Universal Beings (International Anthem)

Makaya McCraven

Released October 26, 2018

Allmusic Favorite Jazz Albums 2018

2019 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll Top 10 Best New Album






Paris-born, New England-raised, long-time Chicago-residing Makaya McCraven has been at the forefront of genre-redefining movements in jazz since 2015, when he introduced the world to his unique brand of ‘organic beat music’ on the breakout album In The Moment. Culled, cut, post-produced & re-composed by Makaya using recordings of free improvisation he collected over dozens of live sessions in Chicago, through incubation & experimentation In The Moment established a procedural blueprint that he has since been sharpening & developing.

Honing this process on narrower sets of source material, Makaya followed up In The Moment with 2 mixtape releases – 2017’s Highly Rare, a lo-fi free-jazz-meets-hip-hop suite he made from a live 4-track recording, and June 2018’s Where We Come From (CHICAGOxLONDON Mixtape), which he produced using live recordings from London jazz hub Total Refreshment Centre (captured at a showcase called CHICAGOxLONDON). Now, after 4+ years of refining his approach, Makaya McCraven puts forth an ambitious new work – Universal Beings – a culmination of concepts conceived by In The Moment, and his most elegant & articulated work yet.

Spurred by a desire to connect with old friends & new collaborators in places where similar spirits & diasporic jazz innovations are thriving, Makaya worked with International Anthem across late 2017 & early 2018 to setup intimate live sessions in New York & Chicago, and pop-up “studio” sessions in London & Los Angeles. Though the contexts and logistics were D.I.Y. (as they almost always are with IARC), the friends & friends-of-friends that Makaya was able to enlist are top tier players across the board. Some might call them super groups of “new” jazz musicians from their respective cities, with Makaya as a common denominator. But more importantly, collectively they make an inspiring display of the organic global inter-connectedness of the Black American music tradition in 2018.

Physically spanning national & international borders to create an album that musically spans deep spiritual jazz meditations, pulsing post-bop grooves & straight-ahead boom-bap, Makaya McCraven defies the simplifications of revisionism & regionalism while celebrating the sounds, settings & stories that define the provenance of his work. Universal Beings projects an all-encompassing message of unity, peace & power by embracing transcendence in all its expressions. 

Track Listing:

Disc 1

1. A Queen’s Intro 00:32

2. Holy Lands 05:14

3. Young Genius 05:32

4. Black Lion 02:56

5. Tall Tales 04:16

6. Mantra 03:48

7. Pharaoh’s Intro 01:58

8. Atlantic Black 09:09

9. Inner Flight 03:02

10. Wise Man, Wiser Woman 03:13

11. Prosperity’s Fear 06:11

Disc 2

1. Flipped Out 02:40

2. Voila 05:00

3. Suite Haus 05:09

4. The Newbies Lift Off 06:19

5. The Royal (Outro) 01:44

6. The Count Off 01:09

7. Butterss’s 02:59

8. Turtle Tricks 04:15

9. The Fifth Monk 08:01

10. Brighter Days Beginning 02:32

11. Universal Beings 04:08


Makaya McCraven: drums

Brandee Younger: harp (tracks 1-6)

Joel Ross: vibraphone (tracks 1-6)

Tomeka Reid: cello (tracks 1-11)

Dezron Douglas: double bass (tracks 1-6)

Shabaka Hutchings: tenor saxophone (tracks 7-11)

Junius Paul: double bass (tracks 7-11)

Nubya Garcia: tenor saxophone (tracks 12-16)

Ashley Henry: Rhodes piano (tracks 12-16)

Daniel Casimir: double bass (tracks 12-16)

Josh Johnson: alto saxophone (tracks 17-22)

Miguel Atwood-Ferguson: violin (tracks 17-22)

Jeff Parker: guitar (tracks 17-22)

Anna Butterss: double bass (tracks 17-22)

Carlos Niño: percussion (tracks 17-22)

Recorded live August 29th, 2017, at H0L0, Ridgewood, Queens, NY (tracks 1-6) and September 2nd, 2017, at Co-Prosperity Sphere, Bridgeport, Chicago, IL (tracks 7-11)

Recorded October 19th, 2017, at Total Refreshment Studios, Stoke Newington, London, UK (tracks 12-16) and January 30th, 2018, at Jeff Parker’s house, Altadena, Los Angeles County, CA (tracks 17-22)

Recorded & Mixed by David Allen & Dave Vettraino
Artwork by Damon Locks
Produced by Makaya McCraven
Executive Production by Scott McNiece


Guiding the undulating, polyrhythmic, genre-ambiguous flow of drummer Makaya McCraven’s ever-evolving “organic beat music,” is a strategy not far removed from the one employed by Teo Macero and Miles Davis on Bitches Brew and subsequent dates: Here, moments from continuous improvised performances are digitally looped, cut, spliced, and edited into entirely new compositions. McCraven has been developing the approach for some time, though it came to fruition on 2015’s brilliant In the Moment, culled from nearly 48 hours of live improvised performance at a single venue over a year, then processed and remixed into 19 individual pieces. McCraven takes a leap further out on the double-length Universal Beings. The set was recorded in four cities (New York, Chicago, London, and Los Angeles) with four ensembles. The players on these include bassist and fellow Chicagoan Junius Paul, cellist and former Chicagoan Tomeka Reid, U.K.-based saxophonists Nubya Garcia and Shabaka Hutchings, L.A. violist/arranger Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, percussionist Carlos Nino, and Chicago ex-pat and current Angeleno guitarist Jeff Parker, to name a few. As indicated by the drummer’s genre term, the root of this utterly holistic music lies in wholly improvised sessions. All are different in feel. The New York session revolves around a gradually ratcheting spiritual dimension due in large part to Reid’s canny interaction with transcendent harpist Brandee Younger. The rhythm section — vibraphonist Joel Ross, bassist Dezron Douglas, and McCraven — offer hypnotic hip-hop shuffles, riff-like feints, and drones in an incantatory pace across a suite of six pieces ranging in duration from 33 seconds to five-and-a-half minutes. The spirit and inspiration of Alice Coltrane permeates the music’s flow in rhapsodic whole tones. The Chicago side commencing with “Pharaoh’s Intro” stars Hutchings and Paul communicating in post-bop cadences carried by McCraven’s frenetic drumming. It follows to “Atlantic Black” with fiery, Nigerian funk rhythms colored by cello and bassline pulses and saxophone loops over a spacy electric piano and a spiky Reid solo pushing the tune outward. It’s brought back inside by the Afro-beat rhythms and dubwise basslines undergirding “Inner Flight.” The London side skates between trippy, soulful, syncopated jazz-funk and modal jazz courtesy of Garcia’s illustrious horn and Ashley Henry’s Rhodes piano as the interplay between McCraven and bassist Daniel Casimir balances both ends of the spectrum; they create emphasis, tension, and release. The Los Angeles side contains virtually everything that previously transpired but goes somewhere new. Between frontline players — guitarist Parker, alto saxophonist Josh Johnson, and Atwood-Ferguson — harmonic ideas are introduced, exchanged, embellished, then repurposed to suit the polyrhythmic flow generated by McCraven, Nino, and bassist Anna Butterss. The seductive, groove-laden, post-midnight jazz in “Fifth Monk” is a stellar example. At the end of the recording, McCraven says “You guys got all that?” then laughs. Given all that’s here, one wonders who he was speaking to, the engineers or the listeners? Universal Beings is unique from any other jazz recording in 2018: It marries virtuoso musicianship, technological savvy, a keen editor’s ear for creative inspiration, and a plethora of almighty grooves.

Thom Jurek (AllMusic)