If anyone ever asks you for a definition of Deep House, particularly in its more jazzy variant, you could do a lot worse than say “Kevin Yost”. More than any other single artist he has, for over five years now, made that worthy, if rather humourless corner of club life, his home. He represents much of the creativity and integrity to which the genre aspires. He also, it needs to be admitted, occasionally demonstrates its tendency to self-indulgence and unnecessary glumness. His admirers regard him as a genius. To his detractors he is the prime culprit in making dance music go all noodly and introspective.
Yost is also a very unlikely success story. Without any media hype and with minimal airplay his first proper album One Starry Night became a surprise best seller. He achieved this from the less than cosmopolitan backwater of a small town on the Pennsylvania/Maryland border and seemingly with no regard for anything other than making music that appealed to him. Yost started musical life as a drummer, then got into jazz and only than into dance culture and deejaying. It has proved a good apprenticeship and his ease across the genres and across instruments is a considerable part of his charm.
Starry Night ran to two editions, one with remixes. His tunes also appeared on compilations from such influential DJs as Gilles Peterson and Patrick Forge, while two mix albums featuring mostly his own productions (Straight Out the Boondocks and Small Town Underground) were very well received. His blend of insistent (but never pounding) beats overlain with genuine guitar,vibes, keyboard and sax soloing seemed to mark him out as a cut above the average studio dabbler and signal the arrival of a mature and singular talent.
However, last year’s The Road Less Travelled slipped out to less than universal acclaim. Part of the problem, with what was actually a very accomplished set, was that the trademark Yost sound was getting a bit familiar, bordering on the repetitive. Four albums in two years plus an increasing number of Yost soundalikes had greatly lessened the impact of what had so recently seemed so fresh and new. There was also a further mellowing of an already mellow style—to the point where “dance” seemed about the most inappropriate label for the music.
Suspicions of a drying-up of inspiration will surely also continue with this “new” release. For, although there are four previously unheard cuts, this a collection of earlier B-sides and alternate takes. Happily, it all comes together and is actually far more vigorous and varied a project than the previous disc. Yost is still ploughing his own distinctive course, but thanks to the time span covered here (almost six years) you do realise that he is not quite a one-theme artist and also that he has subtly modified his sound over the period. It is perhaps a bit early for a retrospective look at a figure who most people only got to know in the last 18 months, but that is what this is. As such, it succeeds totally and is far more substantial than I for one would have anticipated.
The oldest cut gives the album its title. “KY Funk & Stuff” is, however, the least typical track, being a disco-funk sampling affair which will come as a surprise to many. Fine though it is, it hardly prepares you for the rest of the set which is as genuinely jazz-ridden as Yostites want, with that small club, midnight hour groove that nobody has yet bettered. There really is not a dud in the whole collection—how many dance artists’ B-sides could that be said of? As soon as that complex bass-pattern introduces the much-loved “Spring Again” excellence is assured.Liquid keyboard work and that seductive rhythm—this is the real beginning of the album and is Jazzhouse at its profound and absolute best. Dip in anywhere and a beautiful vibe solo or some telling sax to catches the attention. Leave it running and the compelling, hypnotic beats take you to some late night, favourite spot. The mood is subdued but never monochrome or lacking in stimulation.
Of the older tracks I would pick “Hip on You”, “Set Me Free” and “Wishing You Were Here” as the highlights. A close call, since they all hit home but these three are superb and perhaps less well known than numbers like “Another World” or “Drums Delicious”. The vibe solo that segues into an organ workout on “Hip on You” is worthy of any ‘60s Prestige or Blue Note outfit, while the heavy beat and delicious cruising speed are tailormade for us club-jazz types. The sax on “Set Me Free” is what Gene Ammons or Illinois Jacquet might have delivered if they had worked with House producers. Preston West is the player—all other instruments are, I think, handled by Yost. It is his guitar sound that has won most fans (and imitators) but, for me, keys and vibes are what stand out here. Even if it is Yost as almost complete auteur who continuously impresses, special mention must go to “Wishing You Were Here”, a moody sax-led piece which allows West (can’t help thinking that is an alias) to really stretch out. More relaxed than the other two this would hold its own on any jazz-funk or fusion set.
For the latter half of the album the guitar comes more into play. The material (both modern and ancient) shows how Yost expertly draws on Latin, Spanish and jazz influences, even though the evocation of mood and a search for consistent ambience links each track. Some spacey electronica also reminds us that we are in new rather than old country—although the harmonic assuredness of pieces like “Seasons Change”, with its stunning bass and acoustic piano exchanges is surely timeless. If I had to separate one new song for especial praise it would be the delicate but surprisingly bouncy “Spanish Holiday”. Flute, vibes and and very superior guitar—this is vintage Yost and nothing on the current scene can match it for charm or sheer melodic inventiveness.
This is a record you can just stick on and let it wash around you—it will make you feel good. It is, however, not to be dismissed as bland and wallpapery, although it does desist from using “rough edges” as a tonal device. The key is that there is, at all times, flair in the playing, subtle and understated as it generally is. Because of that the music becomes more than just easy-listening for clubbers (even if that is probably its immediate fate). This music would find a home if the whole dance scene collapsed. It could be called cool jazz for a digital age. Cool jazz with real warmth—if such a thing is possible. The master may be a little short of new material but remains number one, despite the proliferating competition. If you want Deep, Jazzy House then Kevin Yost is still the man to seek out.
// Notes from the Road
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