For this weekend’s set, McCraven has assembled a band that reflects one of the album’s lineups, welcoming Younger and Ross, who will lead his own band earlier in the festival, to the stage. McCraven’s group can’t wholly recreate the “Universal Beings” aesthetic, but will instead perform arrangements transcribed from the album, as well as standards and perhaps a few additional surprises.
“One reason that I like the band to shift, and I pull from a large rotating group of musicians is because, on the records, I use a lot of textures,” said the drummer, who will be performing in Atlanta for the first time. This use of diverse musical textures goes back to his formative years, growing up the son of a jazz drummer and a Hungarian folk singer. “I like to be able to have different musicians and sounds.”
McCraven’s amalgamation of genres makes him a perfect fit for the Atlanta Jazz Festival crowd, which spends Memorial Day weekend listening to a diverse collection of music. Over the years, the festival has skewed toward more up-and-coming musicians, and the term “jazz” has become an easy shorthand for the wealth of music represented, not a strict definition. Even the headliners have distinct approaches to jazz; vocalist Wright easily moves between folksy blues, gospel, funk-leaning rock and jazz, while Harris’s band is a turbo-fueled modern jazz machine. This diversity suits McCraven just fine.
“I always like to approach the stage not orienting myself toward jazz aficionados,” he said. “My approach is always to make good music that is compelling and that people can groove with and feel that’s also kind of interesting for us to play.”
Blending elements of jazz, hip hop and R&B together to create something new is actually nearly as old as hip hop itself. Hip hop artists turned to jazz nearly immediately; likewise, the hallmarks of hip hop are embedded in jazz music itself, he said. Shying away from the label of jazz progressive, McCraven looks at himself as a traditionalist, eschewing some of the more avant-garde leanings in jazz for recurring themes, grounded vamps and rhythmic loops. He sees nothing unusual or innovative about blending hip hop and jazz.
While he’s on stage, the drummer rarely stops moving. Playing drums is undoubtedly a workout, and the effort he puts into each beat is easily apparent. At times, he becomes lost in the music. For the drummer, all of this is simply part of creating an approachable, compelling show and translating his musical vision to the audience.
“One of the most important things that you can give people out there is some heart,” he said. “I try to give it my all, and the emotions and feelings on stage sweep me up. It can be a whirlwind.”