Makaya McCraven: In These Times Review – An Amazing Experiment from the “Beat Scientist”

Chicago-based drummer and producer Makaya McCraven calls himself a “beat scientist.”  What does that mean?  The audience at Symphony Hall found out when he made his Symphony Center Presents Jazz series debut on Friday, January 31.  

McCraven premiered a work entitled “In These Times.” He brought along a group of musicians that weren’t your typical Jazz ensemble of brass and reeds, instead there were atypical instruments such as an electric guitar and a harp.  This is not a surprise based on the way that McCraven experiments with the boundaries of jazz music.  McCraven is known to push back against conventional categorization, and explore places that more traditional artists do not.

McCraven is known to push back
against conventional categorization

To that end, the work begun not with a bang, as you would expect from a “beat scientist,” but with gentle touching of the drums and cymbals.  The other musicians also began to lightly play their instruments until, eventually, the music came into focus.  The music was subtle and textured, and moved in a way that felt like a wandering traveler – one that was definitely enjoying his trip.  The multimedia presentation on a screen above the musicians, created by artist Kim Alpert, helped create an atmosphere that immersed the audience into the music.

There was a very Chicago-based nature to the night.  McCraven, who has called Chicago home for over a decade, brought along fellow Chicagoans to help him out.  Guitarist Matt Gold, trumpet player Marquis Hill, saxophonist Greg Ward, bassist Junius Paul, violinist Macie Stewart, and cellist Lia Kohl all have Chicago roots.  One could tell the audience was proud to see these artists carry on Chicago’s long history of jazz innovation – and to do so in such an entertaining manner.

One of the artists whose performance stuck out was harpist Brandee Younger.  This was especially true during the performance of “Hungarian Lullaby.”  The piece began with Younger playing a beautiful series of ascending and descending notes that sounded like heaven on Younger’s harp.  It felt like warm comfortable waves washing over the audience.  

For most of the night, McCraven seemed to forget about his “beat scientist” moniker, favoring other labels such as band-leader, producer, visionary and avant-garde artist.  The program was flawlessly put together and explored many aspects of jazz, electronic music and even hip hop.  It was really a showcase for McCraven the artist, not just McCraven the drummer.  

But then…

During the song “Song for the Forest Boogaraboo” McCraven reminded everyone how he can turn goat milk into gasoline.  He unleashed a drum solo that ignited the night so ferociously that everyone in Symphony Center felt the heat.  It was both technically flawless and emotionally charged.  It was such an explosion that the only person that could conjure it up in the lab is the “beat scientist.”

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