While listening to drummer Makaya McCraven‘s albums, I was expecting to see his drum kit adorned with samplers, effects pedals and a laptop ready to incorporate beats and loops in a live jazz setting. McCraven’s recorded technique involves sampling and looping studio material, as well as live concerts and jam sessions, to create a sound collage based on a groove or melody.

On Saturday night, McCraven and his band played a propulsive set at World Cafe Live in a more “traditional,” style using only analog instruments. In their latest work, Deciphering the Message, the group re-imagines classic Blue Note recordings, adding a dash of the familiar musical themes of the originals and taking off into exciting and unexpected directions. Their interpretation of “Autumn in New York” — which McCraven renamed “Spring in Chicago” for the city he and his bandmates hail from — touched on the melody and trumpeter Marquis Hill invented an entirely new song around it. It was almost like the way a tiny sample of an otherwise familiar track can be almost unrecognizable when laid under a dance or hip-hop beat, but when you realize where you’ve heard the snippet before, you nod and smile, realizing the genius of it.


photo by John Vettese for WXPN

McCraven and his band (composed of Hill, Greg Ward on sax, Junius Paul on bass, and Matt Gold on guitar) showed why his recordings sample his live shows so much. Like many of their peers, the musicians defied genre, demonstrating the endurance and bravado of a rock musician one minute and the subtle ride of a groove the next. While there were many mind-blowing solos, the band also retained the collaborative style of the very Blue Note 60s records being honored on Deciphering. McCraven also pulled from other parts of his catalog, reaching back to his 2015 album In the Moment to perform a sweltering “Three Fifths a Man,” changing meters on a dime and filling in the beats with incredible precision.

Mike Casey | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Saxophonist Mike Casey opened the show with a set of melodic pieces with solid rhythm courtesy of drummer Corey Garcia and Madison Rast on bass. Their sound was funky and light with a playful cover of Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” that had the crowd singing along.

It had been about 2 years since I had seen live jazz until Saturday night McCraven and Casey helped me remember what I missed so much about the live jazz experience: the intensity, spontaneity, passion and energy is unmatched and can only be captured live.