Makaya McCraven’s set at New York’s (Le) Poisson Rouge on Sunday touched on a universe of musical styles. Driving funk, hypnotic reggae, loping odd-time vamps, hectic Afrobeat-esque workouts and more all found their way into the mix as the Chicago drummer and his 11-piece all-star band — featuring a roll call of rising jazz stars, including reedists Nubya Garcia and Shabaka Hutchings, harpist Brandee Younger, vibraphonist Joel Ross and violinist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson — presented music from McCraven’s enthralling new LP Universal Beings and earlier efforts like 2017’s Highly Rare. Throughout, one factor remained constant: Every piece featured a groove you could get lost in and, as demonstrated by many in the sold-out crowd, move to.
“I’ve never seen so many people cheering for a vibraphone solo,” my friend said during one gripping Ross improv, and he was right. The reaction McCraven & Co. got at Sunday’s Red Bull Music–backed show feels like part of a groundswell in the genre: a new wave of enthusiasm for jazz, driven by a desire on the part of the musicians to move audiences in a very literal sense. The drummer may not have any interest in “saving jazz,” per se — “It’s like, gag me,” he told Rolling Stone recently, when asked about the idea that the genre was somehow in need of rescue — but it’s clear that his efforts are having a galvanizing effect nonetheless. In emphasizing danceable rhythms, he’s reconnecting with impulses that stretch back 80 years or so.
A quick thumbnail history: During the Swing Era, big-band jazz was, very straightforwardly, dance music — the Thirties equivalent to today’s club soundtracks. With the rise of highly advanced small-group bebop in the early Forties, a split began to take hold: People could and did dance to the music of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and other leaders of that movement, but thanks in part to their innovations, jazz gradually became known as a listener’s art form. By the late Fifties, with the rise of trailblazers such as John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman, jazz-club practice as we know it today was in place. By and large, the convention was — and still is — that you sat and absorbed the music rather than reacted to it bodily. Over time, this idea has had the effect of cutting jazz off from the trunk of popular music: This music over here (from rock & roll to R&B, funk, and modern hip-hop and electronic music) is for moving; jazz, meanwhile, is for appreciating.
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Since that time, countless artists have railed against this notion. From Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock in the Seventies — see On the Corner and Head Hunters, respectively — to Medeski Martin & Wood in the Nineties, jazz musicians have defied this insular mindset, with varying degrees of success at breaking out of the bubble. In the 2000s, players like the late Roy Hargrove and, later, Robert Glasper, creator of the genre-blending, Grammy-winning Black Radio series, took up the charge. (“The genre and the people within the genre are killing the genre,” Glasper told Rolling Stone in 2016 of the suffocating weight of jazz tradition; he would later put his foot in his mouth with a crude, sexist reading of the issue of jazz relevancy.)
Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, whose musical cast included Glasper as well as a soon-to-be breakout star named Kamasi Washington, represented a watershed moment. In the popular imagination, jazz was suddenly cool again, and, as with Van Morrison’s famed Astral Weeks sessions in 1968, the infusion of real-deal improvising into popular record-making became a mark of distinction.
But while Washington’s emergence was no doubt seismic for the genre, he hasn’t necessarily been responsible for realigning the actual sound of jazz with hip-hop and related styles. His grand, spirit-lifting works have more to do with post-Coltrane jazz and Seventies soul than they do with any kind of modern-day dance music. But McCraven, Hutchings & Co. are explicitly zeroing in on a hybrid language, one that privileges high-level improvising while keeping the imperatives of the club in mind. “It’s young people taking jazz music and making it something that’s relevant again,” Hutchings — whose own bands include the riotously rhythmic, Mercury Prize–shortlisted Sons of Kemet — told the Evening Standard in August of the thriving London scene he’s helping to bring to international attention. “It has nuanced integrity and is bridging the gap between the history of jazz and the sounds people need in modern spaces.”
Ironically, within a sometimes-insular scene, the very idea of connecting bodily with an audience can seem like the most radical move a musician can make. “Makaya was the first one who, in a free-jazz context, was bold enough to play something with a backbeat — something that actually made people physically respond a little bit,” Scott McNiece, co-founder of Chicago’s tastemaking International Anthem label, which released McCraven’s Universal Beings and Highly Rare, and other similarly rhythmically driven projects like Jaimie Branch‘s Fly or Die, told The New York Times recently. What he’s getting at is the idea, percolating since the Sixties, that for a progressive-minded jazz artist, a prominent groove represents some kind of compromise.
Sunday’s show revealed how backward that kind of thinking is. Beyond its contemporary rhythmic language, McCraven’s ensemble delivered timeless jazz clout. The band’s themes and arrangements were as rich as those you’d hear on a vintage Blue Note date, and every soloist commanded attention with an individual approach, from Garcia’s robust, gradually building tenor lines to Hutchings’ darting, agile work on bass clarinet, Younger’s elegant glissandi, Ross’ hard-swinging, laser-focus turns and Tortoise guitarist Jeff Parker’s tasteful shredding. Bassists Junius Paul and Dezron Douglas traded off in adding texture and a deep foundation, while percussionist Carlo Niño brought subtle color and alto saxist Josh Johnson held his own with his better-known partners in the front line. (That the ensemble onstage was so diverse, with women prominently featured and musicians representing various international scenes, and so obviously shared real camaraderie, with smiles shooting among the members all night, only intensified the band’s appeal.) McCraven, meanwhile, demonstrated enormous range, excelling at both chill-out backbeats and pulverizing rapid-fire climaxes.
A telling moment in the show came when McCraven announced the band would be setting aside its repertoire for a spontaneous creation. “Now, we’re just gonna make some shit up,” he said. The ensuing piece started out abstract; the musicians waded in gradually, and the music swirled and searched. Soon, though, the bassists struck up a vamp, McCraven brought the beat in, and yet again, the whole place went off.