Makaya McCraven talks Eastern Europe, the “magic” of live music, poly-rhythm, and vulnerability

In June, I reviewed drummer Makaya McCraven’s performance for Pittsburgh’s Jazz Festival. I caught up with him as he prepared for a jazz festival in Ghent, Belgium and gears up for a European tour. We talked about his most recent album, musical political resistance, and how vulnerability in music allows for authenticity and emotional energy.

Jack Austin (JA): You played a lot of music from Universal Beings (2018) at the August Wilson Center for the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival. What were some of inspirations for the album? 

Makaya McCraven (MM): Inspirations for the album. It’s really kind of born out of a process that came about with the record in the moment and that kind of started the whole thing. I mean I guess like if I wanted to talk about influences, you know some of my parent’s records you know I definitely have been influenced towards kind of this project and some of these concepts of travelling and playing with different musicians in different locations and the kind of music, right. Music traveling with people.

JA: Which of your parents’ records influenced you most? 

MM: All of them, I mean definitely the record for “Song of the Forest Boogaraboo”, my father. It features Archie Shepp, a lot of great Nat Reeves, a lot of great musicians on there. And then some of the works of my mother’s collective “Calinda”. There’s a few records, I’m trying to remember the name because it’s in Hungarian, but I can picture the cover and the cover is a similar hue to Universal Beings, but the band [my mother’s] was a band out of Hungary that was politically active using Eastern European folk music and across Eastern European culture, across the Eastern Bloc. So they were playing Gypsy music and Jewish music and they were pretty politically active. This was in the 70’s in Hungary. 

JA: In what ways were they politically active? What were some of their goals?

MM: Well you have to look at the historical context of Hungary after the war while the Berlin Wall was still up. So people weren’t able to travel. There were lines drawn with country boundaries as you know, and it’s culture. Culture isn’t divided by the lines that are imposed by different states. And so by playing music of of people that was a similar folk music and using instruments from the larger region that was beyond just [state borders].

JA: That album seemed epic in scope, and I picked up a spiritual, cosmic vibe throughout. Are you a spiritual person? What draws you to this type of music? 

MM: I mean you know spirituality is a very kind of individual thing and you find it kind of in all aspects of life. I think the practice of music in itself is simply a practice of spirituality in some sense. You know I think one thing that I know about music is like one of my favorite times in music is when the audience becomes completely quiet. I love that moment when we’re a full room of people and then you can hear a pin drop and in those moments you have a sense that there’s something there, you know, something else. There’s a feeling that we’re sharing you know in silence or a shout together. There’s something about this experience of live music and people coming together and focusing on something together that’s magical. You could describe it using a variety of words but that’s a place that I like to go to in the music that we have. I feel like we are transcending time. You know, the feeling, you go into a movie theater and watch a movie and you come out and it’s like ‘oh my god it’s night’ and it didn’t feel like it… [it] felt like you were in there for half an hour you know because your sense of time was being warped by this experience. And I think that that’s really some of the magic in the music that I like to try to bring to my shows and to my recordings.

JA: What artists do you listen to? 

MM: I try to keep my ear to the ground and listen to a lot of music that’s that’s coming coming out currently. You know, I listen to a lot of classic records from everybody in the jazz world, from Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock and you know Max Roach to Tony Williams to you know Wu Tang Clan. So like Radiohead and Fela Kuti. All sorts of stuff, my ears are always open, I’m always searching for whose music to learn about and to inspire me. The pursuit of being a musician to me is a lot about being a student and about professional growth and the pursuit of mastery in the craft is ever fleeting. You know, there’s no real rival for it [the pursuit of mastery]. So you know as a listener, sometimes it’s you know I don’t have as much [time to do] as much casual listening, either I’m working on stuff or I’m studying or I’m keeping up with what’s happening. I’m interested in music my peers are making as well as what’s been there. And it’s trying to say something that would mean something to myself now and in a way that I feel like I can connect with the world around me.

Music and especially instrumental music can communicate things in ways that words can not, you know.And that’s what’s beautiful about it. You know instrumental music. You have to interpret it. And you know, as you know as a music journalist, writing about it is difficult because you have to figure out how to describe this thing that [is] in an abstract form that we can experience together and interpret and we can get meaning for. To use literal language to bring it, you know to really describe it is very difficult. And that’s one of the magic parts of music. It’s that we can communicate with each other in abstract forms you know. That music is like a language because we can be both playing tennis. I can have vocabulary and I can communicate with people that know that vocabulary in different styles. But it’s also like a language [in that] I can communicate feeling an energy to an audience that might not really depend on their knowledge of that said vocabulary you know. It’s not a language in the sense I can ask somebody to go pick up a glass of water and bring it or something like that. You know, it doesn’t function in the literal sense unless you add lyrics. Instrumental music sits in this place that we are communicating in an abstract form of interpreting individually and collectively and I think it’s really special and cool… Neato.

