Published Jun 28, 2019Born in Paris, raised in Massachusetts, polished in Chicago, Makaya McCraven is one of the greatest living jazz drummers. His albums transcend locale as much as they transcend genre. Where We Come From and Universal Beings, both released by the International Anthem Recording Company in 2018, are an accumulation of jam sessions in various cities around the world, featuring all sorts of jazz scene luminaries. The results were taken home and reconstituted in the studio into digestible yet challenging forms, collages of beat-oriented contemporary jazz that still feel organic despite their improvisatory origins.
For his set at the 2019 TD Victoria International Jazz Fest, McCraven brought Chicago to Vancouver Island. Bassist Junius Paul, guitarist Matt Gold and saxophonist Greg Ward all hail from Chicago, while pianist Greg Spero is close enough, originating 25 miles north of the Windy City, in Highland Park, IL. All of them are quite notable by their own merits. Essentially, McCraven acted as the bandleader for a band full of bandleaders.
Polishing his debut album for International Anthem, Junius Paul has played with everybody from the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Roscoe Mitchell and Donald Byrd to KRS-One and Georgia Anne Muldrow. Matt Gold has built up a sizeable catalogue with the likes of Storm Jameson (a duo with multi-instrumentalist Jim Tashjian) and Sun Speak (with drummer Nate Friedman). Following several albums of his own material, Greg Spero played keys on tour with Halsey for four years, and currently fronts Spirit Fingers. Greg Ward, who has played with the likes of Prefuse 73, Lupe Fiasco, Tortoise, William Parker and Mike Reed, helms the Rogue Parade, an Illinois group also featuring Matt Gold, which released its first album early in 2019 to widespread acclaim. With McCraven as the backbone, there was as much talent onstage as Victoria could handle, but handle it, they did.
The group hit the ground running with "Young Genius" from 2018's Universal Beings, and never looked back. McCraven hit the kit hard and scintillated it all sultry and soft, as smooth as hip-hop or manic as drum and bass. Wearing a fashion statement of gumboots with grey leggings, Paul was just as groovy on upright bass or bass guitar, while Spero moved between the shimmering glassiness of the Fender Rhodes, which paired seamlessly with cascades from Gold's guitar, and a Nord digital piano. Gold just played electric guitar, but he looked cool as a cucumber, contrasting Ward on the other side of the stage, who worked up a well-deserved sweat 15 minutes into the show, blistering away on alto sax.
Bringing the first half of their show to a close, the staccato melody of "This Place That Place" stabbed downward until McCraven's broken beat shuffle coalesced the groove, everyone else falling into place. It didn't matter where you looked onstage. Everybody was cooking, often simultaneously. They all made that ineffably tortured, perplexed, ecstatic flail face when feeling out the sounds and rhythms, the unmistakable look of skilled commitment and deep concentration.
Kicking off the second half of their two-hour set, Ward arranged a rendition of "Sivad" from Miles Davis's 1971 release Live-Evil, itself an album produced in a similar live jam/studio collage style as McCraven's recent work. Leading to "New Movement" from his 2012 album Split Decision, his second set was bookended by an homage to the master himself that couldn't have been more suitable, or better performed, and an earlier track from his own catalogue that showcased the burgeoning compositional chops in McCraven's sophisticated, metropolitan, contemporary style of beat science.