Review: Makaya McCraven’s Avant-Garde Jazz Transports Lincoln Hall

The crowd at Makaya McCraven’s Friday night show at Lincoln Hall was as varied as the hometown artist’s take on jazz. The first of a two-night stint at the venue drew metalheads, hip-hop heads, and Phish enthusiasts for a transportive evening of live music.

It’s no surprise considering the ways in which McCraven blends and bends not only musical genres, but archival and original material, and live and studio recordings. An experimental drummer, “beat scientist,” and composer—like many great artists—McCraven’s command of the canon drives him to push the genre forward into avant-garde territory. 

Makaya McCraven
Makaya McCraven. Photo by Jessica Mlinaric.

The show kicked off with “Frank’s Tune,” setting the stage for a groovy, ensemble-driven night. While we’ve seen McCraven command the stage from behind his drum kit in years past, he’s settled into the role of bandleader content to let his band shine while providing the beat behind it all. Airy flute by De'Sean Jones and Matt Gold’s guitar lightened up their take on Jack Wilson’s hard bop classic. 

This was just one of their offerings from the 2021 release Deciphering the Message. The project saw McCraven crate digging in the Blue Note Records archives and putting his unique spin on works by Art Blakey, Horace Silver, and other hard bop tracks from the ‘50s and ‘60s. The band also breathed new life into “Autumn in New York,” which McCraven presented as “Spring in Chicago.” Did we hear Jones along with saxophonist Greg Ward and trumpeter Marquis Hill sample “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” for a second?

De'Sean Jones, Greg Ward, and Marquis Hill. Photo by Jessica Mlinaric.

McCraven and company swept away the audience with a set that ranged from atmospheric to rock and roll. They previewed a multilayered work from McCraven’s upcoming release In These Times, due out this fall. Gold wowed with a stunning Spanish guitar solo, his fingerwork dropping jaws. Junius Paul, McCraven’s International Anthem labelmate, closed out the show on small instruments and bass with a solo called “Jupiter Prisms” developed for the Hyde Park Jazz Fest.

Heads bobbed hard for the encore, “The Bounce,” from the recording of a 2017 jam session in London that became Where We Come From. McCraven’s musical mastery, brilliant collaborators, and sonic experimentation, make him a can’t-miss act time and again. Now more than ever, we’re in awe of live music and Chicago is lucky to call McCraven ours. 

All photos by Jessica Mlinaric.

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Jessica Mlinaric

Jessica Mlinaric is a writer, photographer and cat mom. Her first book on the strange and secret corners of Chicago is forthcoming from Reedy Press. Jessica founded in 2010 to share stories about cities and their cultures. Right now, she is probably at a concert or volunteering at 826CHI. She tweets at @urbnexplorer.