In These Times
You’d be forgiven, in the year of our Lord 2022, for having absolutely no inclination to hear a record called In These Times—a title foreboding some high-minded reflection on the COVID years, or perhaps chronicling democracy’s quick decline. It is, if nothing else, a curious banner for Makaya McCraven, the drummer, composer, and producer whose most celebrated albums are as much about marshaling micro-moments as they are making grandiose statements, and whose reworkings of the Gil Scott-Heron and Blue Note Records catalogs feel grounded in the past, not hyper-focused on the present.
So, a couple of reassurances are in order. The first is that, to whatever extent the instrumental In These Times betrays the socioeconomic conditions of its gestation, it’s through mood, rhythm, tension, and texture; this is not an album where the concept gets in the way of the vibe, or where recent history is dutifully dredged to the surface. The second is that this is one of McCraven’s most accomplished albums to date, playing to his strengths as a sample-based thinker and collage artist while also showing how he can wrestle his micro-moments into long-form works. It feels like an organic development of everything McCraven has done to date.
Which is to say, it’s a lovely, elegant, and unified unspooling of a few core influences: the swell of spiritual jazz, the delicacy of chamber music, and the time-suspending feel of ambient and trance, all wrapped around McCraven’s always-in-the-pocket approach to “organic beat music.” As ever, one of his greatest gifts is an extensive call sheet, and In These Times generously highlights the gifts of several jazz up-and-comers. You’ll hear vibes from Joel Ross and guitar from Jeff Parker. Best of all you’ll hear glistening runs from harpist Brandee Younger; her playing feels like the scaffolding that holds many of these compositions together, and her gossamer soloing at the outset of “Lullaby” is an album highlight.
Where earlier records often felt like they presented one little jazz diorama after another, In These Times is most notable for its holistic feel: Everything flows so smoothly that it can be easy to miss where one song ends and another begins. McCraven’s transitions into clambering polyrhythms—both “High Fives” and “So Ubuji” gesture toward African music—fit seamlessly with the more straightforwardly tuneful pieces, and the way “Seventh String” builds from meditative strings and woodwinds toward thundering drum breaks feels natural and frictionless. It all moves toward the one-two punch of “The Knew Untitled” and “The Title”—the former adorned with skronky shredding from Parker, the latter buoyed by cheerful horns—a bravura closing sequence that confirms McCraven’s true gift: Drawing on the sounds of the past to create music that feels intentionally in-the-moment.