Yussef Kamaal – Black Focus

An exceptional, vital release from an enthralling new voice in British music...

Last week, the Sons Of Kemet saxophonist and band-leader in his own right, Shabaka Hutchings, wrote a piece lamenting the lack of representation that jazz is currently receiving in the UK. He specifically took issue with the MOBO Awards’ neglect of a new wave of British jazz artists in favour of American safe-bets Esperanza Spalding and Cory Henry. Although awards nominations do not necessarily correspond to talent, the MOBO choice is symptomatic of a larger trend of the UK jazz scene being denied access to a wider audience platform.

During the course of the last few decades, it feels as if the neglect of jazz, especially British jazz, has been lamented many times. Either the preserve of a snobbish traditionalist crowd, or of avid crate-diggers and instrumentalists themselves, jazz has seemed an inaccessible fringe pursuit. Yet, there has recently been a flowering of a new kind of jazz, one characterised by a disregard for generic segregation and a return to groove-based collaboration. This movement has been spearheaded by the likes of pianist Robert Glasper and more recently Kendrick Lamar collaborators Kamasi Washington and Terrace Martin, all of whom inject influences as varied as hip-hop, rock, classical and world music into their own compositions.

Now, this American vanguard has spawned a British counterpart in the work of artists such as Moses Boyd, Hutchings himself, and one of the groups mentioned in his piece, fellow label-mates Yussef Kamaal. Comprised of keyboardist/producer Kamaal Williams and drummer Yussef Dayes, the duo are rhythmic improvisation incarnate. Taking their cues from ‘70s jazz-funk refracted through the bass-heavy sounds of London club culture, the pair have recently released their debut LP, 'Black Focus'.

Dayes has mentioned the importance of core jazz principles of spontaneity and flow when it came to recording 'Black Focus', and on a first listen this is definitely apparent. The record lays down a consistent soundscape of gently streaking strings morphing into the buzz of Williams’ synths, all whilst Dayes’ frenetic afro-jazz and junglist drum beats rumble beneath, keeping the tracks moving along. Both musicians also bring their work in previous projects to the table as influences: Williams’ releases as Henry Wu can be heard in his masterful synth palette and melodic choices, whilst Dayes’ work as drummer for the cosmically-inclined jazz group United Vibrations can be heard in his frenetic breakbeats.

Tracks on the record may feel like unfinished sketches as the listener is dropped into grooves that fade in and out from each other. Yet, the consistency with which this choice is exercised still makes the album feel like a seamless progression of an idea from start to finish. Variation nestles within the forward movement of the record: opener and title track ‘Black Focus’ lulls the listener into its West Coast groove, whilst ‘Strings Of Light’ incorporates a synth-string progression over Dayes’ afrobeat and a wash of celestial keys. Single ‘Yo Chavez’ also expresses the quieter side of Yussef Kamaal, pairing a gentle Rhodes line with soft brushwork to create the eerie atmosphere of an MF Doom instrumental. It is this generic melding which characterises the pervading influence and ultimate beauty of jazz; at times indefinable or inexpressible, the finest of the genre braids sound to create boundless depth.

Jazz is best experienced live and with 'Black Focus' Yussef Kamaal have captured the unpredictable and at times fragmented intensity of the live experience on wax. This is the kind of record that inspires new listeners to explore unfamiliar sounds and musical histories; the kind of record that bodes very well for the future of British jazz.


Words: Ammar Kalia

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