London’s underground music scene, its pirate radio, small clubs and bars have recently been witness to a bubbling undercurrent of exciting and experimental Jazz. This is driven in part by the duo Yussef Kamaal; who are themselves inspired by Miles Davis, Flying Lotus and his Brainfeeder crew alongside drum and bass, especially the jazzy variety played by the likes of 4Hero and Spring Heel Jack. There’s a vocal sample part way through closing track Joint 17 which sums this musically milieu up perfectly: “You create your own reference point and that’s what Jazz has always been about” and that is exactly what Yussef Kamaal are about here on Black Focus.
Whilst the album does contain a smattering of electronics the largest percentage of what is on offer here is live instrumentation by two exceptionally talented musicians. Part of what makes Black Focus so engaging and exciting is the very fact you are keenly aware that two guys are making this with a reduced level of computer reliance compared to others who make a similar sound. Their ability is outstanding. Nowhere on Black Focus is this clearer than in the album’s drum work, which is both subtle and yet front and centre. To listen to the drum work of Yussef Kamaal is to hear a thing of great beauty.
Black Focus feels and sounds like the product of all of its many influences especially on tracks like Strings of Light. However, when your influences are so diverse and critically acclaimed this is certainly no bad thing. It would be incredibly exciting if this album were to herald more experimental and jazz inflected values returning to UK Drum and Bass instead of the jump-up style, which has dominated for the last decade.
There are parts of Black Focus where the album takes a more chilled dub and jazz vibe, like in the opening to the track Remembrance. Upon hearing this anyone who remembers 90s genre Acid Jazz may be filled with terror. However, these and fears are misplaced as Yussef Kamaal are aware of musicians’ mistakes past and balance the album’s more chilled moments with snapshots of breakbeat drums and technical wizardry.
Black Focus is an experimental album which will appeal to both Jazz and Drum and Bass fans alike. Whilst also being the perfect album to play on a lazy Sunday morning after the Saturday night before. The talent that sits behind it, is a reminder of just how brilliant live instrumentation can be. Let’s hope Yussef Kamaal inspire a few young minds to pick up a drumstick or a trumpet rather than a Mac and a copy of Garageband.
Over the last 5 years there has been a staggering resurgence in the interest in Jazz amongst contemporary musicians. This is best and most infamously exemplified by the work of the Brainfeeder label and Flying Lotus. But others have gotten in on this act too including: Four Tet and Neneh Cherry and of course Kendrick Lamar. Jazz musicians for their part have always embraced experimentalism and have been open to many of these collaborations, it was through just such a collaboration that I discovered the Belgian Jazz vocalist Melanie De Biasio. Last year Giles Peterson oversaw a beautiful remix project of the jazz vocalist’s work. And from first listening to Blackened Cities it is very clear the success of this project and jazz’s new found prominence has rubbed off on Melanie.
However, Blackened Cities is not De Biasio doing techno, far from it but what influence is apparent is found within the space which is granted to instrumentation. On previous efforts De Biasio’s voice is centre stage however on Blackened Cities it is almost pushed to the side. Instead of being in the forefront it is her voice intertwines more closely with the sounds happening around her. It’s a change in approach, which really alters this track and makes it sound out from previous work.
Traditional Jazz piano and instrumentation remains but contemporary electronics and effects are introduced to the extent that the start of this track sounds like something produced by Godspeed! You Black Emperor, which is certainly no bad thing.
The overall sound here is one of darkness and sparseness but beautifully so. The track feels like one which is built for daydreaming whilst starring out over a grey rolling sea on an early winter’s day. This sparseness is also perfectly balanced by the drums, which provide a late 90s trip hop feeling to Blackened Cities.
The jazz vocal stylings of De Biasio’s previous albums generated sufficient success and critical acclaim for her, not only generating five star ratings but breaking the top ten album chart in her home country. So there is a real sense of risk and experimentation to what is being done with Blackened Cities, a one track album at 24mins in length, however, what is being done here is done so beautifully and so successfully that De Biasio will generate even further (deserved) acclaim.
Some of De Biasio’s fans may be put off by this track however they are likely to be replaced be legions of news fans of enjoy her growing experimentation on show in Blackened Cities. Fans of Radiohead, 90s trip hop and the previously mentioned Godspeed! You Black Emperor really will find something to fall in love with here. This one’s for the daydreamers.