December 1, 2023

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Makaya McCraven: In These Times Album Review

On the album-opening title track, McCraven deftly switches between emphasizing the asymmetrical jaggedness of the meter and downplaying it. At first, the band is shredding through obviously technical and difficult material; then, at the drop of a hat, they are practically playing a waltz—albeit one with a little limp in its step. The pulse hasn’t changed, but the feel of the music is on a different planet.

If that makes In These Times sound dry and academic, it isn’t. The title track is anchored in its first half by a wistful theme for string quartet and in its second by a breathtaking solo from alto saxophonist Greg Ward, neither of which requires any knowledge of arcane time signatures to get its hooks in you. Whereas most difficult music is imposing at first, and requires repeated listening to reveal its pleasures, In These Times works in the opposite fashion. It is groovy, tuneful, and approachable; only after careful study might you apprehend the music’s astounding intricacy, if you care to discover it at all. I came to deeper engagement with the album after listening closely to the rhythms, but I can imagine someone else delighting primarily in its lushly arranged melodies. You could play it at a dinner party without raising an eyebrow.

The best moments of In These Times come when an outburst of individual spontaneity is allowed to briefly rupture the album’s luxuriant surfaces and highly ordered inner workings: Ward’s sax solo on the title track; McCraven’s own quietly thunderous drumming on “This Place That Place”; a showcase for Jeff Parker on “The Knew Untitled,” who continues his current hot streak by laying down one of the most exhilarating guitar solos of recent memory, in any genre. McCraven’s previous albums were nearly all spontaneity. Even after his meticulous reorganization of the source material, there was no telling, on first listen, where a particular track might go. In These Times is more elegant, and more ambitious. Its rhythmic experiments represent a genuinely new development in the fertile interzone between hip-hop and jazz. But the album suffers slightly from its own sophistication. I found myself wishing to hear something that would raise an eyebrow at a dinner party: something like “Atlantic Black” a feverish group improvisation from *Universal Beings—*the sound of a band in unknown territory, in danger of collapsing with one false move.

You can read the title of In These Times in a few ways: as a gesture at the uncertainty of our era, an acknowledgement of the music’s resolutely contemporary nature, or a sly joke about its dizzying array of time signatures. Deliberately or not, it also reads like metacommentary on the broadening of McCraven’s music since In the Moment, the album that gave many listeners their first exposure to his blend of composition and improv. In 2015, he was capturing moments; in 2022, he is speaking to the times.

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Makaya McCraven: In These Times

Makaya McCraven: In These Times

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