Yussef Kamaal ‘Black Focus’ (Brownswood Recordings) 4/5 

yussef-kamaalI had heard the name Yussef Kamaal mentioned a few times and saw what would now become the album cover here, there and everywhere. In my uneducated mind set, I think I expected a spiritual jazz type album by a young precocious talented individual. I smile as I type this because ‘Yussef Kamaal’ are 2 talented individuals not 1 precocious one and the music contained within these grooves are a modern day take drawing in many influences from the streets and city Yussef Dayes and Kamaal Williams (aka Henry Wu) grew up in.
Both are drummers with Kamaal showing his stabbing prowess on the electric keys. The sound produced, whilst often familiar owing debts of gratitude to Herbie Hancock, Atmosfear, Kaidi Tatham, Souldrummers, 4Hero and Level 42 – does have a fresh perspective.
The whole project has been put together to not sound particularly polished and I like that. The energy that you hear is good, the ideas are still creative enough to please some of the jazz heads but it’s not trying to be clever and I like that also.
We kick off with the title track ‘Black Focus’ which starts with the sound of percussion fills, a voice saying a few words in an African language vocal, a riffing trumpet, saxophone and some soft electric keys. Those elements come more together as the theme is stated and the instruments fall into line. This eases us into this record and gives us some idea of what we can expect.

Cut No. 2 is a more busy affair featuring drums, strings (played from a keyboard I’m thinking), a very dexterous electric bass and a trumpet that at first felt a little ‘foreign’ when it first jumps in but makes up for it later on.

This one has small element of 4Hero but you never think that it’s trying to emulate what the Dollis Hill guys did. There are 3 stages to this track where the drummer gives it his all which keeps on pushing and propelling this almost hypnotic dance piece along.

‘Remembrance’ – the 3rd track on offer gives us the musical trio of drums, bass and keys – but the roles are somewhat reversed with the drummer being pushed to the fore and the keyboard almost acting as the rhythm section keeping pace. The bass is ably supporting but at the same time floating with the other 2 instruments here as they begin to build to a beautiful and intense climax. These 3 instrumentalists read each other so deftly – this is what jazz is about.

Now is the turn of the keyboard to solo and a fine one it is too. You can tell they are enjoying this one as a vocal exaltation can be heard from one of the musicians testifies. A fine fine track indeed and certainly the highlight of this set.

‘Yo Chavez’ is a shuffling piece with a nice synth theme running through its heart – a shorter but strong track.

After a couple of very short interlude type tracks, things get decidedly funky on ‘Lowrider’. There’s nothing wrong with this one: a fine guitar solo, funky bassline and, again, full-on drumming make this a winner all day, every day!

2 more short tracks is followed up (and concluded with) ‘Joint 17’ – mid paced funky groover.

This album sounds like a jam session in which the musicians had a rough idea and themes but essentially just went into a recording studio and produced the sounds based upon those sketched they had.

Because of that, there is a rawness to this set which I like but I don’t know whether that might put the uninitiated off.

I like what I have heard hear and want to hear more so good luck to Messrs Dayes and Williams and congratulations on a fine debut.

Sammy Goulbourne

If the name is a tad misleading, then the music is not and is rather a mellifluous blend of acoustic jazz and electronica beats. Drummer and percussionist Yussef Dayes and keyboardist Kamal Williams, aka Henry Wu, are relative unknowns hailing from south-east London and who met in their teens a decade or so ago. Now in their mid-late twenties, the pair have come up with an album that is retro in some respects and futuristic in others. This creates quite a unique sound with the depth and sophistication of jazz, more specifically from the 1970s jazz-fusion era, and the street-wise cred of beat-based music.

This writer warmed to the electric bass playing on, ‘Strings of Light’, that seems to hark from the Headhunters era and with the strongly influenced Fender Rhodes of Herbie Hancock never too far away, while the drum and bass percussion propels this track along at a rate of knots. For an altogether moodier ambience, ‘Remembrance’ impresses with its improvisatory feel and lovely rapport between drums and electric piano, with elements of Robert Glasper hinted at. Clipped rhythm guitar sounds surface on the neo-soul flavoured, ‘Lowrider’, that might just serve as a useful entry point to a wider audience. The beat ballad, ‘Yo Chavez’ features an eerie synthesizer and another mean bass line, whereas the title track has a Cuban chango-influence spoken intro onto which Fender and trumpet dominate and flourish. In general, the combination of acoustic and electronica has been well thought out and blends, and in this respect one cannot but think back to the musings of Herbie Hancock, including one of his more underrated offerings from 1980, ‘Mr Hands’. A very promising debut.

Tim Stenhouse