Makaya McCraven was playing 12 gigs a week, mostly improvised jazz, when he began experimenting with hip-hop as a diversion. “I’d come home and make beats,” says the drummer. He didn’t need to worry about obtaining samples: He had plenty of his own material to work with from his weekly residency at the River North bar Curio. “I just looped something, and that’s when the light went off.” McCraven, 34, ran with the approach for his 2015 breakthrough, In the Moment, on which he chopped up his concerts, rearranging his tunes into new tracks. The New York Times called it “impressive,” and Downbeat magazine listed it as one of the best albums of the year.
McCraven grew up in Massachusetts, the son of drummer Stephen McCraven and Hungarian-born experimental singer Ágnes Zsigmondi. “My mom and dad did a workshop when I was 5 with [acclaimed jazz saxophonist] Archie Shepp. They handed me a woodblock and told me to play along to keep me occupied.” Before McCraven moved to Chicago in 2006, he played with indie-rock and jam bands that opened for the likes of My Morning Jacket.
His new album, Universal Beings, follows in its predecessor’s footsteps, but this time, in a sign of his growing renown, McCraven had performances from all over the world to cull from. Still, McCraven resists being labeled an innovator. “People think I’m doing some new thing or pushing boundaries, but I also feel in line with older traditions of jazz. Sampling avant-garde music and jazz is paying homage to the music before me. I can recontextualize it and shine a light on it.”