might have a knack for not categorizing rhythm,” he says by phone from the road in Europe.
Since moving to Chicago from Louisiana as a child in the late 50s, Drake has witnessed an extraordinary evolution in the city’s jazz and improvised-music scenes, and he’s paid particular attention to fellow drummers and experimentalists. He remembers seeing Earth, Wind & Fire founder Maurice White playing with a relatively straightforward Ramsey Lewis ensemble at Ravinia in the late 60s, demonstrating his ability to shift between traditional and radical approaches to drumming. And the first time he witnessed electronics and tape loops deployed in a live setting, it was also in Chicago: during the mid-70s, trombonist and computer-music innovator George Lewis worked alongside polymathic winds player and fellow AACM member Douglas Ewart.
“It also goes back to being a working-class person, carving out a music career. In order to make a living making music, you’ve been forced to do a lot of different things,” Drake says. “For a long time, I played with Irish folk groups, rock bands, reggae bands, straight-ahead jazz groups, all the way to the really avant-garde.”
That sort of illimitable engagement with music enables local players to assimilate vast and seemingly unrelated practices into a single, unified whole.
“When we’re doing research in music, we have to put a check on our biases, right? And I feel that Makaya’s a great exemplar of that,” Drake continues. “He’s a perfect example of this kind of open mind that Chicago has generated, not just with drummers, but with players of other instruments too. But also doing it with integrity and expertise. Doing it with knowledge. You can tell he’s done his research.”
McCraven’s cerebral investigations don’t prevent him from working quickly, and new ideas pour out of him: He’s already deep into recording another album that’s due next year. It’ll mark a departure from his recent work with archival material—he’s not planning to use prerecorded music from other people—and it’ll feature an even wider sonic world, both compositionally and in McCraven’s own instrumental contributions. He’s already hinted at the latter on Deciphering the Message, where he plays guitar, bass, and synth in addition to drums.
McCraven arrived in Chicago with an ingrained sense of jazz and improvised music, and here he met a world of like-minded players who helped nurture his far-ranging vision. His adroit combination of jazz and sample-based genres doesn’t diminish either tradition, and it’s reached its peak to date in this latest Blue Note release.
His parents, drummer Stephen McCraven and vocalist Ágnes Zsigmondi, taught him from a young age. “I grew up learning from my father, playing with [Archie] Shepp and Yusef Lateef and Sam Rivers,” McCraven says. “When I moved out here, I felt like I could fit in and speak a similar language and be accepted. And then I spent 15 years growing and developing and being influenced and learning from the vast amount of music here. I’m grateful to have been a part of it for almost two decades. It’s a big part of who I am.”