I feel like I’ve heard Makaya McCraven’s name at least once a week for this entire calendar year, and rightfully so. It has been a busy year for the Chicago based drummer and producer.
Having gone to school in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts and being somewhat tuned in to the jazz scene there, the name of this extraordinarily original drummer was constantly being brought up. McCraven, while born in France, was raised in the Pioneer Valley where he was quickly noticed and mentored by some of the geniuses that reside in and around the campus of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The community included the likes of Marion Brown, Archie Shepp, and Yusef Lateef.
It feels like a common story these days for jazz musicians and students of his generation and younger to have a love for jazz along with an obsession for hip hop and great MCs and producers. McCraven was no different. Wu-Tang Clan, A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, Nas, and Biggie were frequently in McCraven’s ears as he was growing up. Perhaps it is a common listening pallet for those of his generation, but there are few that have been able to harness the characteristics of this genre crossover with such mastery as McCraven has done time and time again.
Where We Come From grew from a residency in London during October of 2017 and is a true testament to his musical roots. McCraven was joined on stage at London’s Total Refreshment Centre by Theon Cross (tuba), Joe Armon-Jones (keys), Nubya Garcia (saxophone), Kamaal Williams (keys) and Soweto Kinch (saxophone and voice). Two days of live shows were recorded and brought to be mixed and mastered for another two days in London. On the fifth and final day was “Fresh Roasted.” This event brought together some of London’s most prolific producers for a live beat-making and remixing showcase. The stems from the earlier performances were chopped up on stage and put on the album contributing to its certain mixtape feel.
The recordings were originally meant to be bonus material for McCraven’s second 2018 release, Universal Beings. Listening through to the result of this 5-day musical escapade, however, it becomes apparent how cutting any of the material from these London sessions would be nearly impossible.
McCraven is known for his jam session style of performing–he and the other musicians improvise the entire show resulting in mostly loop based material. It is a format that places the musicians at a heightened level of awareness that can be felt in any of his projects, and especially this one. The spirit of the live performance is preserved in this record. The energy level is almost overflowing from the first note and the audience voices their admiration for the group.
It is an extremely innovative record, sure, but with the musical background McCraven comes from it feels like this project has been living inside him for years. Where We Come From is a brilliant displayed of everything that is crucial to the musical identity of Makaya McCraven.
It spans only three medium-length tracks, but packs an emotional knockout punch.
Stuart Howard, known as Lapalux to most, was signed to electronic music juggernaut Flying Lotus’ label, Brainfeeder, in 2010 after a simple cold email to the producer and founder. Since then, a steady stream of EPs and remixes have been released with widespread praise for the precision and attention to detail Lapalux brings to the table.
The concept for this limited edition cassette revolves around loops. Lapalux likens the process of making a record to the cycle of life. He states making a record is “a never ending cycle and a slowly developing loop, much akin to the feeling of what it is to be alive, to die, and the afterlife.” The movements of this project fit this form: ABOVE represents life, BETWEEN represents death, and BELOW represents the afterlife.
A 4-track tape record is the instrument of choice. Lapalux has established a voice that is a masterful blend of analog and digital traditions. The whole project was recorded live and in one take with Lapalux manning the fader controls of the tape recorder. The tape contained loops of short music ideas he had recorded and then played back at varying speeds. The result is an intensely rich and introspective collection of ambient tracks.
“ABOVE” evolve the most of the three tracks–where we begin is far darker than where we end. In many ways this makes sense to me as from Lapalux’s perspective, or for anyone reading this post’s perspective for that matter, life is the the process where progression can be traced. We have no sense of “reality” for the other processes portrayed in this project.
The opening track begins with a single sound mimicking a tolling bell. It is gritty, dissonant, and dark, painting a grim picture of life from the early moments of the track. Slowly a repeating three-note figure fades in and the bell melts into the background become engulfed by the wet reverb of this repeating figure. I hear something a little different every time I listen–sometimes this figure is being sung by a choir, sometimes it feels like like a guitar, sometimes all I can hear is the static that sits in the background and the crackling tape noises. This is the core of beauty in minimal music for me– it’s a simple pattern and takes so many forms and the shift between these forms is triggered by such the smallest and, what feels like, most insignificant events. By the time “ABOVE” fades out, the opening bells have given way to a bright landscape of many open intervals and major sonorities.
