Makaya McCraven is often referred to as a “beat scientist,” but the phrase feels too clinical for the immersive warmth and unpredictable textures of his music.
Born in 1984 to a Hungarian folk singer and an African-American jazz drummer, the percussionist and composer was raised with an appreciation for both the spontaneous improvisation and cultural intimacy of music, further piqued by the recombinant slicing, dicing and splicing of the hip-hop mixtapes pervasive in his youth.
This organic meld of influences has enabled McCraven to maintain an open-minded dedication to both the roots and possibilities of his art. The result is contemporary music that feels uniquely cognizant of both the past and the future.
It is fitting, then, that McCraven’s most ambitious project to date is called “In These Times,” a multimedia work that will have its world premiere next Friday at Walker Art Center, which co-commissioned the piece.
The title has multiple meanings. Five years ago, McCraven was interviewed for an article in the progressive, Chicago-based publication In These Times, describing what it actually means to be a working musician. He spoke about playing for thousands of appreciative fans at a local jazz festival, with free food and massages backstage, then changing into a suit to play at a birthday party across town, where he brought his drum kit through the back door and was told not to mingle with guests.
The pay was similar. But whether he was the guest of honor or “a peasant” supplying audio wallpaper, both were necessary to make ends meet.
The article generated an overwhelming response from musician friends who appreciated McCraven detailing the mundane scuffling it takes to keep the lifestyle afloat in hopes that artistic breakthroughs and personal satisfaction will also come.
The feedback planted the seed for the project premiering Friday. Speaking from his home in Chicago after a 10-week European tour, McCraven talked about the trade-offs, rewards and struggles of being “a working musician and career artist.”
His parents, who moved from Paris to the United States when he was 3, “were transnational implants, like gypsies in a sense,” said McCraven. Both were “involved as full-time musicians and in music education, going through good times and bad times.
“It got me to thinking about what it means to be a working person of any occupation in this world, in these times. How much social support do we need?”
He began to envision a work that incorporated vocal samples. He had already spent time getting permission to lift relevant phrases from Duke Ellington, Angela Davis and the drummer Elvin Jones, before In These Times agreed to open up its radio archives. McCraven is also excited about a video collage, which he calls “a centerpiece of the Walker performance. That and the radio archive samples will really drive the narrative.”
The music won’t take a back seat, however. He has assembled an impressive nine-piece group familiar with his approach, including Tortoise guitarist Jeff Parker, rising trumpet star Marquis Hill, firebrand saxophonist Greg Ward and a string section that includes violin, cello and Brandee Younger on harp.
The musical suite will feature at least one new extended composition along with pre-existing pieces McCraven has reworked, and nods to the musical histories of his parents. And although he will be directing the ensemble to stay in sync with recorded elements, improvisation remains a vital component.
Echoing the title of his 2015 breakthrough album “In the Moment,” he said he likes “to engage with the space and the audience as part of the creation process, so that we are in the moment. And so the compositions are structured to leave room for the moment to dictate where we are going.”
That is the jazz side of McCraven’s artistry. The hip-hop side will emerge later, when he will listen to the Walker performance and find moments — riffs, interactions, a particular tone or texture — to excise, loop, stutter or splice with some other thing for a future piece.
That is the genesis behind most of his recorded output, but he stresses that it only works if the live performance exists for its own sake, so the moments are allowed to reveal themselves.
“There is a beauty to the unknown that I really appreciate and I try to utilize. I never think [of a performance] in terms of what source material I am going to make. If I can create a beautiful energy in the space we are in, that is more important.”
‘Work like there is no tomorrow’
It is not a coincidence that the musicians he has assembled for the Walker show are trusted colleagues who share his embrace of multiple genres: “When I am working on things that can be really personal, I want to play with people I am close to.”
All fit the overarching theme of working musicians operating “in these times.” Most have garnered a modicum of fame in jazz, rock or some other genre. But none is remotely at the point where they can sit back and let song royalties or a stadium tour carry them through the future.
When it was pointed out that he has achieved a much higher level of fame since the In These Times profile five years ago, McCraven suddenly became very serious. “When I talk to musicians [who seek his counsel] the one thing I always tell them is: Work like there is no tomorrow.
“I was fortunate to grow up with two musical parents, not only because of the access to the art but to see the ups and downs, the dry spells after the big tours or successes. It made it real.
“I am always surprised and grateful that I have connected with people, who tell me that my music got them through a hard time or something. But I don’t take it for granted that it will just keep going. Next time my art might not resonate. That’s real motivation for me to keep pushing and trying different things. Because if you don’t like the next one, well, there is another one coming and it will be different.”
Britt Robson is a Minneapolis journalist and critic.