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Makaya McCraven: Playing in the Moment

By Luis Haller

Drummer and composer Makaya McCraven has just come back from an intensive month of performances in Europe, which included a 10-day tour with trumpeter Marquis Hill’s “Blacktet.”


McCraven is originally from France, has family in Paris and is no stranger to touring, having played in Europe over 10 times with different groups.


Next year will be his fourth tour leading his own group.


“I was born in France. It was always in my mind to make it happen there, plus there are many cool places to play and the people really dig the music,” McCraven says.


McCraven grew up with a father who was a jazz drummer and a mother who was a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, so it was natural for him to start playing music at a very early age.

“Both my parents are musicians, so this has been the life I’ve known and been in, even if I’ve tried to push it away—it’s been everything for me. There was no specific reason for me to start playing, but later it turned into how to make this a sustainable life that I can create platforms with to create art and grow.”


He said that trying to use these platforms positively is what he ultimately wants.


Known for not only for his intense, creative drumming, McCraven is also becoming equally respected for his compositional skills. In 2012 he released his debut album, Split Decision, on Chicago Sessions and soon after released his second recording, In the Moment. His compositions, much like his playing, incorporate a wide range of rhythms dynamics and ingenious samplers, creating music that takes the listener through a constant rush of emotions.


“I like to compose in a very improvisatory manner where I may search different chords, tambours, or different samples and sounds. I play openly in the moment; I like to get things very much in the moment or in the spur of real-time, concerning what I feel in relationship with what sounds good to me.”


McCraven says he looks at what he has and then comes to a lot of editing.


“Once you write a bunch of stuff, I’ll make some samples and create an idea. Then it’s about how I should reduce that into a very clear and thoughtful statement—refining and reducing them to something that is really clear and concise, as well as digestible and understandable.”


He says it’s an approach he’s taken to composition because he has many ways to go creatively.


“With a lot of different ideas, sometimes they don’t come together as a composition so I focus on boiling everything down. I mean, think about how improvisation is composition in real-time, and the main difference between compositions is that you have to choose what you must keep. That, essentially, is editing. I might keep this then I might change this a little bit, and finally it changes from something that came out of me in the moment to something that I’ve crafted. I have really put these ideas all together. Those are my larger concepts about composition.”


Performing and composing are pieces of a successful career in music, and the other is creating a fan base and staying connected to and engaged with them. McCraven’s main focus has been to bring people together through his music regardless of what is happening in the world.


“For this moment, I want people to be together and experience something together, you know? As musicians, the audience is a big part of that. I always hope that we can really create experiences and lasting memories that connect people.”


With a busy schedule playing and recording, McCraven still finds time

to teach and lately, he has been giving master classes at Codarts University for the Arts in Rotterdam, Netherlands.


“You don’t need to play in front of a lot of people to be very effective in this manner; I’ve had these experiences with students. Even seeing students of my father, seeing how music can change somebody’s life for the better and that you really can do something positive, even to one person. You find a lot of people that have had some sort of experience with somebody that have had a major effect, both personally and to a larger effect, with audiences, to create positivity. I hope to take part in that and to do the best I can.”


McCraven will be back in Chicago performing at the Cubby Bear as part of the event “A Benefit to End MS” on November 19, and at Ravinia with Marquis Hill December 3 before heading back to Paris later that month for a show with Hill. After that, McCraven will be on another tour of Europe in January, April and July with his own band.


Recently he has been joining forces with trumpeter Marquis Hill and “The Blacktet,” a group that McCraven says is creating music that has a “tremendous impact in society.” He believes this because it makes references to what is going on at the moment and stays honest to what is being felt.


“It’s a part of who I am and the combination of music that influences. As a student of music, I take inspiration from anywhere I can find it. I want my music to reach people so I make stuff I like and think will translate. Whether it’s this audience or that audience, my goal is to make art honest and creative to move and communicate with other people while pushing myself to grow as a player and as an artist.” 

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