In the final thirty-seconds, however, the faint sound of the bells grows once more leading into “BETWEEN” or the representation of death. This bell becomes analogous to a heartbeat as it opens with force and strength, but struggles to remain heard and beating at the end of its life.
“BETWEEN,” as one might predict, is rather dark. The sound of waves that have been pitched down create a sinister opening and are joined by a dark bass drone. A similar ambiguous choir-like instrument sets a new pattern of four notes that continue through the track. In perhaps an effort to simulate a rising towards heaven, sounds are added from the bottom up. The last layer to be populated is a shrill series of squeaks that grow in number and intensity during the last couple minutes of the track. As the track fades out the sound of waves remain. Somehow they have also risen now being played at a truer pitch painting a calm and peaceful scene to end this representation of death.
In my eyes, “BELOW” perfectly captures the uncertainty of the afterlife. The duration of this third and final track transforms these two locations into sonic modes, keeping one foot in each in a careful balancing act. It is a meditative uncertainty that seamlessly transitions between a muddied darkness and a warming glow. A loop of two synth chord stabs fades in with a trail of reverb following each attack. The initial attack is highlighted by a deep harmony, but what resonates are shimmering harmonics–immediately heaven and hell are presented as separate but linked modes competing for our attention.
As of late I have been fascinated by records that treat the mix or sound design as an instrument on a record. The quality of sound, mic placement, recording medium–the attention to these aspects of recorded and electronic music can sometimes make or break the musical content. Lapalux has taken an old and forgotten (to most) recording device building an album whose identity is directly connected to this piece of equipment. A profound and meaningful concept is combined with genius production yielding a powerful, while brief, spiritual window.
Son Lux has left me speechless time and time again. The Son Lux project consists of Rafiq Bhatia, Ian Chang, and Ryan Lott. Lott, a composer from Los Angeles, started the group and with the help of Bhatia (guitar) and Chang (drums), the group has forged a captivating sound blending electronica and rock beautifully.
In February of 2018, the group released their sixth full-length album, Brighter Wounds. A masterpiece in itself, the group treated this project as they have their other releases. This structure includes an intricate series of remixes and reworked versions of track and small motifs from their full-length releases.
The band writes, “Brighter Wounds is at the center of a body of work, where songs often appear in different iterations. This has been a trademark of the Son Lux project from the start to investigate songs from each album from multiple angles and present the results.” Yesterday’s Wake is the continuation of this investigation.
The EP consists of two reworks (All Directions II and All Directions III) as well as two brand new songs that are ripe with “DNA” from the album.
All Directions II builds slowly as a meditation on a single string melody. The texture grows and brightens as the short opening track evolves. It is an orchestral opening that borrows from the bands earlier work such as “No Crimes.”
“Delivery” is the first new full song on the EP and it is mesmerizing. A beautiful mix of electronic and acoustic instruments blends together creating a hypnotizing descending line. Tonally and metrically it is hard to place the tune from the beginning. Instead, Lott’s vocals lead us to a heavy drop of frantic and punchy drums laced with driving bass lines and synths. The dry and crisp mix on Lott’s vocals stands in the foreground of this maximalist texture.
“All Directions III” takes the same string melody from the opening of the EP and recontextualizes it. Slightly faster with a noticeably more jagged accompaniment, this rework feels like and interlude leading into the centerpiece and title track of the EP.
The fourth and final track “Yesterday’s Wake” is dripping with gospel influence. An organ is the main character from the beginning remaining steady with the chord progression and a flurry of distant drums and strings play in the periphery. Lott sings with a much more somber and reserved delivery–his words quiver with emotion as the final verse comes to a close.
Needless to say, if you are unfamiliar with Son Lux’s earlier work, start from the beginning. What makes this group so special to me is the way you can trace the progress and evolution of their sound through their structure of remixes and reworks. While it stands alone as a brilliant EP, its full brilliance is reviled when you are able to recognize the musical ideas that return from projects past to create this grand work of art.
