Highly Rare has something that really is highly rare: danger. It’s in the cassette-tape fidelity, like an old-school audience bootleg, that second-guesses even the digital gatekeepers (and, ironically, enhances the immediacy). It’s in the starkness of drummer Makaya McCraven’s chordless quartet and aggressive attack. Above all, it’s in McCraven’s continuing, brilliant redefinition of live jazz albums.
As on his 2015 breakthrough, In the Moment, McCraven heavily edits recordings of his band’s “spontaneous compositions” (from a November 2016 set) and carefully reassembles them as collages of beats, loops and fragments. McCraven’s group also features cornetist/diddley-bowist Ben Lamar Gay, alto saxophonist Nick Mazzarella and bassist Junius Paul. Where In the Moment used Fender Rhodes and vibraphone to create lushness, even dreaminess, this one’s lean and funky.
So is the playing. Tunes like “The Locator” and “Above and Beyond” comprise short riffs and long sustains from the horns, and forceful bass-and-drum vamps. Long, linear improvisations also creep in, from McCraven on “The Locator”; the horns, freeform, on “R.F.J. III”; and Mazzarella on “Venus Rising” and “Left Fields.” On this last cut, Gay chant-sings as he repeats a low diddley-bow figure, and though his dynamic fluctuates McCraven holds steady, creating an incantation that Mazzarella cuts through.
If the above suggests ersatz rawness, that’s a false impression. McCraven’s live improvs similarly employ repetition: grooves, drones, vamps, leitmotifs. If Highly Rare doesn’t represent what the audience heard, it’s not far removed; it merely blurs the distinction between vamp and tape loop. It also reminds us that even “warts-and-all” live albums have editors, and that spontaneity and recording are inherently at odds. On In the Moment, McCraven reinforced the lattermost message with frequent interjections of himself telling the audience that this was live improvisation. Here, we get that announcement only once. We listeners must learn anew, and McCraven has taken off our training wheels.