Yussef Kamaal

Black Focus

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AllMusic Review by

Yussef Kamaal is the South London duo of drummer/percussionist Yussef Dayes and Kamaal Williams (Henry Wu) on Rhodes piano and synth. The former is best known for his work as kit man for cosmic Afrobeat ensemble United Vibrations. The latter is also a producer whose dubplates have garnered wide-ranging critical notice. Gilles Peterson signed them to Brownswood based on witnessing a 20-minute live set.

The music on Black Focus is a seamless weave of spiritual jazz funk, broken beat, and global sounds, but it's also more and less. The duo enlisted a who's-who of South London all-stars to assist in various spots: Saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, trumpeter Yelfris Valdes, bassists Tom Driessler and Kareem Dayes, and guitarist Mansur Brown. The set was produced and engineered by the Heliocentrics' Malcolm Catto. The music is inspired by the distinctly British sources its creators grew up on -- jungle, U.K. garage and grime, hip-hop, post-Joe Harriott British jazz, and the sound of underground radio. The intro to the opening title track begins in the abstract with Gordon Weddenburn's spoken word as the horns fill space (think Joe McPhee’s sax/trumpet duos) amid twinkling Rhodes and hand percussion. Halfway through, kit drums enter the exchange and frame a bumping bassline, a two-chord jazz keyboard riff, and horns that move to a post-bop frontline; the whole jam gets transformed into a sweet, soulful groover. Single "Lowrider" is a funky meld of bass, vamping guitar chords, and swirling synths atop snare-heavy breaks before it becomes a 21st century take on Azymuth-esque fusion. Brown adds a brilliant, arpeggio-rich solo to cap it. "Strings of Light" delivers jungly breakbeat science that ushers in a quick, trance-like pulse amid a rippling bassline and wafting synths. The exploratory urgency of Valdes' horn breaks the mood and the tune moves into the stratosphere -- though the circular groove eventually returns. "Yo Chavez" is a mysterious Rhodes tone poem, but Dayes' brushed, skittering snare and kick drum accents add earth to air. Closer "Joint 17” is a summery bubbler led by cracking breaks and bass, with Williams' Rhodes and synths stitching soul-tinged fills and runs to the changes. Dayes' drumming draws the listener down into the trio's canny polyrhythmic interplay. The music on Black Focus should attract fans of Flying Lotus, Thundercat, and Kamasi Washington (in particular, his Throttle Elevator Music project), but these ferences are aesthetic, not literal. Yussef Kamaal forge a distinct sound here. With South London peers Theon Cross Trio, Ezra Collective, and Blue Lab Beats, they reflect a compelling scene rife with exciting ideas in cultural and sonic cross-pollination. Black Focus is a hell of a first effort.

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