wax Poetics
Makaya McCraven at the Del Monte Speakeasy in Venice, California, September 22, 2015. Photo by Victor Duarte.

Time Traveler

Through live jam sessions and studio recontextualization, drummer and producer Makaya McCraven cultivates a conduit between the jazz roots of improvisation and the expansive branches of modern music.

published online
Originally published in Digital Content
By Jeff D. Min

Ask drummer and producer Makaya McCraven about being a jazz musician, and the answer may come as a surprise. “For me, yeah, I’m a ‘jazz’ musician—if we’re going to even use that term,” says McCraven. “But what I’m going for is the mastery of my instrument; a broad understanding, a fully complete artist and musician. My efforts towards that has always been diversity; diversifying the types of music I play, what can I learn from here, and what can I do with these musicians?”

For McCraven, “jazz” isn’t a flat, meaningless term. Instead, he approaches it as a state of mind, a relentless exploration that has him breaking down barriers and crossing oceans. It’s a labor of love cultivated through an aural tradition laid out by his predecessors, including his father, jazz drummer Stephen McCraven, and mother, singer and flautist Ágnes Zsigmondi, both established musicians in their own right.

McCraven’s formula is an exercise in fundamentals: countless hours of study brought to life through marathon-long jam sessions. While still adhering to the structures he’s learned as a full-time musician, McCraven leans heavily on instincts and feeling to shape his compositions. In that disciplined yet malleable space, McCraven is free to innovate, giving himself and his ensemble the space to freely traverse an emerging sonic expanse.

If nothing else, McCraven is a student of the game, and like any good pupil, he’s taken it upon himself to turn theory into practice, applying his thesis to wherever he can find fertile ground—cue up his lauded 2018 recording, Universal Beings, recorded in four different cities, or 2015’s In the Moment, or his recent take on Gil Scott-Heron, We’re New Again. McCraven’s appreciation for aural tradition both honors and adds to an ongoing conversation; his growing body of work proves that he’s ready to pivot at any moment, seeking out challenges to help bring fresh perspective to his practice. And while Makaya has taken a break from touring, his time is being well spent, resting, reflecting, and calculating his next move. 

What was the transition like for you—both personally and creatively—when you moved from the East Coast to Chicago?

I came to Chicago because my wife got a teaching job at Northwestern [University]. I didn’t really have much reference for the city, honestly. I grew up in Western Massachusetts. It’s a small college area, but with a very vibrant music scene—a lot of great musicians and universities; the situation was really good to come up in. For me, it was a time in my life when I was ready to move and grow. I was very young. For the first six months or so, [my wife and I] were long distance, and I would just be visiting—as I was transitioning and helping her move—and I moved in fully halfway through the year. I had laid a bunch of groundwork by coming monthly and going to jam sessions and meeting people. I came to Chicago and hit the ground running. I went to every jam session, every open mic, I looked up every musician I could in town. I was in the newspaper, I was on the web.

I had a pretty robust, full-time career before I moved here. I was twenty-two years old. I had a band back home. I had a lot of gigs. I was doing a lot of regional touring, and I had quite a bit of experience playing in hip-hop bands, jazz bands, funk bands, reggae, Afrobeat, rock, all sorts of stuff—jam bands. I was working a lot. When I came to Chicago, I said, “I’m not going to go backwards.” That’s really where I was. I’m a full-time musician, I’m not about to get a job at a café or whatever. I’m working a lot, I’m busy, and I can maintain this in a new city. Even when I moved to Chicago, I flew back and forth, going back to the East Coast. We’re doing work in the studio all the time, doing little gigs in New York. I was a musical director of a studio and venue that was kind of DIY. It was getting off the ground and I had a funder.

I had stuff going on when I moved to Chicago, but it’s such an incredible city here—so vast, so many great musicians. I was really inspired, and it was a step for me; to challenge me on a much bigger playing field, bigger stage with higher-level musicians on a consistent level. And I took it on as my job to be as thorough as I could be coming into the music industry here and the scene.