JA: You played with a quintet in Pittsburgh. What are the benefits of using a larger band like that as opposed to a trio? 

MM: Well I would say first and foremost it’s the textures. You know, being able to have a harp and piano,guitar, all these lush textures, you know, in colors just like a painter or something that to me is a really beautiful and lush sound. I also love to play with a smaller group where we… It’s a little bit more vulnerable or we can we can be more spontaneous where there’s less people to consider you know. So really I love it all. The more that I’ve you know, really [done] my own work as a leader, the more I want to continue to allow myself the opportunity to be in a lot of different playing environments and and really explore just the challenge of textures and ways of playing, you know. I enjoy be[ing] able to work with a trio and then span to a sextet, you know. Or say I can have I can have harp or maybe strings on this night, you know, or play with a percussion ensemble.

These are all different things I have of the variety of shows coming up through the year where I would do all sorts of different things and that’s really exciting to me and really kind of falls in line with my goals as a student of music to put myself in two different situations, challenge myself, work with great people that I can learn from and I respect as well as provide opportunities to a wide array of musicians through the work I can maybe provide. And you know it’s all good it’s about supporting the community, if the community can help support you. And that’s really been my concept as a musician. I don’t believe any artist is truly singular. I think we come in cohort and we come in groups and we come from mentors that we share among each other or jam sessions that we went to or small programs that we shared in our different scenes or different areas or different towns. 

So you know that’s a big part of the In the Moment (2015), Universal Beings records was to acknowledge that there are a variety of scenes in the world. So this record is not totally global it’s you know it’s U.K. and U.S. in terms of its contributions but within the kind of larger global scene there are many different places that are supporting artists and groups of artists and artists have cool things going on. You know I always wanted to kind of be growing up in a small kind of music scene. I always wanted to you know highlight that you know that there’s amazing talent around us. So hopefully you know people can realize that you know they should support the musicians that are playing in their towns, you know, because we need you, you know. And that’s the heart of every community. 

JA: What do jazz festivals like the one in Pittsburgh do for the genre? 

MM: Every major city in the world has a jazz festival and they provide a lot of opportunity both for the fans and the artists to have a place to come together meet and share the music and the culture. And I think that’s important. And if we don’t have platforms we festivals and clubs to play at, then what are we going to do. You know, the music can’t live. You know and we need to be able to sustain [ourselves] by having an economic engine that helps provide for artists. I really love the fact that so many festivals are outdoors, they are free to the public, and you get a much wider range of people that can come and get to enjoy the music than who can just come in and pay 40 45 bucks and a drink minimum to go see some music. So I you know I appreciate I really appreciate that public aspect of it because that’s one of the things for me and I want to bring my music to the people and I don’t want to have to be only playing for a small or elite group of people, you know. So I really think of it as “Folk music”, you know music for folks.

JA: How did you get to be known as a “beat scientist”? I think I know what you are getting at, but what does that term mean to you? 

MM: It maybe started as colorful language but you know in a really simple sense as a drummer I studied rhythm. Rhythm is what I work with primarily in my medium. And that of course is poly-rhythm, I’m very interested in poly-rhythm and mixed meter. I’ve got a lot of that from looking at the nuts and bolts of how rhythm works and really dissecting it. Poly-rhythm you know looking at it culturally to West African poly-rhythm or the music that my mother was making from Eastern Europe that used a lot of five/eight, seven/eight, nine/eight, eleven/eight, in a dance setting, in a cultural setting. And you know I find that time and rhythm is a really expansive field that is quite deep if you want to, if you really want to go into it, I mean. Keeping a pole and playing rhythm is basically the only way that we know how to record time passing by. The ticking of a clock. We have to give. We have to give that. That’s how we interpret. We all feel rhythm, and time, and also frequency of sound. Any pitch is a pulse which is also dealing with time rhythm two pitches, two frequencies going at a different rate that are in a perfect ratio. They equal a harmony. There’s science, there’s ethno-musicology, a lot of stuff. And you know, that’s what that means to me. You could break it down as just like a colloquialism, like you make hip hop beats. 

I study the electronic media. I’ve been teaching masterclasses for Ableton, an electronic music program that is pretty innovative. I’ve been teaching some masterclasses for them, I did it in Rotterdam, I’ve done it in the Hague, Portland, Oregon and Chicago and on the East Coast as well.

JA: How long are the sessions?

MM: Well anywhere from an hour to four hours. I did a four hour masterclass in Rotterdam last year which was brutal. But that’s what they asked me to do.

A lot of this goes again to time and rhythm. You know I do a lot with loops, right, loops again being some form of pulse, how to make loops. You dissect them using the hardware the Ableton has got called Push 2 as well as the concept of sampling and chopping time and repurposing recording to make new music new, sounds you know. There’s a lot to go in there. I’m just basically out here trying to learn some stuff. I wrote that “Beat Scientist” thing, you know I said it once. And that really took off. And in the end you know as I thought about it, it really was applicable to what I’m doing. So you know. Voila here we are.

