With his new remix album, Deciphering The Message, the Chicago-based drummer, producer and beat scientist Makaya McCraven digs through the vaults of the legendary jazz label Blue Note Records to put a modern bounce on classics by Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Hank Mobley, Kenny Burrell and Eddie Gale, among others.
Across numerous albums and mixtapes, McCraven has proven his mastery of the loop akin to hip-hop's most celebrated beatmakers like J Dilla and Madlib, both of whom also found inspiration in the Blue Note catalog. With acclaimed releases like In The Moment (2015) and Universal Beings (2018), McCraven created his own lane in jazz by sampling his band playing improvised sessions throughout the world, then molding the audio several times to pull contrasting moods from it. For his most recent project McCraven remixed Gil Scott-Heron's final album I'm New Here into the equally emotive LP We're New Again (2020).
McCraven has always been a collaborative artist and Deciphering The Message features newly recorded elements from vibraphonist Joel Ross, trumpeter Marquis Hill, alto saxophonist Greg Ward, guitarists Matt Gold and Jeff Parker, bassist Junius Paul, and De'Sean Jones on tenor saxophone and flute. In that way, Deciphering The Message connects the past and present, proving that musicians become legends by trekking the same roads with like-minded creators all moving toward the same goal.
That throughline is evident on the lead single in which Jack Wilson's hard bop cut "Frank's Tune" - from the pianist's little-known 1967 album Easterly Winds - is remade into "De'Jeff's Tune"," an '80s R&B-inspired arrangement with a two-stepping dance groove, wafting guitar chords courtesy of Parker, and delicate flute from Jones. The track opens and closes with the voice of Blue Note legend Art Blakey, the irrepressible bandleader of The Jazz Messengers, addressing his audience: "We want you to leave your worldly troubles outside and come in here and swing... So as the message is being delivered, ladies and gentlemen, you may tap your feet and have a ball."
While Deciphering The Message collects songs from several years of Blue Note history, it plays like a continuous set taking place in one show at one venue. "When piecing everything together, I wanted to create a narrative that made the listener feel like they were falling into this space or a movement," McCraven says. "I was really trying to make a record out of it, not just a series of tracks."
McCraven hopes the album is both educational and an outright good listen. "I always want to make music that will connect with people in one way, where it makes them nod or feel something or transport them somewhere," he says. "I also hope this makes them check out the source of this music if they have it. The music that we're making now is part of the same route and is connected, so I want to honor tradition and release something that people can vibe to."
With each subsequent project, he continues a lifelong conversation with the music that's shaped him, leaving his own mark on it in turn. Deciphering the Message takes it further: it blurs the line of what a 'real' band is. Is it a group of people in a room, or can it stretch across time, including both the living and the dead? McCraven said he wants to introduce a new generation to these records that were foundational not only to him, but to music itself. These artists helped draft a blueprint for the way contemporary musicians improvise; soaring and swerving in and out of the pocket, yet always pulled back in by the gravitational pull of the rhythm section. With these improvised riffs, they forged building blocks for an entire wave of hip-hop - these are the records that MPC maestros like Pete Rock and DJ Premier, or Madlib and J Dilla would pick through with tweezers when making the beats that would come to define a generation. Deciphering the Message helps connect these dots. But it also plays like a fantasy come to life, a dream set at the Blue Note, with long-lost titans beaming in from the afterlife to sit in with the young blood, like proud parents watching their children surpass them.
- Vinyl LP
|Greg Ward||alto saxophone|
|De'Sean Jones||tenor saxophone, flute|
- A Slice Of The Top (AKA "Sliced Off The Top") [from A Slice Of The Top by Hank Mobley]
- Sunset (AKA "Son Set") [from Whistle Stop by Kenny Dorham]
- When Your Lover Has Gone (AKA "When You've Left Your Lover") [from A Night In Tunisia by Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers]
- Ecaroh (AKA "Revlis") [from Horace Silver Trio by Horace Silver]
- Tranquillity (AKA "Corner Of The World") [from Components by Bobby Hutcherson]
- Wail Bait (AKA "Wait Bail") [from The Memorial Album by Clifford Brown]
- Coppin' The Haven (AKA "At The Haven Coppin'") [from One Flight Up by Dexter Gordon]
- Frank's Tune (AKA "De'Jeff's Tune") [from Easterly Winds by Jack Wilson]
- Autumn In New York (AKA "Spring In Chicago") [from Blue Lights, Vol.1 by Kenny Burrell]
- Monaco (AKA "Monte Negro") [from 'Round About Midnight At The Cafe Bohemia by Kenny Dorham]
- Mr. Jin (AKA "Mr. Gin") [from Indestructible by Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers]
- C.F.D. (AKA "D.F.C.") [from Something Personal by Jack Wilson]
- Black Rhythm Happening [from Black Rhythm Happening by Eddie Gale]