Throughout all this, this is what I’ve done before moving to Chicago, and I’ve always maintained that my voice and my work takes top priority while being a full-time musician. And [I must] always be focused on making creative projects, being part of creative projects, leading creative projects, making tracks, making beats, playing gigs, setting up your own shows. And also to be able to perpetuate the professional aspect and stay alive and provide work to you and your colleagues. Chicago has been a really good place for that on the working-musician level, and it’s also provided a really good platform artistically here. I’ve met a lot of creative people to both inspire me and collaborate with and encourage me. That’s how I came here, through my wife. And when I came here, I was very focused and ambitious, and I practiced all the time, and any hour I’m not working on my music, I’m working on my business. I was trying to figure out who were the cats in town, what are the clubs in town, who do I need to meet. That’s how I approached coming here. 

What role did the now-closed Velvet Lounge play in your development?

Huge—the Velvet Lounge was my home. The session was the first thing I came for at the Velvet Lounge. It was a weekly jam session that was frequented by a lot of the great young players that were coming up in the city—maybe a couple older ones. Every once in a while, you’d get a more established guy pop in and everyone was like, “Yeah!” But it was a community thing, and you had a legend who owned and ran the club, [saxophonist and founding member of the AACM] Fred Anderson. And he was always there, and he would always be encouraging to the young musicians and always listened to everybody play. He’d let us hang out all hours of the night when the place was closed and talk to us and play music.

The Velvet Lounge was the first place where I did my own gig as a leader, a Makaya McCraven quartet gig. Probably the first year or two I moved to town, maybe the next year, I was able to get a date at the Velvet Lounge with Fred. There’s a lot of different memories and benchmarks when I moved to Chicago. I met cats like [bassist] Junius Paul, [trumpeter] Marquis Hill, [trumpeter] Corey Wilkes, and [drummer] Isaiah Spencer, all these guys who are a real big part of this music community here, and I got to see incredible creative music there.

The Velvet Lounge was really important for me. There was only a handful of jams that were really the one. I feel like there were quite a few jams in town when I came, and those were nice places to meet people. Sometimes, those environments weren’t the most fun or friendliest, and sometimes they’re great. There’s a culture to it. But I like the jam session, I like the camaraderie. I like the challenges of playing music on the spot, knowing repertoire and jazz standards and the mentorship. If I got into a jam session and meet younger guys, I get to hear them, I can talk to them, and vice versa. That’s what cats did for me, and, yeah, the Velvet Lounge, that was really special. We had the New Apartment Lounge where [Chicago sax icon and Sun Ra alum] Von Freeman had his jam on Tuesdays, and I would go down there, and that was also [very special]. I mean, these were cultural institutions. 

Makaya McCraven at Door No 3, Chicago, April 23, 2015. Photo by Victor Duarte.
Makaya McCraven at Door No 3, Chicago, April 23, 2015. Photo by Victor Duarte.

On the topic of mentorship, did Von or Fred share any advice with you?

I never really spoke too much to Von. These cats were really about the music. Von only spoke to us a few times about music after sitting in with him at the jam and having nice things to say. One thing I always remember Fred saying—we’d talk about music or talk about the scene and the difficulties of keeping the music alive and keeping it going, both artistically and economically. Fred Anderson, for as great as an artist as he was, was for years running a club, which is an undertaking of love. It takes a business mind to keep open. After these conversations, he’d always say, “Just got to keep on steppin’, Jack.” And I’ve always taken that with me from him, and that applies to life in so many ways. 

I’ve seen you perform with many different ensembles, but one person that I’ve seen consistently by your side is bassist Junius Paul. Could you elaborate on how you met and how those collaborations began?

I’m always drawn to powerful bass players. I’m a drummer and I like strong, soulful bass players. To me, that’s usually my number one to rely and lean on. I met Junius at the Velvet Lounge. And where I came up in Massachusetts, I didn’t have access to a lot of younger, Black bass players or that many strong bass players in my age group. Maybe a handful of people in our music department. And I knew cats like Nat Reeves, who my dad worked with. And [through] Archie Shepp [and McCoy Tyner]…I’ve gotten to play with guys like Avery Sharpe and other great jazz bass players. These guys were my mentors and my dad’s friends. Early on when I was in college on the East Coast, I met Dezron Douglas, who is on the record Universal Beings along with Junius, who again is another really rock-solid foundation [bass] player.

