Makaya McCraven proves electric live performance, kicks off Pittsburgh Jazz Fest

Makaya McCraven is a highly abnormal bandleader. First off, he’s a drummer, but calls himself a “beat scientist”, and his studio albums largely contain recordings of many different live gigs spliced together to create revolutionary, fresh compositions. To see McCraven live, is, quite simply a treat.

On Thursday, June 20, McCraven kicked off the Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival with a spectacular performance at the August Wilson Center. Mike Canton, host of WYEP’s “The Soul Show” introduced McCraven and explained how jazz festivals are a wonderful way to discover new talent, and said he discovered McCraven’s harpist, Brandi Younger at the festival several years ago. Legendary jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby, who most famously came out with Afro-Harping in 1968, was a huge inspiration to Younger, and the similarities were evident in her playing.

The crowd was filled with obvious jazz fans and hipsters who swung with the music, bursting into wild applause frequently during wild solos. Canton said fans came from Detroit, Texas, and California for this show. The pony-tailed older gentleman beside me said he was a Tigers fan and came to see them play the Pirates.  When he saw McCraven was playing, however, he knew he had to stay an extra night. He had seen McCraven play in Detroit and Chicago (where McCraven lives), and said that it was a truly exceptional experience.

McCraven’s sextet opened up with “Black Lion”, playing a spacey cosmic intro. Half way through they really begin to groove with lots of improvisations on piano, bass, and guitar following a dominating rhythm. Irvin Pearce finishes the song with a repeated killer sax riff.

One of McCraven’s greatest strengths as a bandleader is that he utilized all the instruments at his disposal well, and on the second piece of the night, “Young Genius”, there is a compelling balance between the instruments, and the harp is featured prominently.

Building momentum, McCraven played “Atlantic Black”, the third song of the night from his latest album Universal Beings (2018), and one of the most dramatic on the LP. This is a song to hear live. Very fast paced rhythm with drums and stand-up bass start the track out, and later sax splashes are added in, as well as lots of arpeggios going up and down the neck of the guitar. McCraven constantly shook his head, starting to sweat, as he perfectly lays down quick drum patterns, making eye contact with his band. Generally the group remained in sync throughout the song and concert. During the final wavering between chaotic ultra-fast frenzy of sound and smooth melodic respites, Makaya looked like a mad (beat) scientist absolutely enjoying himself.

For the next couple minutes as Younger played the soothing, beautiful harp intro to “Hungarian Lullaby”, the crowd froze in utter silence, cautious not to disrupt the dazzling display of talent. McCraven’s mother was a singer from Budapest and the song is based off Hungarian folk melodies she sung to him as a child. Fantastic instrumental harmonies made this a great song [and one absent from his discography], and slightly more even keeled than the other tracks he played on Thursday.

McCraven’s rendition of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, recorded by request from Impulse! Records, wasn’t anything too special live, and I personally missed the vocals and lyrics. Following that, the sextet played “A New Movement”, a track dedicated to McCraven’s daughter when she was born, which was decent with some catchy hooks and excellent piano solos by Matt Gold.

Concluding the set was “Song of the Forest Boogaraboo.” An epic intro loaded with tension and suspense led to an explosion of sound guided by Pearce on tenor saxophone. The killer song concluded the set well, showing off very funky beats, and demonstrating why McCraven is an artist who needs to be heard live.

The Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival continues through June 23rd. For the full schedule, click here.

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