Black Classical Music, the debut album from jazz drummer and bandleader Yussef Dayes, feels like it’s been a long time coming. The London artist left a deep impression with his sole collaborative effort with keyboardist Kamaal Williams, the stellar jazz-funk journey Black Focus—the kind of cooking-with-grease fusion session that feels legendary almost from the moment it leaves the press. Since then, he’s released a jazzy neo-soul record with Tom Misch, worked with Kehlani and Kali Uchis, and performed live with various versions of his own ensemble—the Yussef Dayes Trio and the Yussef Dayes Experience (which unlike the Jimi Hendrix Experience, is not a trio). What ties it all together is Dayes’ versatility as a performer and a musician, deeply rooted in the sound and history of jazz but with a sense of groove and eclecticism that’s thoroughly of the moment.
If it took a while for Black Classical Music to arrive as a proper statement of Dayes as a bandleader and purveyor of his own unique musical vision, he more than made it worth the wait. Comprising 19 tracks and 74 minutes, it’s a wildly ambitious and for that matter generous debut, overstuffed with ideas that always maintain an essential connection to his prior two collaborative releases—open, soulful, and grooving to infinity. His ensemble is fluid and proficient, featuring keyboardist Charlie Stacey, saxophonist Venna and percussionist Alexander Bourt—all of whom help these pieces defy gravity in spite of or perhaps in conjunction with the foundation provided Dayes’ rhythms and Rocco Palladino’s basslines.
Kicking off a new chapter with a set as sprawling as Black Classical Music offers Dayes the opportunity to run wild with creative impulses, some of which are utterly stunning, none of which are anything less than cool as hell. On the leadoff title track, Dayes and company soar straightaway into an electrifying slice of acoustic jazz, a relatively small ensemble piece that feels much grander than the sum of its parts—Dayes’ own drum solo in particular showcasing a level of musicality and showmanship that’s at once dazzling and seemingly a hard act to follow. Though he does just fine on the 18 tracks that follow, exploring the title influence of “Afro Cubanism,” settling into some late-night grooves with an assist from Shabaka Hutchings on “Raisins Under the Sun,” twinkling into the cosmos on “The Light” and tracing his funk in shades of neon on “Jukebox.”
Through the myriad variations in sound and vibrant chemistry throughout, Yussef Dayes offers a lengthy love letter to jazz on Black Classical Music. The title itself is a nod to greats that came before him, like Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who preferred “Black classical music” to “jazz” as a term (and Billy Taylor who deemed jazz “America’s classical music”). The material here is abundant, all of it soulful and alive, playful and performed with reverence for both technical ability and theatrics. To say it’s a debut is perhaps somewhat of a misnomer given Dayes is something of a veteran by now, but until Black Classical Music, he’s never showcased this much of himself, his influences and his vision in one inspiring whole.
Label: Brownswood/Cashmere Thoughts/Nonesuch
Buy this album:
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.