I remember when I moved to Chicago and went to the Velvet Lounge and I saw Junius and Isaiah Spencer playing, and [pianist] Justin Dillard; these guys were really strong players, man, like really strong players—organically. Not coming out of this college thing, but it was like…here in Chicago, there is this really great tradition of music that brings young cats up. That’s what I saw when I came to the Velvet Lounge. I saw these musicians that were really playing, coming from the tradition, the aural tradition of this music and playing at a really high level with a lot of energy and broad vocabulary—music that I could access. But they were also young cool cats like myself. I was like, “Wow, these guys are cool. I like them.” They inspire me and make me want to go home and practice. If I’m going to sit in, I need to get my stuff together.

I met Junius early and we started to play together in Corey Wilkes’s band. Corey Wilkes was one of the first bands I worked with consistently that had a lot of work around town. First couple bands I worked with was Corey Wilkes Quintet, Bobby Broom Trio, Frank Russell’s group. But yeah, we played together for years with Corey, and then we played with Greg Spero, and we played together in a variety of gigs. And once I started getting my work, Junius became a really big part of that. When we recorded [my 2015 album] In the Moment, there were a few different bass players. Matt Ulery is on there, Josh Abrams is on there, and there’s a number of people I like to use; but Junius…that’s my number one call. He’s one of my best friends in the world, and we’ve spent a lot of time on the road, and we’ve got great chemistry. And I’m really happy for him, because his record [Ism on International Anthem] did well, and his profile has been rising. His work with Art Ensemble [of Chicago] is really exciting to see, and I’m thrilled for Junius. Great guy, great musician. 

Whenever I’ve seen you and Junius perform together, you guys provide a solid framework where other members of the ensemble can explore that space freely. That chemistry is palpable.

That’s everything, right? I feel like these are the things that make music great, that next level. It’s like, okay, we can all play and we’re playing at a high level, but when you connect with musicians and there’s chemistry that grows over years… I mean, sometimes you can just play with somebody and connect, but Junius and I have been playing together now for ten years. And in the last five years, we’ve played together a whole lot and traveled all over the world and spent a lot of time in a lot of tense situations and a lot of gigs and a lot of musical situations and personal situations. And it adds up and it develops into something. I tell young musicians, your musical relationships that you develop is the most important thing you have, including your professional relationships, and that really comes out in the music. Not to say you can’t be at each other’s throat and get in a fistfight before the gig and still put on an amazing concert. I mean, I’ve seen it happen, but it’s—I mean even that, that might add to the music. I want real emotion; I want real vulnerability and honesty out of my music and with the people I work with. I don’t want BS, I don’t care about “details.” When we’re in the live space and we’re creating, it’s about how we can communicate through abstract means—a feeling, an emotion. The literal word doesn’t convey easily what we can do through abstract communication. Who I call, who I feel comfortable with, and on the same page with is very important to me as a bandleader. As a sideman, I have different needs and wants. But when I want to create an experience and an event, I just like to be with people I feel comfortable with. 

I remember watching a performance where it was you, Junius, guitarist Jeff Parker, vibraphonist Joel Ross, and harpist Brandee Younger workshopping a song, and what was impressive was how you balanced Jeff and Junius who, relatively speaking, are elders of sorts with Joel, Brandee…

I would reframe that, in terms of balancing voices. I would say the only elder statesmen was Jeff. Jeff is significantly our senior…I don’t want to say too much “our senior.” [laughs] Jeff’s in his fifties, you know, and Brandee and Junius and myself, I’m probably youngest of the three, but we’re all probably late thirties. Joel is like twenty-two. Brandee has a ton of experience too; she’s no spring chicken, she’s done a lot. Brandee’s someone I’ve known for a long time too. Her [and her] partner Dezron Douglas, I’ve known them since college, before I moved to Chicago. There is a balance of generations, but the generational thing is much less of a balance in that situation, because Jeff is wide open. He’s as progressive as they come and open-minded and versatile. And to me, Joel Ross is very much an old soul, very wise musician, and the way he plays is very mature and very open as well. Trying to get those people to come together and play is not hard, and they’re so talented. And I think a lot of what I focus on when I’m trying to make my band is that…it’s all about the people. I do my production, I make my records, but it’s all about the musicians. And I want to play with people that inspire me, that are musically open and creative and progressive, and have a wide understanding of the possibilities of music.

