Makaya McCraven – ‘Universal Beings’ (Album Review)

We’ve been here before, in awe of the drumming, bandleading, and exploration of Makaya McCraven. His last full-length album, In the Moment was a well-curated collection of sounds that emerged instantaneously from a multitude of configurations at the top of their game and the illustration of a Chicago scene that is building more and more love. Many of McCraven’s releases are edited recordings of live sessions, so it would stand to reason that his latest album would be along the same lines. McCraven’s new joint, Universal Beings, out Friday on International Anthem, corrals four different groups in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and London for groove heavy live sets that will continue to be the earworms one expects from this drummer for likely the next two or so years this will stay in your rotation.

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The four sets have somewhat different feels, they are different groups, though not necessarily different scenes. Sure, you’re catching violinist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson in L.A. alongside percussionist Carlos Niño pontificating about the spiritus mundi, and bassist Dezron Douglas & harpist Brandee Younger are playing with the tension and vibrancy of New York, but the London-based saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings made the schlep to the Chicago session and cellist Tomeka Reid appears there and in the New York session as well. It’s McCraven, his sense of balance and direction that is the throughline here that makes this album work so naturally.

While the whole album is a jam, one could pick any song and play it for a group to find someone asking what it is– “Mantra” featuring Younger’s harp gliding over a slow and steady groove; the pulse-pounding gallop that is “Atlantic Black” that breaks off into a literal breather as if made for sprinting and a built-in water break; “Suite House” features tenor saxophonist Nubya Garcia blowing with a swing, then playing on a loop to make a supremely sublime beat likely begging for someone to freestyle over it and Ashley Henry on the Rhodes giving perfectly soft texture; “Turtle Tricks” featuring guitarist Jeff Parker painting with tones of purple and green and tossing things about in his signature odd angles. There’s just so much here from so many talented folks, it doesn’t just “reward relistening”, it will insist upon it in your mind until you feed the urge to feel these beats again.

We’ve been here before. Makaya McCraven has played and recorded with all these musicians for some time, this is merely a different configuration for hearing them. The organization of this release is like hearing four albums at once, each session divided with five songs apiece to see where each band would let the music flow, all of them with the potentiality for infectiousness because at the root of these configurations is the aura that McCraven brings with him as a leader. He is a vibe, playing the drums with consistency for flowing beats and making the slightest of variants to his style of play where he can be flashy when the time calls for it. For something that sounds so free flowing, it takes a remarkable amount of restraint, but this is the case of the craft of Makaya McCraven. He makes beats and songs that move the soul, that fulfill a need for rhythm and continues to give to the listener as if these songs are in sync with the turning of the Earth. And much like the Earth’s rotation, at some point, we come back to the same place as we were before, moving forward, comparing new explorations to familiar experiences, building on past knowledge, continually putting one beat before the next.

Universal Beings, the latest album from percussionist Makaya McCraven, is out Friday, October 24th on International Anthem Records.

Tracks 1-6 (New York Side) recorded live @ H0L0,
Ridgewood, Queens, NY, August 29th, 2017.
Brandee Younger (harp)
Joel Ross (vibraphone)
Tomeka Reid (cello)
Dezron Douglas (double bass)
Makaya McCraven (drums)

Tracks 7-11 (Chicago Side) recorded live @ Co-Prosperity Sphere,
Bridgeport, Chicago, IL, September 2nd, 2017.
*Shabaka Hutchings (tenor saxophone)
Tomeka Reid (cello)
Junius Paul (double bass)
Makaya McCraven (drums)

Tracks 12-16 (London Side) recorded @ Total Refreshment Studios,
Stoke Newington, London, UK, October 19th, 2017.
Nubya Garcia (tenor saxophone)
**Ashley Henry (Rhodes piano)
Daniel Casimir (double bass)
Makaya McCraven (drums)

Tracks 17-22 (Los Angeles Side) recorded @ Jeff Parker’s house,
Altadena, Los Angeles County, CA, January 30th, 2018.
Josh Johnson (alto saxophone)
Miguel Atwood-Ferguson (violin)
Jeff Parker (guitar)
Anna Butterss (double bass)
Carlos Niño (percussion)
Makaya McCraven (drums)

*Shabaka Hutchings appears courtesy of Verve Label Group
**Ashley Henry appears courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment UK Limited

Recorded & Mixed by David Allen & Dave Vettraino
Artwork by Damon Locks
Insert Portrait by Fabrice Bourgelle
Insert Design by Craig Hansen
Produced by Makaya McCraven
Executive Production by Scott McNiece