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Arts Desk
Every week on the air there's a special focus on one particular jazz album. Check them all out here!

Jazz Album of the Week: Makaya McCraven Plays Innovator and Preservationist on ‘Deciphering the Message’

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David Marques
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Makaya McKraven

The pandemic has proven that musicians need not be in the same place to be a band—see Temple University Jazz Band’s Covid Sessions for proof. But what about the same time? On Deciphering the Message, Chicago-based drummer, producer, and sound-engineering savant Makaya McCraven bends space/time in a way that takes one of music’s most intriguing hypotheticals and removes it from the realm of the speculative.

What if the best young jazz instrumentalists of today, with their inclination towards hip-hop and fusion, were to share a bandstand with the heroes of hard bop’s heyday?

Over 13 tracks, Deciphering presents remixes — not covers — of tunes from Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, Dexter Gordon, Hank Mobley, and several others who made Blue Note the most prestigious jazz label in the world. They’re remixes, as opposed to covers, because much from the original Blue Note recordings is retained here. What’s different is that McCraven and his eminently competent compatriots have recorded stylish new musical accoutrements of their own and married them to these decades-old recordings, proving that May-December relationships can work beautifully between musical styles, even as unwieldy as they often are between people.

McCraven makes for a good marriage partner here because he doesn’t try to remake his mate—the source material—into something that it’s not. Contemporary adornments, yes; major reconstructive surgery, no. He doesn’t bring legendary instrumentalists back to life only to play on tunes they wouldn’t recognize. It’s my belief that within the heart of every true artistic progressive is a preservationist. McCraven’s work here affirms that hypothesis. That’s why Blue Note has trusted him with some of the most precious pieces of its recorded legacy. That, and he’s a scientist — okay, a self-proclaimed “beat scientist,” but that’s close enough for jazz.

A couple listens gives an idea of what being a “beat scientist” means, and it seems to be about more than just adding new beats to old music.

Take the opener, which grafts the percussive sensibility of consciousness-raising early 90s hip-hop onto Hank Mobley’s “A Slice of the Top.” Before we even get to any of that, there’s a vocal intro from longtime Birdland emcee Pee Wee Marquette, sampled from Art Blakey’s 1954 live recording A Night at Birdland Vol. 1. Here, Marquette is once again introducing an album, but it’s best understood if you interpret his words here as introducing a musical history, one that McCraven’s revised tastefully, with probity and care, with a contemporary audience in mind.

The reworking of “When Your Lover Has Gone,” as it appears on Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ A Night in Tunisia, is among my favorites here. It’s the essence of the original distilled into something bite-size—like a full song, Willy Wonkified.

Horace Silver’s “Ecaroh” receives a similar treatment. Are we given enough of the original’s dynamism to satisfy the old heads? Probably not. Will it entice the younger generation to YouTube Horace’s version? I think there’s a great chance of that.

If there is a critique to be made, it’s that many of the remixes here are substantially abbreviated. Brevity may sell, but, in some cases, these condensed versions—compelling as the newly added recorded elements make them—play as extended riffs as opposed to full-figured jazz compositions propelled forward by tension and release. At times, these remixes seem to eschew narrative concerns for atmospheric ones, which, in the abstract, is fine; there’s a lot of artistry to be found in vignettes, both in music and literature. The problem is they don’t have the depth to support conflict. They’re not working toward any kind of musical resolution, so they’ve no choice but to end in a manner less dignified, via fade-out. The result is electrifying static, background music looking for a story to cling on to.

Don’t let this rob you of an enjoyable listen; just keep in mind that this is music to multitask to. If you bring your own story, Deciphering the Message will make that story more colorful. Color—and texture—is really what it all comes down to here. McCraven doesn’t alter the DNA of these classic tunes but he does present them in moods and shades and colors that are only vaguely familiar. It makes listening to this album like spending an afternoon with a loved one’s futuristic, more sharply dressed alter-ego.

Beat scientist. Perhaps that’s a real thing after all.