Album Review: Kamaal Williams – The Return [Black Focus Records; May 2018]

London has always held a place of honour in the music world, being a propeller of new musical waves and a playground for musical innovators. In recent years, London has seen a bunch of young talents bringing jazz music back to the centre of the scene. Artists like Shabaka Hutchings, Moses Boyd and Nubya Garcia developed their own non-canonical take on jazz, bringing their music to non-traditionally jazz-related events, such as boiler rooms and mainstream festivals, basically making jazz cool again.

Kamaal Williams is one of them, and he’s got style to spare. Growing up in the streets of South London with his heart rooted in jazz, funk and soul music, he’s produced some great soulful house under the moniker Henry Wu, and as a keyboardist he grew up playing at jams and as a session player. Reaching international acclaim in 2016 with his project Yussef Kamaal together with drummer Yussef Dayes, he gave birth to Black Focus – a classy and innovative blend of jazz and funky melodies with rhythms coming from London’s jungle, grime and broken beat legacy.

After two years, Williams is back with his first solo album The Return (out on May 25th for Black Focus Records) – a natural follow up to his previous explorations but more intricate, mature and compelling. Williams is solo but very well escorted – bassist Pete Martin and drummer Joshua McKenzie (known as MckNasty) provide funky basslines and unpredictably syncopated grooves; two essential ingredients for the making of the album.

Entirely recorded in his home studio in his mother’s kitchen, The Return is the outcome of hours of jams together with Martin and McNasty, later reviewed to extrapolate the most interesting bits with most potential to become a full track.

Wu couldn’t have come up with a better title for the first track – “Salaam” (a common greeting in many Arabic-speaking countries) is a true welcoming to lead us gently into the musical experience we’re about to listen to. The understanding between the three musicians is remarkable. “Broken Theme”, on an odd-sounding 4/4 groove, is the perfect example of how seamlessly their parts seem to intertwine without a single hesitation. From time to time, you could even hear one of them shout in a burst of excitement for the music, giving the feeling that they’re playing right before your eyes.

Kamaal’s piano is always on point — changing form and timbre from track to track, it always provides the perfect musical mood. In “Medina” his keyboard sounds almost like a vibraphone playing on a soft swinging rhythm. “Catch The Loop” – the single that back in December anticipated the release of the album with a 70s VHS B-Movie-looking video – is arguably the best track of the album with its fat bass, ultra-hectic groove and wah-wah-ing lead synth. Starting off as a frantically relentless groove, it evolves seamlessly, without you even noticing, into a slower-paced, psychedelic flow that goes on until the closing of the track.

Simply put, The Return is a good album from start to finish.

Explicitly referencing 70s funk and jazz masters like Roy Ayers and Herbie Hancock, Williams explores the potential of his sound with remarkable inventiveness. Pleasant, exciting, hypnotic and even magical at times, the music of this album is far from being labelled simply as “jazz”.

The Return is past, present and future packed into ten tracks that fully embody the potential of a new fervent scene growing every day on the banks of the Thames.

As Williams simply puts it – it’s a London Thing.