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  • Glenn Siegel

Stars Rising: Makaya McCraven Quintet at UMass

They say you can’t go home again, but Makaya McCraven returned to western Massachusetts on Wednesday, October 10 mesmerizing 325 willing souls, as the UMass Fine Arts Center’s Magic Triangle Jazz Series began its 31st season. The globe-trotting drummer and composer, who has lived in Chicago for more than a decade, grew up in the Pioneer Valley, where he learned the ins-and-outs of the musical arts.

The concert at Bowker Auditorium featured four close collaborators: Jeff Parker, guitar, Joel Ross, vibraphone and Fender Rhodes, Brandee Younger, harp, and Dezron Douglas, bass, all of whom are featured on McCraven’s latest gem, Universal Beings, (International Anthem, 2018). Eschewing horns, the band dispensed with notions of a “front line,” opting instead for a shimmering group sound that was both ethereal and rooted in back beats.

Often the band would play beautiful, slow elongated lines, while the drummer skittered at double the pace. The effect was dream and stream-like: calm on the surface, but roiling beneath. It resulted in an evening of deep connection to sound. Ross, Younger, and Parker produced rich ringing tones that hung in the air, while Douglas and McCraven gave each tune heft and bottom.

All but “Song of the Forest Boogaraboo,” (Steve McCraven) and the encore – a brief, gorgeous rendition of John Coltrane’s “After the Rain” – were Makaya McCraven originals. They were full of simple, memorable rifts and infectious beats that lingered in the mind. Many had depth of feeling and pop simplicity. The level of technical skill on stage elevated the music from pleasing to profound.

Makaya McCraven and his bandmates are connected to the jazz tradition, and are also re-vamping it. I’ve seen photos of Makaya in Marion Brown’s lap and playing drums with Archie Shepp as a five-year old. The band has learned the rudiments at the Hartt School (Brandee Younger and Dezron Douglas) and Berklee (Jeff Parker.) Joel Ross, 23, is fresh off two years of intense study with Stefon Harris at his Brubeck Institute Jazz Quintet at the University of the Pacific. The musicians have been personally touched by Jackie McLean, Yusef Lateef and other past masters.

But following the imperative to add to the tradition, McCraven and a large cohort of peers are incorporating new kinds of influences to reinvigorate the music. As he told Chicago Magazine, “I grew up studying jazz as a way to be masterful at my craft as a drummer. But as a young person, I was listening to A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, Nas, and Biggie just like everybody else. That was just our generation.” Those sounds, like everything else circulating throughout the culture, is legit grist for the jazz mill.

At 52, Jeff Parker is the elder-statesman of the group. The guitarist was one of the first musicians to reach out to McCraven when he arrived in Chicago in 2007; they have been close collaborators since. Parker’s long-standing policy of genre-busting is well documented through projects like Tortoise and his involvement in multiple Chicago creative music scenes. His fabulous International Anthem record, The New Breed, came out just after McCraven’s heralded In This Moment (International Anthem, 2015.) They are clearly simpatico and pushing in the same direction. Parker has a clean yet quirky approach, never too busy or loud. His playing is full of afterthoughts, phrases mentioned in passing.

The shadow of Alice Coltrane looms over the harp in a unique way; no other instrument is so closely tied to a single individual. (Other than Dorothy Ashby, name another jazz harpist.) Younger has embraced Coltrane’s influence, and has worked alongside Ravi Coltrane in paying tribute to his mother in concert. To hear a harp in person is a special thing. Early in the evening, Younger had an unaccompanied solo that took my breath away. Although harp occupies similar sonic territory as vibes and guitar, we could hear it clearly. Younger’s sound, and the stage lights glistening off her large, majestic instrument, were celestial. Her recent recording, Soul Awakening (Self-released, 2019), was produced by Dezron Douglas.

Born in Hartford, Douglas is rock-solid, physically and musically, and was a more than able replacement for Junius Paul, McCraven’s most constant musical compatriot. (Paul was in Europe, touring with Roscoe Mitchell and the reconstituted Art Ensemble of Chicago.) McCraven’s tribute to Douglas, “Black Lion,” featured a firmly grounded bass line and a muscular solo. Maurice Robertson and the CT crew have been singing this man’s praises forever. The rest of the world now knows.

Joel Ross has burst on the scene like few others, going from recent college grad to bandleader, Blue Note recording artist, and in demand sideman seemingly overnight. Playing two mallets, (not the four popularized by Gary Burton,) Ross brought the house down with a virtuosic, note-filled solo early in the proceedings. He also created welcome tension when he used fewer, well-placed notes and let them decay while the band sped on. He will bring his ensemble to the Vermont Jazz Center on March 14.

McCraven is a melodicist versed in funk. His drumming is strong, full of interesting detail, beat-driven, for sure. His compositions provide his band with interesting moods and melodies to explore, including many in a spiritual realm. This is more than just a party. His father, the drummer Steve McCraven, and his mother, musician and artist Agnes Zsigmondi, gave him full access to a life of creativity. Makaya McCraven has seized it.

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