Album Review: Yussef Kamaal – Black Focus [Brownswood Recordings, 4th November 2016]


Black Focus is the culturally influenced debut album from junglist jazz duo Yussef Kamaal, on release with Brownswood Recordings. Delivered with cool attitude, the pair mix raw urban broken-beat grooves with 70’s jazz-fusion organ synth sounds. With hints of hip-hop, UK garage and neo-soul, the album reflects an edgier side of London that makes even the coolest of jazzers seem a little square. This record succeeds at being both current and yet reminiscent of a more aged scene.

Yussef Kamaal takes its name from the project’s creators, Yussef Dayes and Kamaal Williams. Dayes is a deftly polished drummer from Peckham who, with little formal training, credits his father’s love of 1970s East Coast wax as inspiration. Williams, also known as Henry Wu, is a South London multi-instrumentalist and keys player. He is a musician that dislikes the limelight and puts art at the forefront of his career. The two initially crossed paths in their local music scene ten years ago, but this will be their first collaboration together.

The record has the flow of an unplanned jam, with spontaneity pulling the tracks into previously unplayed territories. Title track ‘Black Focus’ opens the album by giving stage to each voice in turn, as teasing sounds oscillate back and forth. Ghosted rhythms and William’s pulsating chordal foundation underpin the song as the horn lines sing out with pride. Song ‘Strings of Light’ brings out their funkier side with Williams showing a diverse terrain of synth sounds as tribal afro-rhythms take lead.

The album is choppy with an ever-changing structure, and is peppered with a succession of interludes between longer tracks, adopting a style familiar from older hip hop records. Some listeners may find the loose structure hard to follow but despite being a technically sophisticated offering, the song-writing refrains from feeling over-complicated.

Black Focus is the result of an alliance that gives respect to both rhythm and live chemistry, as well as London’s diverse culture. Some see this as the beginning of an emerging subculture, a significant release in the current progression of new British jazz. Whether or not this will be the case, listening to this album will certainly increase your London street-cred and make you want to dip your toes further into the musical talent flowing from the city’s southern shores.

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