Review: Makaya McCraven’s Universal Beings is a 10-Piece Jazz Explosion at South Shore Cultural Center

Makaya McCraven, the 35-year-old Chicago jazz drummer, composer and producer, is making waves crossing free jazz with hip hop. Collaboration and spontaneity are pillars of his cause, as demonstrated on October’s Universal Beings double LP featuring improvised performances recorded live or in-studio with ensembles in Chicago, Los Angeles, London and New York. McCraven’s editing powers transform eclectic musicianship and scattered sounds into tightly sculpted tracks entirely unique to the space they’re created in. Such was the case inside a historic lakefront venue on Chicago’s South Shore where Makaya McCraven’s Universal Beings project delivered a one-of-a-kind experience to a packed house during the tail end of the Red Bull Music Festival. McCraven was joined by nine other virtuoso musicians, including electric guitarist Jeff Parker of local experimental band Tortoise, Joel Ross on vibraphone and Josh Johnson on alto sax, who each took turns with epic solos. The violin made a rather unexpected appearance thanks to Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, who wrote all the arrangements for the evening. The set opened with “Black Lion” featuring a killer solo by bassist Junius Paul. One of the more intentional decisions on the album was to include female musicians on every song—a noticeable move in a largely male-dominated genre— and this show was no exception with London-based Nubya Garcia on tenor sax and Brandee Younger on harp. Vocalo radio host Ayana Contreras was another standout woman in the room and provided the soulful DJ set before with smooth numbers like Isaac Hayes’ “Walk On By.” Born in Paris to musician parents, McCraven worked in some nods to his roots. The group played a song his mother used to sing to him. “She’s from Hungary and adapted it into a jazz tune,” he explained. Later, they performed the title track from his father Stephen McCraven’s 1995 record, Song of the Forest Boogaraboo, where he, like his son, can also be heard on drums. Universal Beings’ message of “unity, peace and power … embracing transcendence in all its expressions” appeared to be in full force as people of all ages, races and walks of life bobbed together in a mesmerized trance. It felt just as urgent as it must have at Danny’s Tavern in Bucktown where McCraven’s last album Highly Rare was recorded live soon after the 2017 presidential election. Maybe that’s the thing about this music and what the New York Times describes as the “most discussed young musician on a Chicago jazz scene teeming with fresh energy”: it has a way of establishing a sense of place and togetherness, and always has.
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Jessica Nikolich

Jessica Nikolich was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs. After going to journalism school in Columbia, Missouri, and working at a small-town Michigan newspaper on the banks of Lake Huron, she’s back for good to soak up as much live music, culture and craft beer as humanly possible. Her writing can be found in Chicago magazine and Chicago Innerview Magazine. In the real world, Jessica is a marketing specialist at a law firm and survives her CTA commutes binging podcasts.