Jazz is still having its moment. BadBadNotGood are on a roll with their fourth album. Roy Ayers plays three dates this December. So this is perfect timing for Yussef Kamaal, the south London outfit who offer something different. It’s all about context. Wretch 32’s ‘Liberation’ may not have been so potent if we weren’t deep in conversation about race. Beyoncé’s recent opus may have caused less of a stir if Jay Z’s apparent infidelity wasn’t at play. To those who see “jazz” as an entity – frozen in time rather than the global yet nuance, ever-evolving creature that it is, Yussef Kamaal’s album, Black Focus, by way of Brownswood Recordings might just be the one to grab you.
At their sold-out headline gig at 100 Club, it was clear that this is not colourless easy listening. Band leaders Yussef Dayes and Henry Wu (Kamaal Williams) are prolific south London musicians and you can hear the texture of their influences in every track. Dayes’ meticulous drumming recalls boom bap samples over sterilised jazz fills. The bleary-eyed trip hop of ‘String Lights’ could be the epilogue to any track from The Streets’ Original Pirate Material and ‘Lowrider’ is G-Funk at its finest. This is where garage, hip-hop and feverish jazz intersect and fans of the inherent Londoner hybridity will automatically feel at home.
“Every gig is different”, so they told Worldwide FM. There’s the revolving roster that includes bassist Tom Driessler, trumpeter Yelfris Valdes, saxophonist Wayne Francis and guitar wizard Mansur Brown, who warbles unaccompanied on ‘Mansur’s Message’. When they perform, and who turns up on the night is a mix of availability and what the founders are feeling. Under Wu and Dayes’ psychic connection, album tracks moved from still life to elongated sketches where the band literally play around. I’m almost certain the two executed about 10 chord breaks, simultaneously, and off the cuff. Building on their artfully crafted debut, they play with the freedom of tearing it apart and taking it somewhere new.
Most importantly, stank faces are welcome. Somewhat like classical music, there is an air of superiority and conservatism where musicians stick to rules like Melania Trump clings to someone else’s speech. Black Focus is free roaming, the energy is palpable and what’s even better is that you won’t find aloof and elitist fans of their music. A quick scour of the crowd confirmed there was a mix of city bankers and off-duty creatives but you couldn’t tell who knew their Miles from their Monk. It was mostly just a crowd who came for good music and a good time.