Kamaal Williams – The Return

Black Focus Records – 2019

While The Return may be a debut of sorts, it certainly makes reference to the sound it’s following.

In November 2016, pianist and producer Kamaal Williams, an alias for Henry Wu, paired up with the vastly talented drummer Yussef Dayes as Yussef Kamaal. Their debut, Black Focus, is arguably the finest statement yet to emerge from London’s red-hot jazz scene in recent years. Accessible without sacrificing incredible musicianship and virtuosity, Black Focus nodded not only to the jazz fusion work of artists like Joe Zawinul and Herbie Hancock but provided space for various strains from the UK’s electronic music scene, broken beat in particular.

Out of nowhere, the band said they’d no longer be performing which left Dayes and Wu playing the music with separate ensembles. Though Wu has stated there’s no animosity, there’s never been a solid explanation for why this group dissolved right before assuming the mantle for Britain’s impending jazz takeover.

With a similar iconography, The Return shows Wu is willing to acknowledge and carry on the legacy of Black Focus (his recently minted label carries the same name). On the album’s Bandcamp page, it’s stressed that “The Return is a natural evolution from the Yussef Kamaal project, mining the influence of visionary jazz but blended with all kinds of texture, sounds and signals from the over-saturated London streets.”

Indeed, it does seem like atmosphere and texture are a sonic priority. “Catch the Loop” is all about Williams and his cohorts establishing a sonic world then working to flesh it out as much as possible in the moment. Makaya McCraven’s recent work Universal Beings comes to mind, which similarly settles within a series of lush, contemplative musical pockets.

Wu’s keys certainly draw through lines to fusion, yet it’s a reference that only speaks to one color within this sonic mosaic. As Wu shared in an interview with Red Bull, “We’ve grown up on grime, garage, broken beat, drum ‘n’ bass and house… There’s too many other new elements in there to just say it’s jazz. I just call it music from London, because that’s what it is, undoubtedly.” Wu’s own entry point is fascinating, as he mentions in the same interview that he encountered jazz first through electronic music. That likely explains why the jazz tag might not feel as obvious on this project as it does on albums by London contemporaries like Nubya Garcia or Shabaka Hutchings.

“LDN Shuffle” is a standout. The drumming brings a frenetic start that the keys seem reluctant to accept, opting instead to wade in a woozy, two chord refrain. The song burns slow, waiting for liftoff until guitarist Mansur Brown provides a psychedelic freakout at the song’s mid point. After the guitar falls into a sea of reverb, Wu’s chords are accompanied by a funky lead. The bass sits back, aiding the energy with short melodic bursts. The song slowly but surely fades out, making the momentum almost feel imagined.

While a handful of tracks on The Return pick up momentum and eventually catch fire, others take on a more pensive, meditative quality. “Situations (Live in Milan)” captures this trio’s more contemplative side. Wu finds a simple progression to jam on, and sits in that space as the drums find their way around his statement, accompanied by short flourishes that aid in the song’s dreamy soundscape. Right as the song seems ready to take off, it fades to silence.

Much like Black Focus, The Return is a great gateway record. Give it a shot if you love the sound of broken beat and want more improvisation, or if you’re interested in the contemporary sound of jazz-influenced artists like Thundercat, Robert Glasper, or Hiatus Kaiyote.

by Brandon Roos