Album reviews

Yussef Dayes – ‘Black Classical Music’

Yussef Dayes – Black Classical Music
 (Brownswood / Warner Music/ Cashmere Thoughts Recordings/ Nonesuch Records in the US. Album review by Dan Paton)

A prodigiously talented drummer, Yussef Dayes was already performing with his brothers alongside future Steam Down founder Wayne Francis before he had even hit his teens. More recently, he has become known for some creative and successful duo collaborations (with pianist Kamaal Williams as Yussef Kamaal and with guitarist and singer Tom Misch). The boldly titled Black Classical Music is being billed as his debut solo album, although there have previously been live recordings, including the excellent Welcome To The Hills made as a trio with pianist Charlie Stacey and bassist Rocco Palladino, both of whom also feature prominently here as part of Dayes’ highly skilled band. It is certainly unusual for an artist to be in the position of playing sell-out shows at the Royal Albert Hall even before their first work as a leader in their own right has been fully absorbed.

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The drawing of a clear line between Dayes’ previous releases and this album does make a degree of sense. Black Classical Music is very much a studio creation, utilising the tools of production as well as performance, and veering between a range of styles and approaches across its dense and sprawling 19 tracks. If variation in texture does not always happen within
individual tracks, it is certainly occurring between them. There is also a wide range of influences on display, from a knowledge of the development of contemporary jazz through to the jittery influence of electronic music on some of Dayes’ more intricate drumming patterns. There is also a sense that Dayes is making a statement about the nature of jazz as a broad
church, constantly expanding through engaging with the contemporary music of the day more than being an easily defined genre category. Dayes has also emphasised the importance of education and the next generation, hence
perhaps we hear a sample of his young daughter, but also the clear sense he has of connecting this approach to the music with a musical and cultural lineage and history.

The opening title track has a propulsive drive and urgency suggesting that Dayes has engaged not just with the imposing vibe of Kamasi Washington, but also with hard bop, Latin grooves and composer performers such as Kenny Garrett. It is not, however, completely representative of the album as a whole. If there is a coherent line running through most
(perhaps all) of Black Classical Music, it’s an exploration of the relationship between drums and bass guitar in creating an engaging groove.

Even when the bass lines are relatively minimal, as on “Gelato”, it can still feel like the bass is a frontline instrument. At times, Black Classical Music feels as much like dance music or even dub in the way in which it is constructed. What happens above the core of drums and bass shifts and changes, with a range of different keyboard sounds, and with melody sometimes foregrounded and sometimes largely eschewed. The music works best when the arrangements are lush and detailed, such as on “Raisins Under The Sun”, on which Shabaka Hutchings makes a significant guest appearance. Another highlight is “Chasing The Drum”, driven by a West African groove and featuring a subtle and graceful melodic line. The patient unfolding of “Tioga Pass” seems to combine many of Dayes’ interests into one simmering epic.

Dayes’ drum parts are sometimes complex and agitated, such as on the tremendous middle section of “The Light”, where the influence of drum and bass artists is clear. At other times, his playing is notably and admirably restrained – on the atmospheric “Bird Of Paradise”, the drums sit back and simply support the mood. While there is a sense that the central
rhythm tracks at least have been recorded as a unit, sometimes the produced nature of this work feels a little stifling, and there are times when it feels like the music should take flight. Some listeners might yearn for a little more explicit interaction and intensity at times. There is also, however, something refreshing about Dayes’ emphasis on groove and mood, and it is clear to see how well this connects with an audience. There is an immersive, perhaps even mesmerising quality to this music.

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