Like a guy like Joel Ross, you can put him anywhere and he will play his ass off; put him in a hip-hop band with his vibraphone and he’s going to kill it. You put him in a symphony orchestra, and he will read it all. He’s a brilliant musician. Brandee too, recorded for John Legend and played with Ravi Coltrane, Alice Coltrane for the John Coltrane House. She’ll also play classical music as well. Junius as well studied classical guitar in college, people don’t know that. He plays amazing electric bass, can play R&B, gospel, and hip-hop but is an incredible straightahead jazz bass player. He is really known for being such a creative force, almost like an avant-garde artist at times as well. He’s a very broad voice in music.

Jeff Parker, when I moved to Chicago, I met Jeff…he was such an inspiration to me. Here’s this guy I heard of from a college friend who was like, “You’re going to Chicago, you got to find Jeff Parker! Tortoise, Tortoise, indie band!” And then I go and find him, and not only is he the guitarist from Tortoise but he’s playing with an organ jazz group around town, playing really straightahead blues-jazz organ music, toured with Joey DeFrancesco. He’s playing with the AACM playing avant-garde music. He’s doing completely ambient sets. That’s what I aspire to with my versatility is to be like these people, that play at such a high level and can do it no matter where they get put; you put me in this situation, I can perform. They’re consummate professionals, able to shape-shift and do the job. They all have very distinct voices, ambitious careers, [their] own creative projects. This is what I aspire to in my career and who I choose to surround myself with. And in that case, I don’t have to worry about people connecting because they’re different ages or different genders or different races or different backgrounds.

I want to work with people that have a broad perspective and the versatility and talent and the openness and the heart to come together and make music together. I do pull from a broad cast, and I do like to switch musicians up, and I do like to play with different people when I get a chance and add people to my band and subtract. So I do try and pick elements that will work together whether it’s personalities or timbres. I really love the mixture of the vibraphone and the harp; it’s a really beautiful sound and blends well. 

I’m careful when mixing my palette—that’s where it becomes a little more delicate for me. For example, if I’m going to have a really loud, aggressive, electric rock band, I might not be as inclined to use a harp because of the sonic challenges. I do a lot of standing-room shows, and we’re rocking out and it’s a full sound versus a theater, which might be more suited for an acoustic sound; and often, I’ll have a different type of drum setup in these situations, a different sound reinforcement and style, because the types of venues I’m playing vary so much. It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve used those versatile skills and the versatility of my band to play in different types of venues and different spaces. Whether we’re opening for Rakim or at the Symphony Center, it’s not the same environment. [laughs

“Versatility” is a key word, and being able to play in multiple styles seems important to you. Categorizations like jazz and hip-hop and soul can be limiting sometimes. Do these categorizations narrow the perception of a musician?

Yes. [laughs] I’m not one to say we shouldn’t have genre names. It’s a catch-22. Genre names serve a purpose, but mostly in selling music, mostly on the commercial side of it. That’s really what genres are about; put them in categories so we can easily give it to the consumer. That’s very narrow to what the music means. Jazz is an entirely sufficient term to cover the breadth of music that goes under that umbrella, and with that comes the subgenres. Again, maybe [genre names are] helpful to describe music in some way or another, but [they’re] super annoying to me—there’s got to be like ten different types of house music. And I get it, because they can mean certain things, but it can get a bit cumbersome to talk about. But back to jazz, that’s a controversial word. There’s a lot of people that don’t want to use the word jazz. They’re a lot of people who point to its racist roots. It was a term given to music by the outside, derogatory to Black music, and has stayed with the music for all this time. On top of that, jazz doesn’t really describe everything. When I say jazz and I play smooth jazz, that’s going to be offensive to somebody who’s expecting to hear something straightahead. And if you play avant-garde to the smooth jazz people, they might be like, “What is that? It’s just noise.” There’s so many genres and subgenres, we’ve lost meaning. We need the subgenres to help explain it. I think to the common listener, particularly with the word jazz, though it’s evolving a little bit, it doesn’t necessarily mean something so broad. It’s just like, “Oh yeah, jazz.” I find it limiting, yet I think it’s important to talk about. Duke Ellington didn’t want to call it jazz, Miles Davis didn’t want to call it jazz and spoke on that. Mingus didn’t call it jazz and spoke on it. Bird [as well].

