Makaya McCraven's Illuminating 'In These Times' Is a Crate Digger's Paradise

Makaya McCraven's Illuminating 'In These Times' Is a Crate Digger's Paradise
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Anyone familiar with the work of Makaya McCraven has an idea of what to expect from In These Times, his 2022 full-length effort for contemporary jazz hub International Anthem. Like most of his catalogue, the Chicago-based composer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist chiseled this album from a series of organized jam sessions and live performances, continuing the legacy of legendary producer Teo Macero and his work on Miles Davis albums like 1971's Live-Evil and 1972's On the Corner.
 
As ever, his music ostensibly falls under the umbrella of jazz, but even McCraven himself feels that term somewhat inadequate in describing exactly what it is he does. In These Times has almost as much in common with library funk, instrumental hip-hop, and Bartok-ian folk as it does with more codified, traditional notions of jazz. It works wonderfully camping on a relaxed beach or in the most ostentatious concert venue, worthy of rigorous intellectual inspection yet just as easy to get high and chill to. 
 
The opus was culled from sessions in four different live spaces and five different studios with such incredible talents as Junius Paul (double bass, percussion, electric bass guitar, etc.), Jeff Parker (guitar), Brandee Younger (harp), Lia Kohl (cello), De'Sean Jones (flute), Matt Gold (guitar, percussion and baby sitar), Marquis Hill (trumpet, flugelhorn), and Joel Ross (vibraphone, marimba). Musically propulsive and compelling, their recombined efforts seem as if pulled from some alternate past, a big band dream come true. Tastefully wrapped in applause as if the album was performed live in front of a studio audience, the seamless blend sucks the listener into a world where this kind of unreal scene could possibly occur. 
 
The album's opening title track, "In These Times" begins with organic applause that fades away rhythmically behind an excerpt from an old Studs Terkel WFMT radio broadcast. In the sample, a gruff, determined gentleman talks about his responsibility to finish a tunnel that others before him had died trying to create. In context, it speaks to the responsibility that McCraven feels towards the music shepherded by those who came before him, to respect the classics while keeping the forms relevant to the people of today.
 
In the late '90s and early '00s, deep dive crate-diggers like Guru (Jazzmatazz Vol. 1), A Tribe Called Quest (The Low End Theory), J Dilla (Welcome 2 Detroit), and Pete Rock (PeteStrumentals) bridged the gap between the golden ages of jazz and modern hip-hop, linking the prominent creative minds of the civil rights era and post-Reagan generations. McCraven has done something similarly profound for the children of the 2020s, combining the sophisticated composition and performance chops of the old masters with the studio techniques and swagger of those who sampled them decades later into something fresh.
 
For his 2004 effort Shades of Blue, Madlib was given the key to the Blue Note Records vault, and McCraven tread a similar path on Deciphering the Message, but In These Times goes farther. It gives something wholly original to the culture in a way similar to what Will 'Quantic' Holland did when he launched the Quantic Soul Orchestra in 2003.

Holland formed his titular no-samples-allowed funk band after his early sample-heavy breakbeat albums found an audience. His intention was to give future generations solid material to sample in turn. He only asked that they give credit and, if they're successful, to put something new into the world themselves someday. McCraven has already given plenty over the years, but In These Times is simply too much, man.

One of the album's most beautiful moments, "Lullaby" is an elegant, emotive, harp-driven jazz-rock shuffle based off a song by Péter Dabasi and Agnes Zsigmondi from prominent Hungarian folk band Kolinda. Zsigmondi played flute and sang for the band throughout their '70s heyday, and later gave birth to McCraven in 1983. His father is Stephen McCraven, longtime jazz drummer for Archie Shepp and noted creator in his own right. Directly and cosmically, In These Times buds new branches off the trees planted by McCraven's parents years ago. Truly, this music sends sparks cascading in all directions.

A stuttering retro-futuristic composition that sounds something like Metropole Orkest interpreting Jaga Jazzist, "This Place That Place" has the frantic, bombastic expansiveness of Andromeda Mega Express Orchestra. It's confounding how normal that composition sounds next to "High Fives," the kind of sensual library funk mixtape instrumental that could fit as a bonus track on El Michaels Affair's Adult Themes, or the eastern exoticism of "So Ubuji," which sounds more like RZA in full Shaw Brothers mode.

With a groovy baby sitar framing the Isley Brothers after-party funk-pop melody, "Dream Another" sails in on a summer breeze to accentuate the  ambient drum and bass feel of "Seventh String," its levitating flute and strings soaring over ridiculously explosive yet smooth drumming. It draws on such far away things, and brings them all close.

It's up to the future if anything from In These Times will end up being as influential as the amen or apache breaks, but McCraven has clearly done his part. He's made history come alive, and paid it forward. If anything like crate diggers still exist decades from now, they ought to find this collection of cinematic moments ripe for recontextualization. Alongside the likes of Adrian Young and Ali Shaheed Muhammad's Jazz Is Dead series, Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, Karriem Riggins, BADBADNOTGOOD, and the rest of his cast at International Anthem, Makaya McCraven has done a great service to the past, present and future of their craft. (International Anthem Recording Co)