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Makaya McCraven: In the Moment

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One of the year’s most mesmerizing releases, there’s a great deal happening on drummer Makaya McCraven’s In the Moment. Its 19 tracks come from his residency at the Chicago club the Bedford. All but three of them are under five minutes long (nine are under three minutes), and all but one are heavily edited with loops and overdubs, generally resulting in layers of modal vamping.

But not static vamping: McCraven, vibraphonist Justin “Justefan” Thomas and one of three bassists (Matt Ulery, Junius Paul and Joshua Abrams) develop melodic shapes; recycle them, sometimes with variations; and move on to a new one. (Sometimes these shapes are shapeless, as in the drones of “Quartz.”) This is even true of the one unedited track, “First Thing First,” in which tempos and moods shift but bring in steady repetitions. Though he can and does swing hard, McCraven tends toward hip-hop grooves-appropriate, since his techniques emulate turntablism. On “Lonely,” trumpeter Marquis Hill and guitarist Jeff Parker resemble a rap refrain, and the album’s loops feature audience chatter that can (as in “Just Stay Right There”) take on the cadences of an MC.

What this does is to interrogate the most basic assumptions about jazz. Several tracks include snippets of McCraven promising “spontaneous composition,” a reminder that the bulk of this music is anything but spontaneously composed. How, then, does jazz relate improvisation and predetermination? How does it jibe with composed forms that are nonetheless developed improvisationally, as is much classical music? Or with hip-hop, which situates preparation and improvisation in similar tension? Why does McCraven privilege Parker’s guitar such that, in at least two instances (“Lonely” and “TomTom”) he is allowed to construct a linear improvisation? These are important questions, and In the Moment‘s willingness to ask them makes it a valuable document.

Originally Published