For most of the millennium, jazz fusion was fairly maligned. Too many trips to the dentist office left listeners anesthetized to the smoothness. Popular jazz had become an oxymoron, as edgy as a bialy. The stuff valorized was too reverent to the past and too obsessed with catching up to the present. That’s a terrible place to be artistically, and it leads to academic attempts at recreation, gimmicky attempts to blend the styles of widely divergent artists, and the existence of stuff like this.
There were always exceptions. In his attempt to be the more stoned modern Sun Ra, Madlib created an alternate cosmology of imaginary bands that paid tribute to Weldon Irvine and Stevie Wonder. Robert Glasper fulfilled the promise of Buckshot Lefonque. But until Brainfeeder set it off with the Austin Peralta album, then the Thundercat albums, then the deluge, few told the world to listen to more jazz (™ Disco Vietnam).
One of the lone lamplighters was the stellar UK DJ, Gilles Peterson, whose Brownswood Recordings imprint has released two of the most compelling jazz records of the year in Shabaka & The Ancestors and now, Yussef Kamaal’s Black Focus. The latter group is compromised of the London duo, Henry Wu (Kamaal Williams) and Yussef Dayes, who cut their teeth backing Katy B and playing Boiler Rooms, but whose aesthetic sweeps through broken beat, jungle, and the fusion of Herbie Hancock and the Maravishnu Orchestra.
What they’ve created is funky and futuristic, rooted in the past but imbued with a modern swing. As the outro of the record says, “jazz was always about creating your own technique.” In Black Focus, Yussef Kamaal have done that, creating something that puts them at the forefront of jazz alongside Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, BadBadNotGood, and Billy Cobham — wherever he is right now. – Jeff Weiss
Did you study jazz in school?
Henry Wu:I was never trained in the traditional jazz conservatory sense. I was more into playing drums and hip-hop, and then got into playing keyboards at 18. That said, I was always listening to jazz from quite a young age, but never studied it. At 18, I entered college and enrolled in a music production course. I started playing keyboards on Logic and producing music in that sense.
From there, it was tracing it back to where it came from. I ended up sitting down and teaching myself to play.
What were your first musical loves?
Henry Wu:Cassette tapes like the Artful Dodger, Craig David, R Kelly, and pop music like the Spice Girls. As I got a little older and wiser, I started getting into more UK garage and grime. Neutrino, So Solid Crew, and so on. I was also listening to 50 Cent and mainstream US rap like Kanye and Juelz Santana. That first Kanye album was game changing for me. Eventually, I traced that back and got into old school US hip-hop: Pete Rock, De La Soul and other people. It’s hard to work out the exact timeline, but we discovered so much music from 2000 to 2005.
Were you initially producing hip-hop?
Henry Wu:Yeah, with boom-bap kind of vibes. I did some early band stuff where I was playing drums. More funk stuff. I kind of bypassed the indie rock thing that was really popular at the time.
How did you get involved working with Katy B?
Henry Wu:Well, when Katy got signed, I was coming up in the UK Funky scene and she was part of that. When she got signed, we became her band and were hired to tour all the stuff from her first album live. That lasted for two years we got hired to play the stuff live and we toured with her for two years. At the time when dubstep was going mainstream, we were quite involved. I was never really a dubstep kid though. I do like the early stuff, the early beats that are more garagey and darker. I have massive respect for early Skream and Benga, but I was always really kind of a hip-hop kid.
What’s the London scene like right now in your opinion?
Henry Wu:It seems more open. Everyone seems to be working with everyone. Drum and bass seems to be coming back in a weird way. Grime seems to be the hottest thing right now too.
Who are your favorite grime MCs?
Henry Wu:CASisDEAD, Gigz, Skepta, and Wiley are my favorite UK MCs of all-time.
You’ve said that broken beat and London pirate radio played a big role in your sound as well.
Henry Wu:It’s not really that it had a direct influence on the records itself, but it was more growing up in London with that kind of culture, it subconsciously has an effect. You’ll be listening to grime on the radio or garage. It’s more intense, darker, and colder. London just has that vibe. It’s a very grey city, a concrete jungle as people describe it.
