Makaya McCraven Transforms Blue Note Classics on ‘Deciphering the Message’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Chicago-based drummer, producer and beat wizard Makaya McCraven has carved out a reputation as a remix specialist, most recently with his 2020 reimagining of Gil Scott Heron with We’re New Again. Fresh off that acclaimed project, McCraven now turns his attention to the classic Blue Note catalog, reinterpreting classics by Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Hank Mobley, Kenny Burrell, Eddie Gale, Dexter Gordon, and a few lesser-known cuts as well on Deciphering the Message. Joining McCraven are his frequent Chicago-based collaborators in various configurations depending on the track. They are vibraphonist Joel Ross, trumpeter Marquis Hill, alto saxophonist Greg Ward, guitarists Matt Gold and Jeff Parker, bassist Junius Paul and De’Sean Jones on tenor saxophone and flute. 

McCraven intentionally sequenced the tracks together to have it sound like a coherent album rather than just a collection of Blue Note tunes and remarkably, across the various eras and artists, it plays that way. No doubt, it’s busy at times, overlaying the originals with new contributions. As we proceed, we could easily make your eyes glaze over (maybe we will invariably anyway) if we were to list every musician per track so we mostly will stick to new contributors.

 He begins with “A Slice Of the Top” (AKA “Sliced Off the Top” from Hank Mobley’s octet (recorded in 1966, released in 1979) along with a spoken word from Pee Wee Marquette. In fact, looking for a few spoken word segments or introductions, of which there are five interspersed throughout, Pee Wee Marquette’s announcement from A Night at Birdland, Vol. 1, Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers begins the album. Here, given the number of musicians in the ensemble, it is only McCraven (drums, bass, percussion) on the overlay. Next in line is “Sunset” (AKA “Son Set”) from Kenny Dorham’s quintet on 1961’s Whistle Stop where Ross, Jeff Parker, and Junius Paul (with a vary audible ceramic bird) join McCraven (drums, percussion) to drive the mix. 

From Art Blakey’s classic Messengers lineup of Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Bobby Timmons, and Jymie Merritt and A Night in Tunisia comes the “When Your Lover Has Gone” (AKA “When You’ve Left Your Lover’’) with guitarist Gold, bassist Paul, vibraphonist Ross and McCraven percolating drums and percussion layered on top. Gold and Ross mix in with Shorter and Morgan on the original front line to create interesting textures. Ross and McCraven (drums, guitar) join on “Ecaroh (AKA “Revlis’), taken from Horace Silver Trio (1953) with Ross stretching out mid-piece, almost as if he is the soloist while Horace Silver comps. Another of Pee Wee Marquette’s introductions kicks off Bobby Hutcherson’s “Tranquility; (AKA “Corner Of The World’) from Components (1966). Hutcherson’s ensemble included Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Paul Chambers which McCraven essentially doubles with his unit of Hill, Jones, Ward, Gold, and himself, adding synth to his drums and percussion.

A couple of these tracks such as “Wail Bait” (AKA “Wait Bail”) from The Memorial Album (1953 by Clifford Brown and “Coppin’ The Haven (AKA “At the Haven Coppin’) from Dexter Gordon’s One Flight Up (1964) are both short two-minute snippets that feature notable contributions from McCraven’s collaborators as Ward and Jones (on flute) spice the former while Gold and McCraven both interweave guitar lines through the latter.

The lead single is a far less recognized piece, Jack Wilson’s “Frank’s Tune” (AKA “De’Jeff’s Tune”) from Easterly Winds (1967). Here McCraven uses an ‘80s R&B inspired arrangement to develop a dance groove with, as you probably guessed, is fueled by Parker’s spiraling guitar lines and a delicate flute from Jones. The track opens and closes with Art Blakey, addressing the audience, “We want you to leave your worldly troubles outside and come in here and swing…So as the message is being delivered, ladies and gentlemen, you may pat your feet and have a ball.”  The segue into “Autumn in New York” (AKA “Spring in Chicago”) is one of the album’s best, moving from the danceable R&B groove into a late-night noir R&B groove layered on top of Kenny Burrell’s version from Blue Lights Vol. 1 (1958). Interestingly, McCraven lets the original drummer, Art Blakey, handle that instrument while his collaborators – Hill, Jones (on tenor and flute), and Ross add colors to the classic ballad. 

We get the last spoken word segment, actually two of them, one from Pee Wee Marquette and the other from Art Blakey to introduce “Monaco” (AKA “Monte Negro”) from Kenny Dorham’s ‘Round About Midnight At The Café Bohemia (1956), another brief piece where McCraven doubles the original sextet with Parker, Hill, and Jones’ tenor prominent as Justin Dillard adds hand drum. Wayne Shorter’s “Mr. Jin” (AKA “Mr. Gin”) from Aft Blakey & The Jazz Messengers’ Indestructible (1966) gives plenty of audio to the front line of Shorter, Morgan and Fuller while McCraven and Paul deliver a more contemporary rhythm undercurrent. 

McCraven turns again to Jack Wilson for “C.F.D” (AKA “D.F.C.”) from Something Personal (1967) as he layers in Ward, Gold, Paul, and himself (adding kalimba and guitar to the usual drums and percussion to the original quartet that featured Wilson on piano, Roy Ayers on vibes, and Ray Brown on bass. Again, the original band stays prominent in the mix as Ward’s alto, Gold’s guitar, and McCraven’s array of instruments filter in to give it the sound of a larger ensemble.  Eddie Gale’s “Black Rhythm Happening” form the 1969 album of the same name is the boldest choice here. Note there is no “AKA.”  The original version boasted eight musicians and eight vocalists, so McCraven simply adds his own one-man rhythm section along with Jones on tenor and flute. Like a couple of the others, there was enough going on in the original that it may have best not to tamper with it, but he can’t be blamed for being enamored with the spirit of the piece, considered militant at the time, but sounding both timeless and appropriate for these times.

There’s just so much music in the legendary Blue Note catalog, yet it should not be surprising that McCraven the drummer opted for five where Art Blakey was at the kit. Part of his intention is no doubt have listeners revisit the originals as well. (Hopefully, we’ve helped you there). This is a grand experiment and a bold one – tampering with some iconic recordings but it’s McCraven’s way both honoring tradition and making the music perhaps more accessible to this next generation of listeners as his source material is 50-70 years old, yet still connected. The beauty is in the segues, the sequencing, the layering, and the spirit of the endeavor. It’s best to take it as a whole, rather than a sum of parts. 

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