With the 2016 release of Yussef Kamaal’s Black Focus, the duo of drummer Yussef Dayes and keyboardist Kamaal Williams (nee Henry Wu) showed themselves to be of the same caliber and mind of fellow astral travelers and ’70s jazz/funk/fusion revivalists Flying Lotus, Thundercat, et. al. It was an album that could have easily passed for some lost private press album recorded during the genre’s mid-’70s heyday, earning a number of fans and critical adulations along the way. Now, two years later, Williams steps out on his own with The Return, an album which, not surprisingly, feels very much like a continuation of what he started with Dayes on Black Focus, melding electronics with vintage jazz/funk vibes to create something at once retro and modern; call it retro-futurist jazz fusion.
Where its predecessor was built around a series of vocal samples and interludes wrapped around a heady mixture of electronic and jazz music that often wandered off into more esoteric, spiritual realms, The Return sticks to the funk throughout. Opening with the synth-heavy “Aisha”, Williams eases the listener in, allowing for a period of adjustment before deploying the heavier side of jazz/funk/fusion on the appropriately-titled and wickedly funky “Broken Theme”. Sounding for all the world like an outtake from Head Hunters-era Herbie Hancock – complete with a rhythm section that could, to less trained ears, pass for Paul Jackson’s bubbling bass and Harvey Mason’s frenetic work on the kit – “Broken Theme” is a stellar piece of jazz funk heavily indebted to both the era and artists to have inspired it.
“Catch the Loop” employs a sputtering, machine gun-fire drum loop atop which Williams adds a series of vintage synth stabs that never truly solidify into anything wholly melodically recognizable. Instead, the track functions as a conduit for a series of rhythmic exercises and textures that lend the track a sense of unease and foreboding. As the rhythm lessens to a lock-step, club-footed march, the groove becomes so heavy that listeners will be hard-pressed to stop their heads from nodding along emphatically in time. It’s an effective rhythmic exercise that plays as a series of interconnected musical ideas built around an incessant collection of drum grooves.
“High Roller” rides a wickedly funky, serpentine bass groove to great effect. Augmented by strings and assorted synth textures, it’s one of the more dynamic tracks The Return has to offer, sounding at times like a lost Weather Report track; the keyboard and bass interplay seem at times to be hinting at the bridge section of “Teen Town”. Indeed, much of The Return feels like a series of clever allusions to albums like Heavy Weather, Head Hunters, Sextant and Sunburst, the sound and feel having been perfectly captured and replicated with a more modernist bent. “LDN Shuffle” features a ferociously funky and borderline atonal solo from guitarists Mansur Brown that plays very much like the work of the late Allan Holdsworth.
The album’s back half tends to lessen the tempos and allow for greater washes of synth to blanket the incessant rhythmic prowess on display. The appropriately-titled “Rhythm Commission” offers a slowly evolving groove that, by track’s end, has blossomed into a gloriously funky exercise in rhythmic precision. “Salaam”, the album’s penultimate track and a clear showcase for Williams’ sensitive, dexterous keyboard playing, offers a lengthy reprise from the strutting funk of the preceding tracks. It’s far more atmospheric and exploratory than nearly anything else here, utilizing a half-time feel groove that still manages to keep heads nodding.
In all, The Return serves as a fine continuation to what Williams started with Dayes with Black Focus, strengthening his musical focus and flawlessly replicating a very particular sound and style heavily indebted to the likes of Herbie Hancock, Eddie Henderson, George Duke and a host of other jazz/funk/fusion luminaries. While not a perfect album – there are moments wherein it feels like the musicians are too focused on sonic replication to truly put any sort of heart and soul behind the grooves – The Return is nonetheless another fine release in the ever-increasing catalog of fascinating 21st century jazz records.