Time goes especially slippery in the music of Makaya McCraven, a Chicago-based jazz drummer whose casually mesmerizing albums work like so: McCraven records himself performing live in various ensembles and scenarios, then he cherry-picks the most potent snippets of group play and goes to work — reorganizing them, repeating them, occasionally adding fresh layers of sound after the fact. These cut-and-paste tactics are typical in rap music but not in jazz, where the assembled musicians are often expected to release all their sound ideas in one chronological burst. McCraven stockpiles the bursts, cuts them into cool shapes, then rearranges them into metaphysical grooves that create the impossible pleasure of being in multiple times and places at once.
His latest, “Universal Beings E&F Sides,” compiles the leftovers from his 2018 album, “Universal Beings,” but it still manages to feel fresher and more disorienting than anything he’s ever released. (Instead of wondering if this is the year’s best jazz album, McCraven might leave you wondering what a year is.) The busy rat-a-tat snares superimposed over “Half Steppin’ ” induce a happy dizziness. The chattering hi-hat patterns of “Dadada” don’t repeat so much as spiral. Prioritizing hypnotic repetition over heroic crescendo, this music achieves a different kind of ecstasy. Time disappears.
On Gerald Cleaver’s most recent album, “Signs,” it’s the drums themselves that have disappeared. The renowned jazz drummer’s latest record is an unexpected nod to the techno music of his native Detroit, made exclusively with synthesizers inside his Brooklyn studio. As wild left turns go, the music is imaginative and rigorous, with Cleaver dissolving stereotypes about techno (cold and repetitive) and jazz (hot and chaotic) by tapping into their common expansiveness. When two distinct musical traditions continuously defy their boundaries, they’re bound to overlap somewhere, right?
The album’s three-song title suite feels propulsive, but in an alien way, with Cleaver’s beats refusing to acquiesce to a typical four-on-the-floor grid. Instead, electronic kick drums flinch and stutter while renegade synth melodies squirm around the music’s edges. As time halts and surges, it sounds exactly like what it is: a really cool techno record made by a really great jazz drummer.
And yes, at first, it’s difficult to imagine these asymmetrical rhythms popping off properly on a dance floor out in the real world — but in the protracted unrealness of quarantine, your imagination might be all you have left. Keep trying. In time, Cleaver’s new music will probably remind you that the most exclusive dance floor in the world has always been the one inside your own head.