JA: Pretty much all of your albums have a live component to them. What draws you to live music? 

MM: It’s the spirit of the music, the people there become part of the vibe in the energy you know. And I think a lot of these records that we’re talking about excluding a couple other projects that have out but the ones that are in this live context I feel like the musicians get activated in a different way and there’s another kind of energy in the room and that comes across in the recording. And it’s a different type of energy or space you know. We’ve recorded in some smaller acoustic spaces. I liked the feeling of the band playing in one room. There’s no headphones. We’re playing with our ears and not  as of a controlled setting. And I like to allow there to be some chaos in there in terms of allowing the unknown to be possible, you know, allowing something greater than we can plan to happen.And there’s danger in that, when you leave God open and there’s people in front of you and you can’t go back. And I think some of that danger thing is it manifests itself as the enemy, energy sometimes and excitement and vulnerability as well because you are more vulnerable in that setting and vulnerability I think is a powerful tool. 

Greg Stiller on piano, Brandi Younger on Harp, Matt Gold on guitar, and Irvin Pearce on sax. Photo by Jack Austin.

JA: Why do you think vulnerability is important to artists and musicians?

People want to feel things. People need to feel things. There are many purposes that we can live here for, but one I like to really think about in music is to really connect with the human experience and spirit. Music to make you laugh, make you cry. Make you think, make you dance or jump, it makes you want to cover your ears. You know it makes you want to jump around, elicit some sort of emotion. And when the source of the energy, when we’re putting that out to people you know people don’t want to be phoning it in. They don’t want to see you faking it. 

And I don’t think it’s always as deep or just content to just be able to execute what it is you have to play. When there’s real feeling and emotion in it, it’s powerful. A lot of feeling, emotion comes when you’re honest and that takes some vulnerability you know, and you have to, as an artist, you’ve got to, put yourself out on a stage in front of people and have the world warts and all judge you. That takes some vulnerability and I think when you show that and you step into it I think people respond to. I think it’s real. I think you know we’re connecting with some other human elements. You know that’s what they’re like- Charlie Parker. You can hear him going forward. He was stretching. They were pushing themselves you know that to me is on it. If you’re pushing yourself you run the risk of falling over, a failing. But then it’s how you respond and how you go and to me that’s firing you know to not just be playing it safe. That’s really what I mean. We’re not just playing safe. You’re putting yourself out there you know and that’s exciting. Nobody wants to watch anybody walk on a wide platform instead of a tightrope. It’s not as exciting, you know what I mean. That’s not exciting. [It takes] skill, challenge, and difficulty [to] do something difficult. There’s something about that in today’s music as well. You know what it was like watching you walk down the sidewalk or I could you know watch you like it’s like with skill and challenge and difficulty do something amazing. You know I think there’s like there’s something there’s something there’s something today in music as well.

JA: Do you think you are a better producer or a better drummer? 

MM: I wouldn’t like to engage with “better this, better that” I mean I like to consider myself a musician first. I’m not just concerned with mixing hip hop and jazz, or doing this, or breaking this band you’re breaking that boundary or whatever. I want to make great music that moves me and moves people around me, you know. And you know those are different skills and different things I study I practice to be able to do that. For other composers I just do it my own way and things I’ve found through experimenting and I’ve been fortunate like that. The music has connected with people and I have this platform and I’m grateful for that, you know, but I just want to make good music with great people. And put something meaningful out into the world, you know, and try to make a decent living doing that. I want to be able to take care of my family. 

JA: What makes something that you put out meaningful? 

MM: I think great art is provocative often. So something that makes people think, you know it’s something that engages with what’s happening. You know what, I don’t know. I think that’s a hard thing to define. That’s what we’re searching for. You know what I mean, I would hate to just say I have that figured out. The journey is the journey is where it’s at.

JA: What projects do you have planned for the future and what have you done in the past week or so since the festival?

MM: I’m working on a variety of projects that I don’t want to get too deep into, but I always have several things kind of going at once. You know I’ve been trying to keep up a relatively brisk schedule. I’ve definitely [been] helped by my wonderful label International. So we have a few projects in there, a lot of touring material, we’ve been doing a lot of my compositions that have been part of our shows for a long time that haven’t really been on record. And so last week I toured around Canada. We just played Montreal Jazz Festival. Let’s go, the concert was a really amazing experience, really great support from everybody it was really special. We did Vancouver Victoria Jazz Festival, Saskatoon [Saskatchewan] Jazz Festival. I just landed in Brussels and drove up to Ghent, Belgium where I’m sitting here in front of the water canal [which is] really beautiful and we play mainstage Ghent Jazz Fest tomorrow to kick off a 20 day, 15 show tour in Europe.