I do want to take part in the tradition set forth before me and honor them and try to take part in that. And what I believe that is, is mastering your instrument; the aural tradition of playing with those people and then functioning within the contemporary space. Duke Ellington said of jazz, jazz is “like a tree,” and as it grows, it incorporates a little bit of everything that it touches. But you can always follow it back down to its roots. I love that, and that’s what I try and embody. I study, I want to swing, I want to play jazz, the idiom of jazz. I think there’s an idiomatic jazz: playing tunes, walking bass. There’s creative music and how that expanded and grew. I don’t think of jazz as a genre; the style is a genre. But the lifestyle as a music, it’s more about music. A lot of the great musicians, it’s always been that; writing and learning classical compositions and putting that into their music. We have bossa nova, which is very straightahead now in that category. But when it came out, it was that “new” thing. It literally means that; it was an innovation in music. This music has always been about innovation, it’s always been about evolution. It’s always been about incorporating all these different elements and bringing it back into this improvisatory way of playing together. 

Makaya McCraven at the Del Monte Speakeasy in Venice, California, September 22, 2015. Photo by Victor Duarte.
Makaya McCraven at the Del Monte Speakeasy in Venice, California, September 22, 2015. Photo by Victor Duarte.
Wax poetics

In regard to Jeff Parker, who is a virtuoso and so versatile, what influence did he have on you?

Jeff Parker, as progressive and all of that stuff as he is, he’s deeply rooted in this music and studied and deeply read. As is Junius, Brandee, Joel, Marquis, the people that I work with have studied and are invested in it. I wouldn’t leave that out when it comes to Jeff. And that’s something that I took from Jeff. And it’s something I took from my father. And I look for those qualities in other musicians of how seriously they take their craft and the investment of time and study—both to the instrument and to the music and to the culture around it—[these qualities] inspire me to push myself. And I’ve said this about Jeff and his influence on me particularly, his ability to be so versatile in his career, I really took note of that when I moved to Chicago. I had already been doing that in many ways but to see an example of that success and a long career… I mean, twelve, thirteen years ago when I met Jeff, he was maybe forty and he was really established here in Chicago. And I was in my twenties, and that was an example of what’s possible with a career. Jeff is one of my closest friends. During this pandemic, we talk almost every day. I love that about being in music, I love the community. There’s something about this work where we’re playing together, people become like family. It’s deep. Even a tour, just one tour with somebody, two weeks on the road can be very intimate. You’re away from your family, talking a lot about life. Intense situations, a lot of flights and buses…a lot of time to talk.

I’ve noticed that in your projects, there’s a strong leaning towards concepts of time and space. In regard to In the Moment, what does being in the moment mean to you?

There are a lot of things to unpack there. So, yes, time and space are a huge part of my music, just in the sense of rhythm. Rhythm is the simplest way for humans to mark the passing of time. Otherwise, we don’t have time; the ticking of a clock, that’s sixty bpms. Sixty beats per minute is the way we can watch time pass. For me, rhythm is fundamental, this idea of keeping time. That’s one thing that is a big part of music…as a drummer. Time and polyrhythm. I’ll take it to another layer, a pulse. Now, that measure of time is essentially a frequency. If you turn that frequency up, it will eventually sound like a pitch. Now if we have a polyrhythm, two rhythms at a ratio, a perfect ratio, and you speed those way up, they’re going to equal a harmony, a perfect harmony. So now, time and rhythm are also an expression of harmony. It’s all the same thing.

These concepts are always swirling around in my mind. In the Moment, that particular record, which really spurred the next few records, was dealing with sampling, dealing with editing, and particularly I was dealing with improvisation. In the Moment, the title, was talking about just being in that moment and this idea of improvisation and that’s also essentially a fact of life. People talk to me and say, “You guys just make stuff up on the spot, that’s so crazy; how do you do that?” To me, that’s not the crazy part. This is an expression of our everyday life. This is an expression of what we all do every moment of every day. We all improvise, we all have to act within the moment to make our choices. We have to grow our skills so we can fluidly navigate life. In jazz, say you have a jazz standard, you might have a form. We have a form to our day, so it’s not like we’re completely improvising without any framework. Like a jazz standard, we have a reoccurring form and we improvise throughout that. You’re not necessarily making stuff up out of nowhere, but we’re using the environment and what we know. So In the Moment was trying to encapsulate that as a concept and idea. But what’s interesting is that now I’m taking these moments that were improvised and now I’m going to take it and I’m going to loop it or I’m going to edit it. And now, we’re literally playing with time, because time might move here [draws a straight line] and then move backward. [draws a circle] There are multiple layers, and that gets more into the idea of improvisation, what’s the difference between the improvisation and composition? The improvisation is us putting down ideas in real time without editing, but you’re going to have to do the same thing if you’re going to compose. The first thing you’re going to write down has to come out of nowhere, you’re going to improvise it, but then you’re going to have the opportunity to edit it, which is what I did through technology—by going in and doing it after the fact. That’s what the record was about, it was about these concepts in the process. It was about being in the moment, it was about improvisation. It’s about the sampling and the editing, blurring the lines between where does the line of improvisation and composition meet. 