That makes it a bit more raw. We go in there and don’t really care. We just let it out. The music seems to have that London sound to it.
How did you come about working with Malcolm Catto of the Heliocentrics (who engineered Black Focus)
Henry Wu:Yussef actually knew Malcolm from before and he has this studio and we just worked out of it for a few weeks and he said he wanted to engineer and produce it. His approach to recording the band helped make the album. He has that taste and wanted to record us in that old school way. It’s a cool way to work. He works by ear as opposed to having things programmed in, and ended up mixing two tracks and engineered the whole album.
Were the songs pretty heavily improvised?
Henry Wu:We had a set that we’d been playing out for a year and just basically did that in the studio, with the help of a couple of guys. It was initially just my trio — the Henry Wu trio — that was the real starting point and I wanted to get Yussef involved. There was always a natural connection between us.
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What do you remember as your first musical loves?
Yussef Dayes:Well, my dad lived in New York City n the 70s and so he was exposed me to the whole jazz fusion scene. He was Jamaican as well, so there was a lot of reggae and Studio One playing in our house. Mandrill too. Herbie and the Headhunters, Idris Muhammed, Max Roach — that was my sound. But I suppose growing up in London, there was a lot of grime music and hip-hop that we were inspired by as well.
What part of London did you grow up in?
Yussef Dayes:I grew up in in the Southeast, up the road from Henry in Peckham. South London has a lot of good musicians. A lot of drum and bass producers.
Did you go to school for music?
Yussef Dayes:I went to a normal school, but there were a lot of musicians in my school. I never studied music like that. My dad was a bass player, who played reggae music with a little bit of ska elements in there.
Did you start drumming pretty early on?
Yussef Dayes:I was about three years old, banging on the pots and pans and then my parents gave me a drum kit. From there, it was non-stop. It was one of those things where you find your thing from early on.
How did you meet Henry?
Yussef Dayes:We met each other a long time ago, but didn’t play together until a few years ago. The way he was playing complimented what I was doing. If he plays a couple chords, I have to be ready. We both know where we want it to go and sound. It has that flow.
A lot of the time, we’re just improvising and know where it’s going to head. He’s a producer, so the way that he plays is very musical. He can do the solo stuff too, but the way he plays is how a producer would play. This record was about that vibe. It was just about rhythm, not composition.
How did you settle on the title Black Focus?
Yussef Dayes:It’s kind of based of a few things. The Black Focus is your typical South London car. We’d be in the studio looking for an idea and see it outside. There’s also lot going on in the world right now and I think black culture’s been appropriated in a way, but that shit goes on and people don’t stand up for it. What we’re making is black music, inspired by jazz. People can interpret that title however they want.
What do you think it is about the current cultural climate has led to the sudden resurgence in interest in jazz?
Yussef Dayes:I think a younger generation can sees a reflection of themselves in it a bit more. In jazz, you had that suit and tie club vibe, especially in the UK. When you talked about jazz, I wouldn’t want to be involved in a scene. I think right now, it’s a combination of that and those crossover artists. Kamasi Washington working on Kendrick’s album is just wicked. It needed things like that.
In the UK, you’re seeing grime artists working with life instrumentation. At live shows, people are dancing to our music. It had lost that essence, but now people come to clubs and are standing up. I think the vibe just changed a lot, it’s more powerful. We’re trying to do what they did 50 years ago.
Jazz is about a representation of the time and in this time, we’re at a place where jazz has that energy and people are catching onto it. It’s weird –you get these little breakthroughs. Kamasi came up organically. It’s just the vibe. The main thing now and always has been the groove.
What do you hope people take from this record?
Yussef Dayes:I don’t want to say it’s a piece of art, but it’s a reflection of how me and Henry were both feeling. I’d love people to take a minute with it and think about something that matters to them. I was going through a lot stuff during the making of this record. My mother had passed away the year prior and for me, music is about healing. I hope people listen to it and take a little time to reflect. There’s a lot going on right now and music is one of the few things that can really make you feel. A John Coltrane record can get you through some really dark days. I hope this record can do that too.