Redbrick Music Writer Seb Rolley is enamoured by Kamaal William’s excellent brand of ‘wu funk’, reviewing his latest show at The Crossing
‘This ain’t jazz no more’ stated the Carhart sponsored sign in front of Kamaal Williams’ keys as people made their way into the rarely used Birmingham venue, The Crossing, for one of the most highly anticipated instalments of the Jazzlines concert series in collaboration with Leftfoot. Despite being seen as one of the key members of the modern resurgence of London jazz, Kamaal labels his music as ‘wu funk’, rejecting the ‘jazz’ label in favour of his own brand of funk, jazz and club music. His visit to Birmingham clearly demonstrated this, as his eclectic blend of styles came together to form a gig which demonstrated some of the most incredible musicians around, and most importantly, was simply really fun.
Support came from Café Artum’s DJs, whose set was fun if a little forgettable, and set the tone for the main act to follow.
Kamaal’s opening track, ‘Situations’ gave the exceptional tones of his keys room to shine as he lay down the song’s rich chords on his Rhodes. This was the first of a handful of tracks played from his latest album The Return, with ‘Broken Theme’ being a particular highlight of these. Its angular, driving groove took on new life in a live setting as the performances from the musicians added more energy and funk into the song.
Kamaal was joined on stage by bassist Pete Martin and drummer Dexter Hercules, both of whom proved throughout the set that they could keep up with Kamaal’s relentless passion and creativity. The lengthy solos taken by both were undoubtedly fantastic, but their true strength came when acting as equal parts with Kamaal as the gig’s core trio fell into the groove of the tracks with ease.
Towards the latter half of the set Kamaal, Martin and Hercules were joined on stage by Mansur Brown, perhaps the most exciting up and coming guitarist of the resent jazz resurgence in the UK. Throughout his appearance, he went from luscious chords, to funky rhythm parts, to full-on shred solos, signposting him as a singular talent among guitar players. Whilst clearly able to keep pace with the others on stage, it would have been nice if Brown had been given more of an opportunity to stand out during the set, as he often felt lost in the mix and unable to showcase his full capability. What we did get to see of his playing was stunning, but the overwhelming feeling after the gig was that it would have been great to see more.
Large sections of the set were composed of entirely improvised jams, often beginning with Kamaal laying down some chords before Martin and Hercules (and, later in the set, Brown) would join in. Never more in the set was the evolution of jazz to ‘wu funk’ highlighted better, as these tracks felt like they owed as much to club culture as jazz. These sections really highlighted the chemistry between the musicians on stage, as their effortless communication and understanding of each other’s style allowed these jams to be as integral to the set as any rehearsed song.
The set closed with a fantastic rendition of the iconic Yussef Kamaal track, ‘Strings of Light’, perhaps the biggest track of Kamaal’s career and certainly one of his best. His inclusion of this song at the end of the set showed a musician not afraid of celebrating the success of his past work, perhaps since his new material is just as fantastic.
What the show may have lacked in catchy hooks, it made up in energy and musicianship. If UK jazz is to continue its seemingly unstoppable momentum, it is musicians and shows like this one that will provide the driving force behind it.
‘The Return’ is available now via Black Focus.