Even with In the Moment Remix Tape. You can take that and Universal Beings E&F Sides and In the Moment and as a fan start on any of those and feel like you’re right where you need to be—in an ongoing conversation, a nonlinear approach.

In the Moment Remix Tape fit into the whole concept for me too. In the sense of—we can take this improvisation and recontextualize it, and that can be recontextualized again. This moment in time, redeveloping into different ideas. And to me, that again fits right into this conversation of jazz. This is part of the evolution of jazz too. Jazz has always built off using other ideas; sampling, looping, this idea of reoccurring form. The loop, that’s a major part. Time and the loop. Classical and Western music tends to be linear; it has a start and it ends. With jazz or African music, the African diaspora is more cyclical, where you can have a rhythm or reoccurring form and it can go and go and go. And that’s the loop, which is the same as the beat; a big loop is a big beat. It’s a constant pulse, and so the loop, to me, is a part of jazz. The cyclical nature is part of rhythm. Vocabulary in jazz, people quote each other. There are standards, there’s a whole vocabulary of endings and intros that is a part of this thing, which is almost like sampling in a lot of ways.

It’s the idea that there are ideas and sounds that you can repurpose and use as part of vocabulary. So if you say [hums familiar melody], that’s common. That’s not [copyrighted] at this point, it’s fair game for everyone to use. Everybody plays it, it’s a classic ending. We’re using standard language, and different ideas eventually become part of standard language. You can see that in certain styles of drumming. A lot of drummers like to emulate Dilla these days. I think there’s a kinship there with the concept of sampling. But before recorded music, none of this existed. We’re so new in this, we have had recorded music for a little over a hundred years. Before that, someone had to be able to read sheet music. You had to be wealthy enough to have a piano or someone had to have a guitar or saxophone or something, and generally people had more basic music skills. You had basic literacy and you don’t have to be a professional musician to pick up an instrument and enjoy it.

I believe in the aural tradition of music. I’ve played with [guitarist] Bobby Broom for years, and he played with Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis and all these people. I got to get a little touch of something there, you know what I mean? That’s almost a physical touch to the past through a conduit, and I think that’s important, and that’s why I talk about jazz as an aural tradition. And that aspect is getting lost in the university spaces. The aural tradition of sharing the stage with cats that are elders or peers, that is fundamentally important in the development of the music. If you take the music, rather than in a book, it’s free to evolve. It will just naturally evolve. 

How did Universal Beings come to be?

These are concepts that I’ve been dealing with in my career since I’ve started playing. After In the Moment…I always like to play with different people. I’ve been like that since I was a kid. I love to play with different musicians. I put myself in situations that’s going to push me because it’s a style or a gig I might not even be ready for. I want to play with great musicians and with people I might not necessarily know but [also] people I’ve wanted to play with that I haven’t had opportunities to play with, like Brandee and Dezron. I’ve been wanting to do stuff with them for like years, but we would just cross paths and not necessarily have the opportunity to play that often.

