Drummer Makaya McCraven is the only musician to receive Nextbop’s Album of the Year on two separate occasions, first in 2015 for his sophomore effort In the Moment then again in 2018 for the highly praised Universal Beings. An exploit made the more remarkable considering the honor has only been awarded a total of nine times since our 2009 launch. On June 30th, McCraven, amidst a never-ending whirlwind of tour dates, made a pit stop at the Montreal International Jazz Festival for what would amount to be an exceptional performance.
A rather youthful crowd showed up to the late-night set at the Gesù, hitting up the merch table before the show to get their hands on the drummer’s prized recordings, notably the elusive vinyl edition of his latest mixtape Where We Come From. McCraven, dressed in black with a large gold medallion hanging from his neck, received fervent acclaim as he entered the stage accompanied by his quintet of Chicago musicians comprised of Greg Spero on keys, Matt Gold on guitar, Irvin Pierce on tenor and Jeremiah Hunt alternating between upright and electric bass.
The band led off with “Young Genius” from the aforementioned Universal Beings, showcasing astounding versatility as the composition shifted from an unassuming and mellow beginning to rapid double-time, as the rumbling of the drums grew significantly louder. Drums and piano proceeded with a feverish duo over a steady sax vamp and things took a sharp left as Pierce emerged with a solo of his own, the group switching to straight-ahead feel, with McCraven hitting his kit unabashedly, his hair swinging around wildly. The high energy and the sustained intensity would endure throughout the night, notably on “Atlantic Black”, with its relentless shredding by Pierce and its discordant high octane finale, as well as on the throwback “New Movement” off McCraven’s 2012 debut Split Decision, featuring a cohesive and well-developed solo by Spero who patiently unleashed his ideas in thoughtful bursts over the thundering polyrhythms courtesy of the bandleader.
Like a powerful steam engine, McCraven is always at the forefront and pushing forward, pulling his disciples along with him for the ride. His mind works in patterns, which he assigns to his bandmates in his compositions rooted in jazz, soul, and groove, acting as a blank canvas for him to create textures and nuances while soaring freely above all those present. The musicians joining him for the gig showed immense potential and although still a little green at times, served as a stellar supporting cast. Under the helm of such a talented and seasoned leader, they are undeniably on the fast-track to greatness. McCraven showed genuine gratefulness both for his ensemble which he introduced to the audience profusely throughout the concert as well as for the fans in attendance which he came out to greet after the show, patiently signing autographs for all those who purchased one of his records. Makaya McCraven is a force to be reckoned with, a mighty drummer at the top of his game. His performance at the Montreal jazz festival left no stones unturned substantiating his stronghold as one of the epicenters of the new direction jazz music is currently taking. We eagerly await your next move, Mr. McCraven!
Photos by Frédérique Ménard-Aubin, courtesy of the Montreal International Jazz Festival.