Makaya McCraven
Sulyiman Stokes
Makaya McCraven

Sonic sculptor

‘Beat scientist’ and drummer Makaya McCraven performs at Vermont Jazz Center on Feb. 18

The Vermont Jazz Center is excited to present International Anthem recording artist, drummer/producer Makaya McCraven, in a Sunday afternoon concert with bassist Junius Paul, trumpeter Marquis Hill, and perhaps other guests on Feb. 18, at 4 p.m.

McCraven is a sonic sculptor. His huge presence from behind the drum kit drives his band's sound and takes listeners on a journey of unexpected pathways. He uses his ability as a drummer to conjure polyrhythms that are unique, highly accessible, and deeply grooving.

These less-familiar rhythms are the engine that propels his music and adds excitement to his live shows and recordings. They are the cornerstone of his compositions, which also use layering and atypical textural combinations to produce an otherworldly listening experience.

McCraven's music can be meditative and trance-inducing, with mantra-like repetitive phrases that morph over time. In live performances, his episodic compositions often begin with virtuosic rhythmical grooves, onto which horns and guitars introduce long tones and repetitive phrases that lock in polyrhythmically.

His studio recordings are quite different. As a producer he utilizes his tandem skills as a multi-instrumentalist and recording engineer to fine-tune his musical offerings. He embraces and creatively incorporates the languages of electronica, hip hop, spoken word, folk music, and jazz, irrespective of the composition's stylistic character.

These recordings are meticulous collages of samples, mostly of himself and his band playing their own instruments. He selects snippets of the group's most powerful grooves and combines sections into seamless tapestries.

Sometimes McCraven fuses his samples with those of classic recordings. Two of his most recent albums are reinventions of classics.

In Deciphering the Message, he was given access to the vault of Blue Note records by the label's president, Don Was. McCraven carefully chose performances by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers with Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter, as well as Eddie Gale, Dexter Gordon, Horace Silver, and other less-familiar Blue Note artists.

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McCraven was born in Paris and grew up primarily in the Pioneer Valley near Amherst, Massachusetts. His parents are drummer Stephen McCraven and multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Ágnes Zsigmondi.

In a documentary about his life, Universal Beings, McCraven discussed his upbringing, saying, "I come from a multinational, multi-ethnic household. [...] My mother is from Hungary, and my father is American. My father is Black, and my mother is of Jewish descent."

For McCraven, "It's very much an immigrant story," he said. "Leaving one's home to go look for something different, somewhere else, using music as a tool to allow them to travel."

"From the time I was a baby I had access to music," McCraven continued. "Growing up in a home of two professional musicians, there was music on all the time and there were opportunities to play."

When McCraven was 2 years old, "my dad would practice with me on his lap and hold my hands while he played the drums," he said. "It was an amazing thing to grow up [surrounded by] people like Yusef Lateef and Archie Shepp.

"My mother has also been a huge influence of mine. She was an artist in a band called Kolinda - her records were about bringing music from different regions of eastern Europe together, sharing songs and cultures and melodies.

"So I've always been into eastern European folk music. I believe I've been connected to history that can be [...] expanded into my own vision. And that's why I always refer to my parents. Those things that they did [are] why I do what I do."

McCraven attended the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he studied with drum legend Bob Gullotti. He moved to Chicago in his early 20s and found an invigorating music community that encouraged both originality and tradition. He soon became a member of guitarist Bobby Broom's trio, with which he performed at the Vermont Jazz Center in 2016.

McCraven will be appearing at the Jazz Center with two of his most consistent collaborators, Marquis Hill and Junius Paul. Trumpeter Hill emerged into the jazz limelight in 2014 after earning the top prize at the Thelonious Monk institute of Jazz International Piano Competition. He also was awarded first place prizes in both the 2012 International Trumpet Guild's Jazz Improvisation Competition and the 2013 Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet Solo Competition.

Hill's music is influenced by his Chicago upbringing. In an interview with Neon Jazz, Hill acknowledges his kinship and respect for Louis Armstrong who, he says, "walked these [Chicago] streets and claimed them to be one of the places where jazz was created."

Hill has released 13 records and numerous EPs as a leader. He has recorded as a sideman with Joel Ross, Greg Spero, Makaya McCraven, Diego Urcola, Junius Paul, Marcus Miller, Boney James, Kurt Elling, Jeff Hamilton, Ernest Hawkins, Caroline Davis, Emmet Cohen, Chicago Jazz Orchestra, and many others.

The bassist for the ensemble is Junius Paul, a vital member of the Chicago creative music scene since the mid-2000s. Paul is a member of the trailblazing avant-garde group the Art Ensemble of Chicago, with which he has appeared on two albums.

He is also an integral participant in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and has performed or recorded with Famoudou Don Moye Sun Percussion Summit, Roscoe Mitchell, Kahil El'Zabar, The Fred Anderson Trio, The Curtis Fuller Quintet, Oliver Lake, Willie Pickens, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Marquis Hill, and Donald Byrd, among others.

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This concert is taking place on a Sunday afternoon in order to accommodate McCraven's busy touring schedule. Come enjoy the music and find out why McCraven was the winner in the "Rising Star" categories of best producer and best drummer of the year in DownBeat's 2020 Critics Poll.

In-person tickets for Makaya McCraven at the Vermont Jazz Center are offered on a sliding fee scale from $25 to $45 per person (contact the VJC about educational group discounts); available online at, by email at [email protected], or by calling the Vermont Jazz Center ticket line at 802-254-9088, ext. 1. Mobility access for the in-person event is available by emailing [email protected].

Online streaming of this concert at and at will be offered free, but donations are welcomed.

Eugene Uman is director of the Vermont Jazz Center. The Commons' Deeper Dive column gives artists, arts organizations, and other nonprofits elbow room to write in first person and/or be unabashedly opinionated, passionate, and analytical about their own creative work and events.

This The Arts column was submitted to The Commons.

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