I think many people can vividly remember where they were during election night of 2016. No matter who you supported in the election, the outcome was a shock and if anyone tells you otherwise, they are lying. That feeling of shock heightens your senses and movements, conversations, sights, smells, pretty much everything presents itself with greater clarity and greater impact.
The day after the election, Gabriel Kahane boarded a trail in Penn Station in New York City. The Brooklyn musician has had a quiet but steady rise crafting a sound that falls somewhere in between classical art songs and pop music and has been often appeared in musical theater productions. The impressive list of collaborators listed on his website includes Sufjan Stevens, Andrew Bird, Blake Mills, Chris Thile, Punch Brothers, and Paul Simon. On November 10th, 2016, however, it was just Kahane boarding the Lake Shore Limited Amtrack line having left his phone and connection to the outside world at home and was ready to listen.
For the next 13 days, Kahane, traveled west across the country talking to his fellow travelers on the train. He would strike up conversations in the dining car and record these conversations from memory in a diary. By the end of his journey, he had collected 70,000 words of memories and conversations that turned into Book of Travelers.
Kahane’s tenor vocals wind up and down his range often soaring into falsetto. His piano language is, for me, the most intriguing part of the album. He is able to find a perfect balance of space, form, and instability. “November” opens the album and introduces the voice and piano as two forces often working in harmony, but a clear division and tension shines through in select and strategic moments perhaps mirroring the divisions so apparent in the country during the time of this journey. In the manner of a hymn, piano and voice move together in harmony in the early moments of this track. As early memories of this journey are sung by Kahane, unstable and dissonant colors are added to the hymn.
Kahane’s reflections range from the tragic story of a man paralyzed with fear of returning home in “Baltimore” to the bittersweet “Little Love,” where contemplations as to what is to come with the process of aging are old over a quietly swinging piano accompaniment. The album plays out as a collage of memories with Kahane drifting in and out of a conversational tone–the melodies can sometimes feel interrupted such as an incomplete memory.
A truly striking moment of Book of Travelers comes in “What If I Told You.” Unlike many of the other tracks on the album that shift between conversation and reflection, the song plays out almost as a verbatim conversation. Kahane is talking to a black woman named Monica. Her family is an upper class family that has ancestral ties to southern slavery. She is taking the train south to Mississippi to a funeral despite her sons’ fear of racial violence towards her in that region of the country.
It becomes clear to Kahane during his hours of conversation in the dining car that much of the division present in the country is manufactured online and by a class of media that benefits from the dramatic void being created by this separation. We are being taught to fear real connection and real conversation. Book of Travelers is a beautiful attempt at combating this trend as a raw and emotional portrait of the United States during a time of profound unrest.
I look out my window and I know I have seen this day before: 45-degress, overwhelmingly grey, driving rain…I guess that is what happens when the list of places I have called home includes Michigan, New England, and the UK. Some Time entered my life on one of these gloomy days in March of 2018. Snow was falling but not sticking while I watched construction trucks slog back and forth out of my window at Amherst. The campus felt quiet despite this industrial noise and that left room for this album complete the painting that was this dreary day.
It opens with a sorrowful cry from the saxophone (Hayden Chisholm). In “Fata Morgana,” we are immediately thrown into an environment of melancholic beauty that does not cease until the record has completed. It is a sonic world where climatic tension and build is not common. Rather, the quiet meditation with each song exploration of this delicate sound unfolding naturally and peacefully.
Each track ebbs and flows with a comforting warmth and a frigid bite. “ ‘t Wout” opens with solo piano which trembles with a pensive energy before harmonized saxophones enter and driving pulse ensues.
There is an obvious and meticulous attention to detail with this album. Gooris, who is a rising star in the Belgian jazz scene, has channeled all of his energy into ensuring all aspects Some Time reflect the dream atmosphere created with the compositions. The pacing of the album’s track list, the aesthetic of the mix, and the impressionistic album artwork all convey homogenous bittersweet and hazy tone.
A tour de force on the album is “Rêver.” The opening saxophone solo leads into a response from the piano free in time before a simple bass line sets the tempo. The eight-minute track cycles through everything from improvised solos to almost chamber music-like lines and counterpoint between the saxophones. There is the sense of a slowly building momentum with the drum groove gradually intensifying in the latter half of the song. The increase in activity is slowed to a stop with the next track, “Earthings,” a lucid and plodding display of dark saxophone tones.