When the idea for Universal Beings came about, it was kind of like, “I want to do this In the Moment thing again,” but I wanted to take it and expand my cast of musicians. At that point, I was touring a bit under my own name through In the Moment, and I was bumping into all these musicians on the road, like [saxophonist] Shabaka [Hutchings]. And I think it was in a European tour…and I kept bouncing in and out with Brandee’s band and going to each other’s gigs, and I was like, “I want to play with these people.” And I’m in a situation where I can maybe set some stuff up, and [I was] moving to other subject matter around the record this time around. When In the Moment came out, so did [Kamasi Washington’s 2015 album] The Epic... And Shabaka’s thing was doing well, and you had Shabaka, Kamasi, Makaya, all these African-named dudes. [laughs] But you’ve already had Robert Glasper and Esperanza [Spalding] having success, and Snarky Puppy, so there’s this swell of contemporary jazz. But I’d hear all these conversations about “West Coast is the spot for jazz, this is the home for the new wave of jazz.” And then other people would be like, “No, London, London is the wave of the new jazz scene.” Then you have other people like, “Are you paying attention to what’s happening in Chicago? Chicago is the center of jazz.” And someone else is like, “No, New York is the spot.” And I was dealing with that,’cause I was working with all these people in all these spaces and I’m not from Chicago. And I was tired of telling the story that I’m not from Chicago, ’cause people were like, “Oh, [you’re the] drummer from Chicago.” I rep Chicago and love Chicago—been huge in my development—but I’m not from here for those who are, so I’m not claiming something that I’m not.

I wanted to tell that narrative of mine. I wanted to give my family and my history in my development where I got to be around cats like Archie Shepp and my mother is a Hungarian folk musician. I traveled around Europe from a young age. I was exposed to different kinds of music, and I have a very different childhood than if I grew up on the South Side of Chicago. To me, that part of who I am and that narrative, that story, is at the heart of my music. And that record [helped in] breaking me out of the insular city and connecting with my friends in New York and doing something in L.A., which I haven’t really done before. And now Jeff was out there, and I got to work with some new people. And developing these relationships that I was starting to have [was important], because I was going to London and I was meeting these great musicians out there, and we never got to play. But they were like, “Yo, what’s up?” It kind of broke me out of this insular Chicago thing and got me telling my story. I was born in Paris, my mother is from Hungary, I have this transnational experience. I’ve always played in multiple bands across multiple genres with multiple people. These things are major parts of my identity. So putting that on top of this In the Moment concept, that was really propelling my career; I was creatively clicking on something, it really just came together.

I remember when I was pitching [Universal Beings] to the label [International Anthem], I was like, “I want to do one in London and one in L.A. and one in New York.” And they were like, “Well, maybe we can just try New York first.” [laughs] Then I was like, “Let’s do something in L.A., ’cause Jeff’s out there,” and we wound up doing something in L.A., you know. And then London and the right things came together, and I was kind of persistent in my idea, and we were able to pull it off. And we recorded the London side and Where We Come From in the same two days and that was the story of that record. 

When I look at the liner notes of the album, the lineups are amazing. Reminds me of some CTI or Blue Note records where you see all these amazing musicians at the height of their careers performing together on the same album.

That’s part of the culture, too, that I look up to. Look at Miles [Davis], maybe the best example of that. Every cat he touched went on to have a career. Now was it that he touched them and they went on to have a career, or he knew how to pick them and you work with people that are great and that will challenge you musically? The music came first. If we go back to generational talk, and one thing that is missing, or has been missing for too long, is youth. Nowadays, you’re a young lion until you’re thirty-five years old. I was doing young-lion concerts thirty-two years old, you know, for jazz institutes here, and I wasn’t even the youngest one in the band, and I feel like that’s changing a little bit. Young people are getting a little more interested. I look at Miles and [Art] Blakey. When guys came through their band, they were like twenty years old, twenty-one years old, nineteen years old, twenty-five years old. [Trumpeter] Clifford Brown died when he was like twenty-three or whatever; he made so much music. He influenced the whole style of music. A guy like Joel Ross… I was a young musician who was pretty virtuosic when I was really young, like a teenager. I wasn’t nearly as mature or the place that Joel is in his career when I was like twenty-one or twenty-two, or my playing either. He’s quite remarkable.

When you’re young, you’re more open, less stuck in your ways, you take more chances. I love playing with young musicians. There are cats that are so young and have so much faculty and are brilliant, but they might play too much or take too many chances or might miss an ending or a cue. But that energy is everything, and it’s energy and fresh brilliance. And guys like Miles and Blakey set the format. Play with great young people; mentorship, that’s the aural tradition. For me, it’s cool if I’m on the road and I got a couple twenty-year-old cats in my band and they’re traveling internationally for the first time. I mean, it’s incredible. There’s something magical about that too. And I’ve done that too, being a sideman. And being on the road with young guys, like it’s the first time they ever left the country and you’re hopping from spot to spot, and these cats can’t even eat anything unless they can find a McDonald’s. And you run into that cat three years down the road and you have an incredibly cultured, amazing person. I love the jazz community for that. You have these young Black men who have not always come from situations…but sometimes music can really provide an opportunity to have this amazing global perspective and travel the world. And in America, unfortunately, it’s not as common. And within that, making and playing music. It’s cool to be there and it’s cool to be a mentor, and it’s also cool to be influenced by the young musicians—what’s fresh, what’s hip, what they’re listening to. I never want to be that old guy. I will always check myself. Every time I’m like, “This new music sucks,” I’ll always check myself. Well, maybe I don’t like this artist, but maybe let me give it some time. 

