Yussef Kamaal at The Lantern in Bristol review

Josiah Hartley pens his thoughts on the Brownswood signed jazz collective Yussef Kamaal.

Ben Smith

Date published: 14th Nov 2016

Image: Yussef Kamaal 

The Bonfire weekend went off to an explosive start when jazz-funk fusion duo Yussef Kamaal put on an enthralling performance at Bristol’s The Lantern, within the Colston Hall.

Hailing from South East London, the core members of the project consist of drummer Yussef Dayes and keyboardist Kamaal Williams, with the addition of extra musicians for recording and touring. Dayes also plays drums in the Afrofuturist nu jazz outfit United Vibrations, while Williams plies his trade as a prolific session musician, plus of late has made a name for himself in the underground house scene with noteworthy 12”s for the likes of 22a and Rhythm Section under the alias Henry Wu.

Although the two have moved in similar circles for many years, they only recently joined forces in 2015 to birth the project; that was catalysed by a one-off live session for Boiler Room the said year, to test out Wu’s solo material. Further highly acclaimed shows across London then followed, it was, however their exceptional set at last year’s Worldwide Awards that resulted in Gilles Peterson signing them up to his Brownswood Recordings imprint. 

As the opening show of their UK/European tour and more importantly the official release date of their debut album Black Focus - naturally a huge day for any new artist - it was understandable that emotions were running high for the South Londoners on the evening. And for this reason Bristol attendees were especially fortunate enough to experience what can perhaps be regarded as one of Yussef Kamaal’s best and most emotionally-charged performances to date.

Brimming with raw feelings from the earlier events of the day, Williams and Dayes first took to the stage and demonstrated their killer musical chops on their respective instruments, with an improvised jam which instantly wowed the audience.

Casually seated, Williams effortlessly switched between synthesizer and Rhodes piano, and executed some dazzling melodies and heavenly chords, that finely interplayed with Dayes frenetic drumwork and percussion grooves. Before the additional touring band members - guitarist Mansur Brown, bassist Tom Driessler and trumpet player Yelfris Valdes - joined them onstage to embellish the musical canvas with their individual skills.

Yussef Kamaal’s intoxicating sound is essentially modern jazz/funk fusion in the realms of the genre’s innovators such as Lonnie Liston Smith, Herbie Hancock and The Headhunters and Bitches Brew era Miles Davis. Yet with a British twist that also draws on the rich, bass-heavy dance music heritage of the duo’s local surroundings via jungle, drum & bass and broken beat, complete with a lashing of hip hop sensibilities akin The Soulquarians.

The set featured near enough every track from Black Focus that were all executed with outstanding precision by the five-piece, and much to the delight of The Lantern’s appreciative audience. This ranged from slow head-nodding grooves such as ‘Yo Chavez’ and ‘Remembrance’ - the latter of which Dayes announced “This is an emotional one”.

And judging by the crowd’s elated reaction come the end of the journey-like number, the drummer clearly meant what he said. Through to the uptempo space funk of the current single ‘Lowrider’ that got the whole venue dancing, and received one of the biggest applauses of the night.

Another highlight of the setlist came in the form of the epic ‘Strings of Light’ which recalled the sophisticated, jazzy D&B of 4Hero circa Two Pages. Each band member equally shined here and the musical chemistry between them all was simply electric, though the intricate, lightning-speed drumming pulled off by Dayes was particularly impressive.

Incredibly there was no form of machinery in sight that surreptitiously triggered off any sequenced beats to aid him either. This was the real deal. Much like the pre-sampler technology days of the 70s jazz greats that solely depended on the playing abilities they possessed on their instruments. Throughout the show it felt like a time warp to those very times, given the passion and raw energy that came out in the astounding musicianship.

Most of the tracks were extended way beyond their original recording length, some of which progressed into full on immersive cosmic jazz workouts. While Mansur Brown’s occasionally heavy guitar riffage brought out some of YK’s jazz rock influences like Mahavishnu Orchestra. All in all, this gig is definitely one that for those who were there will be talking about and praising in years to come.

Having just dropped a remarkable debut album – that is likely to make many of the imminent end of 2016 “Album of the year” lists - and now taking their show across the country, Yussef Kamaal are surely set to blow the minds of even more music fans across the UK, Europe and eventually the rest of the world with their personal take on the jazz fusion genre.

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