By Jacob Newman
I often like to focus on music from long ago in this column, however, Yussef Kamaal’s Black Focus from 2016 is so exceptional that I feel as though it deserves recognition. The album is not only unlike anything that I have heard in recent years, but it is also truly unlike almost anything from the era that it most accurately pays homage to.
In the early 1970’s, talented bebop and blue Jazz players such as Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Albert Ayler, and Miles Davis shifted away from the tightly constructed sounds that they had created for so long and began thinking more freely. Journey in Satchidananda, Thembi, Bitches Brew, and Music is the Healing Force of the World, these are all albums that are loosely bound into the strange category known as Free Jazz.
Enter the British concept called Yussef Kamaal, who, nearly 50 years later, begin creating music that has profound similarities to the great creative experiments that came so long ago.
Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi (1971) is perhaps the closest direct comparison, but this is not a throwback album. I believe that it is very much a product of its time.
It relies on modern electronic technologies to create many of its strangest sounds, and while I am no audiophile, the recording is distinctly modern.
However, all of these thoughts are unrelated to the sound itself.
The album opens with “Black Focus,” a deep groove that functions like a battle between kicking drums, a mean bass line, and a highly capable trumpet player. Beautiful electronic key patterns provide calm in the midst of the storm.
Next, “Strings of Light” spotlights wicked basslines and punishing drum licks, showing the group’s ability to do a lot with a little.
“Remembrance” furthers this notion, and it is perhaps the most minimal track on the album.
Even during the most relaxed and introspective moments on the recording, Yussef Kamal is able to create a diverse range of thoughts and ideas that project masterfully.
A track like “Lowrider” feels like something made for the Bay City Rollers while still displaying the group’s knack for grooving.
On the right day, at the right time, this album is fantastic to listen to, from front to back. I highly recommend it.
“Strings of Light”