You’ve taken something of a hiatus, and with COVID, things have slowed down a bit. How have you been able to continue to challenge yourself?

I did take a bit of a hiatus; it was well needed. I was going really hard and maybe burning myself out a little bit. For me, I’ve turned to my production and my music study. If I’m not playing the drums or practicing drums, which quite frankly hasn’t been my focus the last couple years, I spend a lot of time in my studio; working on tracks, experimenting with new music. I study piano, guitar, and bass. I started studying guitar this year and bass for a few years. When the pandemic hit, I saw a friend who needed work, so I hired him for guitar lessons for me and my daughter. For me, [it’s been] learning piano, playing bass, studying guitar, studying music theory, making beats, sampling stuff for fun, working on a couple projects I have in the backburner. I got a stack of music work; there’s a lot of ways to keep myself going without having to be on the road and performing.

I know it’s been hard on a lot of people not to perform, and I feel that and I miss it. And it was really great to do these streaming things. But I am taking a pause from this and taking time to enjoy not having to run out to do this tour or feel like I got to be on in a second, and just take a moment and have faith that it will come back and I will be back in there. I was on the road and I was talking and saying I want to put x amount of years on the road and then I really want to take control of touring and spend a lot of time in the studio; it’s been a major goal of mine. From even In the Moment, the whole time I wanted to highlight as much as I’m a player, I’m a producer too, and I want that to be a part of my career. And that was a very conscious goal, to just not be a drummer.

I have a chip on my shoulder from college. I was very busy, one of the busier cats in town, definitely at the university. And there’s this feeling as a drummer where it’s like, “He doesn’t know the chords or melody,” or this and that. And I’ve spent a lot of my time and life studying harmony and melody and production, and I’m really fascinated with the studio ever since the first recording sessions and four-track sessions I was doing when I was like thirteen, fourteen years old. I think the idea of recorded music is fascinating and the fact that we can manipulate sounds after the fact is very interesting, whether it’s a Mellotron, a keyboard that uses tape loops, or Les Paul with the tape loops, to the Beatles. [Producer Teo Macero re-editing Miles Davis’s] Bitches Brew. Sampling, sampling machines. And MPCs and keyboards and what’s possible with technology now. When I was in Massachusetts, I was running a studio, and that was one of the places I got into creative editing and creative sound design.

Makaya in Oahu, Hawaii, April 2021. Photo by Michael McDermott.
Makaya in Oahu, Hawaii, April 2021. Photo by Michael McDermott.

It seems like going back to your roots is important, even from a family perspective. 

I have a lot of care for the people that I work with. They are like family, and I think that music is healing and really powerful and brings us together. I try to embody those things. Ultimately, I hope my work is a positive contribution in this world that so desperately needs as much help as it can get. Just try to put what I think is truth and vulnerability and something that people can really connect to in music and humanity. Particularly, live. When I play live, it’s not about the notes, it’s about the experience.

Some of my favorite parts in concerts or in performances are in the silence. I love that moment where you could be playing a loud bar somewhere and people might not even be able to pay attention, and then something happens. And you can hear the murmur die, and all of a sudden, people get quiet and they tune in, and that moment is like magic to me. That moment where people are together and we’re tuning in on something, it’s palpable, you can feel it. It’s real, and that, to me, is everything.

I remember we were at this festival and I was watching this pianist Shai Maestro, and he had his trio and it got really quiet. It’s in this small theater, you can hear a pin drop, and someone moved in their chair, and it sounded like a fart and the whole place just died. [laughs] It was such a serious moment, and even the band just cracked up. And I don’t know, that was a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful moment to me, because it broke the ice but it highlighted that intensity we were waiting for—this delicate note, and it was really funny, and it was perfect.

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