Improvisers Keir Neuringer and Makaya McCraven find different ways to use the studio as a creative partner | Bleader

Improvisers Keir Neuringer and Makaya McCraven find different ways to use the studio as a creative partner

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Keir Neuringer and Makaya McCraven - PHOTOS BY REUBEN RADDING AND JUDE GOERGEN
  • Photos by Reuben Radding and Jude Goergen
  • Keir Neuringer and Makaya McCraven

This week I previewed a knockout bill on Saturday night at Thalia Hall that's organized by the folks at International Anthem. As part of the show, powerful quintet Irreversibile Entanglements (with members in NYC, D.C., and Philadelphia) make their Chicago debut, celebrating the physical release of their self-titled album. I've previously written about the group's galvanizing vocalist, inventive poet and sound artist Camae Ayewa (aka Moor Mother), but alto saxophonist and fellow Philadelphian Keir Neuringer is no less riveting on his own. He uses postproduction in fascinating ways—as does one of the other acts playing Saturday, shape-shifting Chicago drummer Makaya McCraven.

With Irreversible Entanglements, Neuringer cleaves to free-jazz fundamentals, albeit with flashes of extended techniques common in free improvisation—his loose forms reference the music of Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. Outside the quintet, those extended techniques are his bread and butter—he uses them extensively on his terrific 2014 solo album Ceremonies Out of the Air (New Atlantis) as well as on a more recent collaboration with British electronic musician Matthew Wright, Speak Cities (Extra Normal), that presents Neuringer at his most visceral and exciting.

Working in Canterbury, Wright began with recordings of the saxophonist's improvisations made in New York in April 2013, and over the course of three years he sampled them, chopped them up, and leavened them with turntable sounds and abstract electronics. Wright, who's used similar techniques with British sax great Evan Parker, creates rich, twitchy fields of sound that incorporate Neuringer's grainy alto shapes as raw material. Below you can hear the opening track from the album, "Above the Clouds."


The main attraction at Saturday's show is a quartet led by McCraven, who's celebrating the release of his own new album, Highly Rare. He'll be joined by the same sturdy band from the recording: alto saxophonist Nick Mazzarella, cornetist Ben Lamar Gay, and bassist Junius Paul. For Highly Rare McCraven employed a methodology similar to the one that produced his 2015 breakout album, In the Moment, whose fully formed tunes he constructed from nearly 48 hours of live, improvisational recordings taped at the Bedford.

This approach is certainly related to what Neuringer and Wright have done, but the results couldn't be more different. The music on Highly Rare was recorded live with a four-track cassette machine at beloved Bucktown bar Danny's in November 2016, and as a result it sounds bracingly raw, with a muscular, muddy heft. McCraven then spent four months building the tracks on the record from these tapes: he diced up grooves and horn licks and then reassembled them into funky, hard-hitting jams marked by relentless rhythmic shifts, pounding repetition, and extreme dynamic changes.

Anyone who's seen the rapport McCraven has developed with bassist Junius Paul knows that as a rhythm section they practically operate as a single organism—all constant motion, breathless beat displacements, and stop-on-a-dime precision. (Paul will release his own debut album on International Anthem in fall 2018, and it'll be produced by McCraven in the same fashion.) Their high-level communication gives the front line plenty of space and propulsion, prodding improvisations into new terrain. The horns deliver serene long tones, frantic free-jazz soliloquies, and fiery contrapuntal sallies, and though it's impossible to know which passages were played as a single bolt of sonic fabric and which were cut and pasted together, the results are consistently fascinating and rich.

On "The Locator," for example, Mazzarella seems to blow twinned alto lines a la Roland Kirk (an effect definitely created after the fact). "Left Fields," which you can check out below, opens with soulful vocal chants and twangy diddley-bow licks by Gay, with a quietly simmering groove building underneath. As the music intensifies into a mesmerizing shuffle that almost affects a house beat, Mazzarella enters with a hypnotic, extended snake-charmer solo that seems to send Gay and his wordless singing drifting into a trance. McCraven's live performances rely on spontaneity, but he understands that albums often stand up better to repeated home listening when they're given a more compositional touch, which he adds with his studio practice.


Label honcho Scottie McNiece says Chicago post-cumbia outfit Dos Santos (formerly Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orquesta) is "closing" the show—that is, playing last. But the focus is on Irreversible Entanglements and McCraven and their new records. Dos Santos will eventually get their turn in their spotlight—they're working on an International Anthem album, their first for the label, planned for next summer.


Today's playlist:

Louis Hayes, Serenade for Horace (Blue Note)
Del Sol String Quartet, Terry Riley: Dark Queen Mantra (Sono Luminus)
DeJohnette/Grenadier/Medeski/Scofield, Hudson (Motema)
Tomasz Stanko New York Quartet, December Avenue (ECM)
Ambrose Akinmusire, A Rift in Decorum: Live at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note)

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