Gotta Have Soul: Kamaal Williams is Back with ‘The Return’

Joel Biswas takes a look at Kamaal Williams' excellent new LP, 'The Return.'
By    June 4, 2018

Joel Biswas is on the corner slinging jazz.

The airwaves and dancefloors of London have long been a sweltering incubator for diaspora sounds. Jazz is just one of the many elements that have been fortuitously swept up and assimilated into the city’s ever-shifting soundscape. At the height of London’s club culture, though, progressive compositions like Deodato’s “Also Sprach Zarathrustra,” Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay,” or Gary Bartz’s “Celestial Blues” were regularly interwoven with house, techno, disco, and rap on any given night without a trace of cognitive dissonance. Long before the Beasties set foot in Groove Merchants or Madlib first flipped Melvin Van Peebles, this most American of art forms rediscovered its roots as vital popular dance music in the streets of London.

Kamaal Williams is the ideal cypher for this enduring spirit of experimentalism. He’s based in Peckham, home to some the most exciting genre-bending sounds you’ll find anywhere, and is signed to Brownswood Records, a label founded by luminary selector Gilles Peterson—the same man who helped kick-start jazz’s original dancefloor renaissance over thirty years ago.

He’s a mercurial figure who cut his teeth as a session drummer and member of Katy B’s touring band before finding acclaim as soulful house maestro Henry Wu. When he finally turned his hand to jazz in collaboration with drummer Yussef Dayes under the billing Yussef Kamaal, the result was Black Focus—a heady brew of vintage keys, breakbeat drums, and pared back melodic ideas that was equal parts Art Blakey, Skepta, and rumbling bass culture. It remains a highly original collection of street corner jazz that was easily one of the best albums of 2016.

The Return finds Williams leading a trio including drummer McKnasty and bassist Pete Martin for a looser and funkier set that owes a debt to the sweaty workouts of Jimmy Smith and the arrangements of legendary Brazilian combo Azymuth. Williams’ Fender Rhodes is front and center throughout, a lush blue-green shimmer that washes over and through skittering drums and rollicking bass lines. He’s an economical player who paints with chords, like Eddie Palmieri or John Medeski. But he’s also a studio rat extraordinaire. The vintage fidelity of Lonnie Liston Smith’s “Expansions” has been coded into every in every keyboard vamp and snare hit.

For a lot of the record, texture and rhythm supersede melodic ideas. Opener “Salaam” sounds like it could have been from the same set as Black Focus. It’s the only real melody on the album and one that sounds like it came out of the vault of Roy Ayers. Like several of the tracks here, it segues into a slower second movement—a muscular, sub-basement groove with rolling waves of phased Rhodes. “Broken Theme” is a twitchy, percussive work-out that seems to fold in on itself without ever resolving its internal tension. “Catch the Loop” is more playful—like a knowing rhythm game between the three musicians captured when an engineer left the tape rolling.

Elsewhere, tunes like “Rhythm Committee” and “High Roller” are more conventionally funky, going for a pleasing, slow-build disco vibe right out of the Henry Wu playbook. There are also moments of startling prettiness amid all the visceral sonics. “Aisha” is a gorgeous keyboard solo that provides a rare moment of major chord warmth while the live number “Situations” elegantly captures the formless beauty of In A Silent Way. The title track is a sweeping string arrangement that vanishes as quickly as it arrives, like a fleeting ray of sunshine glancing across a dusty project window.

The result is a moody and impressionistic record that plays like variations on a theme. When it works as it does during the searing guitar lines of “LDN Shuffle,” it’s riveting. The Return could probably do with a few more memorable moments like this, but the intensity of feeling and mood sustained throughout is a vibe all its own. Williams and his trio wring every texture out of their palette to conjure up London’s brutalist landscapes and the juju seeping out of the concrete, re-imagining jazz as trunk-rattling, retro-future body music that couldn’t be from anywhere else.

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