Look at the sources credited on Makaya McCraven’s Deciphering the Message—Hank Mobley, Kenny Dorham, Horace Silver, Art Blakey—and you could be excused for anticipating another younger Blue Note artist paying tribute to his predecessors at the label. But that’s not what McCraven (who prefers to be called a “beat scientist” rather than a drummer or producer) is doing here, at least not exclusively. As he’s done before in other ways, McCraven is excavating willfully, cherry-picking pieces from the past and reassembling them into new wholes with aid from other forward-thinking adventurers.
“A Slice of the Top,” which leads the program, lays out the concept convincingly. The spoken intro you hear is Pee Wee Marquette preparing us for “something special,” lifted directly from Blakey’s 1954 landmark LP A Night at Birdland Vol. 1. What follows isn’t Blakey, though; rather it’s McCraven’s drums and bass, married to music made by Lee Morgan, McCoy Tyner and others long before McCraven was born, grafted from a 1966 Mobley album. The crisp, contemporary production and beats recast the vintage recording—its vibe is classic Blue Note, but its sound is 2021.
McCraven’s reworking of Dorham’s “Sunset” tweaks the idea further: The base track, which appeared on the trumpeter’s 1961 Whistle Stop, hangs onto the contributions of original cast members Dorham, Mobley, Kenny Drew, Philly Joe Jones, and Paul Chambers. But to that, McCraven adds new guitar parts from Jeff Parker, vibraphone from Joel Ross, and more. A dub-like section mid-song, and the leader’s own twisty rhythms, transform the original into a considerably altered beast.
There are 13 such experiments in all here—from a trippy “Autumn in New York” that originated on a Kenny Burrell title to Clifford Brown as you’ve never imagined him—each an impressively reconfigured pastiche.