Born in Paris, raised in the bohemian enclave of Northampton, Massachusetts and based in Chicago, percussionist and composer Makaya McCraven isn’t one for borders or strictures. His fourth or so album of original compositions – his wider discography is busier than that – finds the drummer shrugging off many of the preconceptions that accompany the word “jazz” in favour of something you might call improvised music of Black origin. In this, he makes common cause with updaters such as our own Shabaka Hutchings and Nubya Garcia, who collaborated with McCraven on 2018’s Universal Beings, and Chicago avant-stalwart Jeff Parker of Tortoise, who guests here on guitar.
In These Times does not lack for elegiac horns or intense time signatures – McCraven’s last job, 2021’s Deciphering the Message, reimagined Blue Note classics. The title track samples Harry Belafonte discussing the mythical African-American figure John Henry, locating this record within the ongoing struggle for Black self-determination. But there is a feeling of generous unspooling here, with hip-hop breakbeats (on one standout, Dream Another) and nods to machine-made music in among the sumptuous orchestral and genre-agnostic instrumentation.
And yet the dreamy murmurations of Brandee Younger’s harp can’t help but invoke cosmic jazz, De’Sean Jones’s flute is no stranger to the conservatoire, and McCraven himself is virtuosic at hell-for-leather polyrhythms: just listen to him go on Seventh String.