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Makaya McCraven: Deciphering the Message review – ingenious hard-bop homage

·2 min read

(Blue Note)
‘Beat scientist’ McCraven balances jazz’s tradition with its future, sympathetically updating the Blue Note hard-bop 60s catalogue


Like Miles Davis, the Chicago drummer, remix producer and “beat scientist” Makaya McCraven senses that celebrating the jazz past means sympathetic reinvention by today’s improvisers, not turning long-gone performances into set-in-stone repertory music. Deciphering the Message, McCraven’s pithy homage to the Blue Note Records hard-bop catalogue of the 1960s, is seamlessly assembled from a mix of sampled live shows by his fine band, clips of the originals and his own hip-hop-schooled gifts for making cutting-edge beats out of almost any recorded sound.

These 13 short tracks include classics by drums legend Art Blakey, pioneering jazz-funk pianist Horace Silver and pre-Rollins tenor sax heavyweight Dexter Gordon, ingeniously stitched into what could pass as a single live show. A Slice of the Top (by saxophonist Hank Mobley, an early-Coltrane disciple with a gift for sounding impassioned without exertion) appears here over McCraven’s dark, liquid drums-and-bass shuffle – quite different from a traditionally snappy bebop groove, but the laidback horns and piano parts just happen to have been played by Mobley, Lee Morgan and McCoy Tyner. In its deep-drums reverberations, Wail Bait sounds like McCraven’s drummer-leader hero Art Blakey’s band, but navigating a morphed-Latin ebb and flow; Coppin’ the Haven (from Dexter Gordon’s One Flight Up) makes the original’s languid groove less sassily hip, more silkily sensual. Autumn in New York – a dream-walk through the chord changes when played by guitarist Kenny Burrell in 1958 – has a sharper kick in McCraven’s mingling of Joel Ross’s vibes and Burrell/Grant Green descendent Jeff Parker’s guitar.

Jazzers who know every twitch of the originals won’t abandon them now, and some, this writer included, will miss the fascinating long-form stories of resourceful improvisers on these barely two-minutes-plus tracks. But McCraven is balancing jazz’s precious tradition and its present and future here, and that’s a priceless contribution.

Also out this month

Formidable Phronesis pianist Ivo Neame unleashes a tour de force of lockdown woodshedding creativity with Glimpses of Truth (Whirlwind), home-brewing an uncannily live-sounding virtual big band, including Canadian trumpeter Ingrid Jensen and London tenorist George Crowley to play accessibly mind-boggling, rhythm-bending orchestral scores, reminiscent of those of Kenny Wheeler and Michael Gibbs. Swiss-born guitarist Nicolas Meier vivaciously mixes jazz, flamenco, Turkish and north African music on Magnificent (MGP Records), and Norwegian guitarist/singer Hedvig Mollestad fuses ghostly choral vocals, hand-clappy sax-honking grooves, metal-guitar clanging and hair-raising storm effects on the atmospheric and ruggedly lyrical Tempest Revisited (Rune Grammofon).

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