Makaya McCraven - Universal Beings E&F Sides (Album Review + Documentary)
Universal Beings E&F Sides
31 July 2020
Album Rating 4 / 5
Live Potential 4 / 5
Solo Performances 4.5 / 5
Diversity in Songs 3.5 / 5
Favourite Songs Half Steppin, Beat Science, Isms, The Loneliness
For the follow up to his critically acclaimed 2018 release Universal Beings, Makaya McCraven has cut new tracks out of the original sessions and produced them to soundtrack his 'Universal Beings' documentary film (see below). Universal Beings E&F Sides displays McCraven's innate ability as a beatmaker to create compositions out of improvised magic.
The documentary explores McCraven's roots and the journey through the music he makes. Feeling that he has never been bound to one place too much, McCraven spent a lot of time when he was younger around his musician parents' friends, notably including Yussef Lateef, Marion Brown and Archie Shepp. His father Stephen was an African-American drummer who moved to Paris during his career where he met Makaya's mother Agnes Zsigmondi, a Jewish-Hungarian musician who played with the band Kolinda.
Born in Paris, McCraven appreciates the wide circle of musicians he was surrounded by when he was a child, whether he realised who these famous musicians were or not at the time, and this approach to befriending musicians from all around the world has led him to perhaps the most valuable sessions to come from his career that formed the initial Universal Beings release and also 2018's Where We Come From.
Stating he feels like he's the "outsider who can hang out with everybody", this clearly resonates for the approach to the aforementioned albums as he wants to celebrate "where we're from and who we are". McCraven views collaborating as a way to communicate and share the different cultures of his musician friends, and part of the success of those albums has been the collaborative nature of them.
He shared the sessions with friends in places where similar spirits and diasporic jazz innovations are thriving. The live sessions were setup in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and London and his friends are the top players from the respective cities, which include: Brandee Younger, Tomeka Reid, Dezron Douglas, Joel Ross, Shabaka Hutchings, Junius Paul, Nubya Garcia, Daniel Casimir, Ashley Henry, Josh Johnson, Jeff Parker, Anna Butters, Carlos Niño and Miguel-Atwood Ferguson.
It's hardly a surprise the ease McCraven improvised his way through the sessions with his impeccable feel for time in his drumming, having grown up listening to his father's jazz and his mother's Eastern European folk influences. But McCraven's desire to go beyond and push the improvised sessions into "something that sounds like we knew what we were doing" - which he jokingly admits to percussionist Carlos Niño in the documentary - is why McCraven is one of the most in-demand musicians at the moment.
E&F Sides is McCraven's opus to these sessions so the snippets of grooves and beats are not lost from their initial fleeting moment of joy, and can become their own pieces of musical bliss in their own right. Or as McCraven phrases it, he flips them into beats.
Tracks 'Everybody Cool', 'Her Name' and 'Beat Science' feature Younger's harp, Ross' vibraphone and Douglas' bass as the nature of these tracks almost has a slight folkish style to them with the use of acoustic instruments providing a primal feeling of groove in them. You can hear the melody of 'Black Lion' in 'Beat Science' quite clearly, perhaps one of the most grooving tracks McCraven has ever released. 'Half Steppin' features Kamaal Williams on the keys and Soweto Kinch channelling a powerful sax riff before it's manipulated by McCraven into a fast cataclysmic tune. Junius Paul feeds a dirty bassline into 'Isms', nodding to his 2019 album of the same name as McCraven flips this track into a dark hip-hop beat.
'Kings and Queens' capture Hutchings' thumping speed wonderfully as McCraven opts for the rimshot to drive Paul's bass and Reid's cello, whilst 'The Loneliness' is one of a few gentler numbers on the record that allows Hutchings to purr. 'Universal Beings Pt. 2' continues a softer nature with Atwood-Ferguson's violin screeching and picked through in sync with Jeff Parker's guitar flicks. The last two mentioned tracks are the most similar sounding tracks to the initial Universal Beings release, in the deeply pulsing, spiritual and meditative vain.
Makaya McCraven's 'organic beat music' certainly felt a lot more jaw-droppingly authentic and lively on his previous releases, such as on Where We Come From, but E&F Sides allows the Universal Beings project to continue and showcase McCraven's production skills in far greater depth than heard on the initial release back in 2018. It's certainly refreshing to see the album soundtrack a documentary about a living and working musician in the current jazz scene to inspire us even more about the future of improvised music.
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