Like Madlib before him, percussionist and DJ Makaya McCraven has been given access to the Blue Note vaults, allowing him to plunder for samples as he saw fit. This endeavor has resulted in his Blue Note debut Deciphering the Message. This album is more than just a jazz remix project. McCraven has enlisted the help of some modern jazz musicians to enhance the surgery already underway, creating a deft mix of the old with the new. McCraven’s name may grace the cover, but something tells me that he would agree that the credit for the album’s overall strength should be assigned to many different names, both living and dead. Much like his reverential treatment of Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here, McCraven largely lets the source material speak for itself. As remix projects go, it is egoless. McCraven himself said he hopes this release will steer listeners to the originals.
Even the song titles can’t help but feel like loving homages. Hank Mobley’s “A Slice of the Top” has become “Sliced Off the Top”, Kenny Dorham’s “Sunset” turned into “Son Set”, Art Blakey’s rendition of “When Your Lover Has Gone” is now “When You’ve Left Your Lover,” and so on down the line. Us3 fans will recognize the sample of Pee Wee Marquette introducing Blakey’s A Night at Birdland at the start of “Sliced Off the Top”, a song where McCraven gives the drums an extra funky loop while keeping Lee Morgan’s trumpet solo intact.
“Son Set” starts with the old distorted piano chords from Kenny Drew but relaxes into a lounge beat with the terribly chill ensemble of vibraphonist Joel Ross, guitarist Jeff Parker, and bassist Junius Paul. When Jack Wilson’s reading of “Frank’s Tune” morphs into “De’Jeff’s Tune,” it starts to sound like something that would have come from one of Parker’s solo albums. De’Sean Jones’ flute solo is lively but dynamically understated, helping a mellow tune stay mellow. Kenny Burrell’s guitar remains the guiding force of the new “Autumn in New York” — “Spring in Chicago” — as Jones and trumpeter Marquis Hill do a superb job of staying out of his way.
This seamless practice of the living jamming with the dead flows unimpeded through Deciphering the Message. Clifford Brown’secording of the Quincy Jones original “Wail Bait” gets a second life as “Wait Bail”. It’s another slight funk transformation where saxophonist Greg Ward plays his horn like it’s just another thread in the fabric. Parker’s soloing over “Monte Negro”, adapted from Kenny DoDorham’s “Monaco”, swaps his Tortoise tendencies for something boppier.
The Wilson original “C.F.D.” stays light and lovely as “D.F.C.”, despite the original quartet now doubling in size. Ward’s solo keeps it laid back, which is quite a feat considering the number of modern projects in which he’s involved. Wayne Shorter’somposition for the Jazz Messengers “Mr. Jin” is largely untouched as “Mr. Gin”, though the new drums by McCraven are quite pronounced by comparison. When it comes to Eddie Gale Stevens’ “Black Rhythm Happening”, a few loops are all that is needed to make for a fun closer, though Jones’axophone solo certainly doesn’t detract from anything.
If there is anyone still out there who find themselves getting bent out of shape when artists like Madlib, Makaya McCraven, or the late Guru mix old school jazz sounds with hip-hop, lounge, drum ‘n’ bass, or contemporary R&B, keep in mind that Deciphering the Message is a probable olive branch for you. Yes, McCraven is tinkering with some beloved Blue Note classics, but the results are far more respectful than you might believe. To top it off, Deciphering the Message has enough replay value to introduce musicians like Parker and Ward to older fans and Dexter Gordon and Clifford Brown to the young and the eager.