Yussef Dayes isn’t building empires, he’s building communities. Right from the start, the drummer, composer, and band leader has sought out other voices, his open, generous spirit helping to connect disparate talents. His role on Yussef Kamaal’s debut album ‘Black Focus’ arguably blew the doors wide open for the current reign of UK jazz artists, while his work with Tom Misch on 2020’s ‘What Kinda Music’ produced a perennial Clash office favourite. Try and it see: grooves for days.
‘Black Classical Music’ is his debut album as a solo artist and band leader, an attempt to forge the vast array of influences that run through his sound into a unified experience. It’s a hopelessly complex task – pan-diasporic inspiration that moves from post-bop and fusion through to reggae, highlife, and beyond, the breadth of vision here is jaw-dropping. That Yussef Dayes comes tantalisingly close to puling off something coherent from this endlessly broad parade of sonic colours and textures is apt testament to his crucial artistry.
A vast 19-track affair, what first pulls your attention are the highlights, the skyscrapers amid this dense metropolitan landscape. Opening with the seismic title track, Yussef is joined by Venna – another London jazz-rooted multi-hyphenate – and Charlie Stacey, on something that is sonically lush yet forever engaged in evolution. ‘Afro Cubanism’ doffs his cap to another formative rhythmic pulse, while Shabaka Hutchings is at his most lyrical on ‘Raisins Under The Sun’.
‘Rust’ re-connects Yussef Dayes with Tom Misch, yet this collaboration is a little harsher, slightly darker than their 2020 full length. Throughout, he’s joined by those closest to time – daughter Bahai Dayes appears on ‘The Light’, his innocent count-in leading the listener to a vast, spiritual jazz vista, framed by those beatific Alice Coltrane-esque harp lines.
A series of deeply complex tracks, ‘Black Classical Music’ is held in place by the focus of its central figure, and his own impeccable technical skills. ‘Chasing The Drum’ is practically a manifesto on his approach to improvisatory music, placing percussion at the centrality of pan-diasporic arts. Chasing from West African aspects to Cuban tones, there’s also a delicious West Coast aspect to those rolling synths.
‘Pon di Plaza’ makes room from dancehall king Chronixx, and there’s something of soundsystem culture at work in the low-end that permeates ‘Gelato’. By way of contrast, Jamilah Barry exudes soul on the heart-stoppingly beautiful ‘Woman’s Touch’, while ‘Crystal Palace Park’ is a glorious analogue bubblebath of ambient synths and dubby effects.
Stunningly ambitious in scope, not everything on ‘Black Classical Music’ necessarily intertwines. There’s a slightness to Masego link-up ‘Marching Band’, for example, while the audacious breadth – from spiritual jazz panoramas through to fusion steppers – means that the album sometimes feels as though its reach has exceeded its grasp. Taken as a whole, however, ‘Black Classical Music’ is a unique experience, a true journey, the musical autobiography of a musician central to the ongoing development of UK jazz.
Words: Robin Murray