My favorite moment of Some Time comes with the “Close” and “Open.” The opening saxophone duet sets forth a process of recontexualization among motifs and drum patterns. A piano motif at the end of “Close,” closely related to the opening saxophone duet, is heard in a syncopated and almost free rhythm in relation to the sixteenth note based drum groove. The piano continues through the division of the two songs. The drums reenter clearly outlining the beat with a hip-hop infused groove that is joined, once again, by a saxophone duet. While mirroring each other in instrumentation and density, “Close” and “Open” provide an inventive repurposing of musical material that so strongly adds to the character of the project.
I wish I could find more information on this brilliant trio and the composer, Wout Gooris. The internet presences of the young pianist is stark, but his other releases follow a similar compositional style. It is early in this young musician’s career and I’ll be following his moves closely from now on.
Between 2016 and 2018 I was on the road a lot. Between school on the East Coast and summer employment on the West Coast, I logged a lot of miles in the Honda Civic and grew to love the cross country road trip as a form of travel. Among the many hours that the stereo was on, two albums were consistently played for the early morning shift of driving: the olllam’s the olllam (featured in On Queue July) and The Party, a quasi-concept album from a small-town Saskatchewan named Andy Shauf.
Shauf was raised in a musical family that owned an electronics and music store which allowed him to hone his musicianship on many instruments from an early age. He often played Christian music at his church, but this was not the environment Shauf wished to be making music in. As he moved through high school, he played with a number of pop-punk bands before moving to the capital of Saskachewan to record his first record and tour through the small DIY venues across Western Canada.
After a couple bedroom-produced albums and EPs, The Party is a strong and realized work with a thematically intriguing and cohesive narrative arc. The album seemingly revolves around one night where 10 songs guide us through the events a particular party. All aspects and personalities typical to your average awkward house party are explored through the understated and delicate vocals and mellow instrumental arrangements played entirely (with exception of the strings) by Shauf.
The album opens with “The Magician.” The protagonist is already unsure, unsettled, and unaware of what is to come of the rest of the evening. Hiding his true self from everyone is his preferred state of being. We arrive at the party in “Early To The Party,” and face everyone’s nightmare of arriving before anyone else, feeling like a burden to the host, and finding anything to do to pass the time. The noticeably more mumbled tone of Shauf’s vocals gives the character a decidedly anxious guise.
The feeling of being out of place is intensified during “Twist Your Ankle.” We’ve moved into a reflective mindset during the morning after the party. Drunk and stumbling around, our protagonist pursues a love interest who wants nothing to do with the character. Embarrassed and dejected, regret fills his head.
Perhaps the most impressive track, “Quiet Like You” outlines the conversation between our main character and his best friend’s girlfriend who has recently broken up with his friend. In his gleefully drunken state, our protagonist makes attempts to win her over in a flirtatious conversation that throws his best friend under the bus. All of this to see her fall back into the arms of his friend at the end of the song.
The merry bounce of “Quiet Like You” is balanced out with the weight of tunes like “To You” in which the protagonist invites his friend outside to leave the party in order for him to confess his true feelings that straddle a romantic line. The song opens with the protagonist talking to his friend named “Jeremy.” The gender of the friend is never explicitly reveled, but clues hint at this romantic interest being towards a male friend named Jeremy. “Yeah / Tell the guys and laugh it up / Why am I even surprised?” says our narrator after being rejected.
There are few albums I have obsessed over more than this one. Each listen through I find new elements that I fall in love with. You can listen to the story, the beautifully crafted instrumentals, or how these two interplay to create the scene of the party. The narrative is hypnotizing in its simplicity. Everyone has faced the characters in this album during their lifetime and have felt the butterflies of anxiety that come with the simple but powerful experiences described. The music portrays this simplicity with stripped down lyrics, melodies, and arrangements that thrust a feeling of insecurity to the foreground. I find myself revisiting this album and the story of this party often, just as I revisit my own memories sporting a similar cast of characters.