Black Classical Music is drummer Yussef Dayes‘ debut solo studio album, but he is not a rookie by any stretch. Should you search his name across streaming platforms and the like, you’ll see a short live album recorded with friends out in Joshua Tree. Search a little further, though, and you’ll find that he has been a major player in London’s jazz scene for a while, including his collaboration with keyboardist Kamaal Williams – naming themselves Yussef Kamaal – and his appearance on Tom Misch‘s What Kinda Music.
So, by the time he sat down to record Black Classical Music, Dayes most likely had a clear idea of what he could do and where he wanted to go. And boy, does he go places. Armed with 19 tracks and using almost every square inch available on a compact disc, Black Classical Music takes the listener on a highly groovy and ultimately fulfilling ride through the peaks and valleys inside of Dayes’ musical brain. To say that every stone is overturned would be overselling it. Dayes doesn’t achieve everything, but there are still an impressive number of stones flipped over in the creation of this album.
If you’re already somewhat acquainted with London’s current jazz scene, you realize that “jazz” is more of a placeholder than an accurate genre tag. Until the right word comes along to describe the city’s ever-melting musical sources and the head-spinning output it all produces, “jazz” will have to do. Applied to Black Classical Music, the word only goes so far. There are flashes of fusion greatness like early Mahavishnu Orchestra, late 1960s era Miles Davis, and many other post-bop surprises for Dayes and his compatriots to jam over. Then there are the slight nods to post-rock, dub, ambient, modern R&B, and even – yes – a touch of classical music to keep Black Classical Music from being a traditional jazz album. This is how the London scene operates: synthesize your influences, create a new sound, and worry about the adjectives another day.
Being a product of the London jazz scene, Black Classical Music comes with collaborations galore. Misch reciprocates Dayes’ appearance on What Kinda Music by performing on the single “Rust”, a tightly-sewn soundtrack to the city at night that bubbles but never boils. Shabaka Hutchings, the woodwind wizard known chiefly for his membership in Sons of Kemet and The Comet Is Coming, can spellbind you with dead calm on “Raisins Under the Sun”, a contemporary bop gumbo that sounds like it could have been recorded in either New Orleans, Chicago, or outer space. Keyboardist Charlie Stacey and producer/multi-instrumentalist Venna show what they’re made of on the hard-swinging title track, as does Dayes himself, who smacks his toms with such little reserve that it’s a wonder the microphones didn’t distort.
The list of top-shelf names stretches on and on, including Leon Thomas, Chronixx, Rocco Palladino, Jamilah Barry, Elijah Fox, Jahaan Sweet, Masego, Theon Cross, Nathaniel Cross, Miles James, Sheila Maurice Grey, the Chineke! Orchestra, and Dayes’ child Bahia. Despite all the names coming and going, Black Classical Music never feels like a revolving door of too many cooks ruining a stew. It all glides along with so much ease that you’d have to be careful not to let your attention drift.
Fortunately for that, Black Classical Music has tunes that are as catchy as one could hope for, especially the synth-laced funk of “Jukebox”, Sweet’s ever-ascending minor chord sampling work on “Presidential”, and a sun-drenched slab of psychedelia named “The Light” that features a young Bahia Dayes professing unconditional love for her parents. Barry’s performance on “Woman’s Touch” is a light touch, though it still carries the indelible mark of a memorable melody. Even Masego’s freewheeling vocal performance on “Marching Band” can get lodged in your head should you allow it to do so. When Rocco Palladino does his best to imitate Bill Laswell at his most ambient, you know that “Tioga Pass” will be as cosmic as it is memorable.
Even the short, incidental moments in Black Classical Music are worth mentioning, like the Chineke! Orchestra’s performance of “Magnolia Symphony”, a piece of bowed melancholy, wrapped up in under two minutes. After that comes “Early Dayes”, a 34-second insight into Dayes’ formative years. The instrumentals “Crystal Palace Park” and “Turquoise Galaxy” reflect their titles well by allowing Dayes to play spaceman for a time, substituting sound for technique.
It’s tempting to say that Yussef Dayes is the London jazz scene’s answer to Tony Williams, but that’s only partially apt. While Williams was a fierce drummer, composer, and bandleader, each of his albums zeroed in on a singular approach. With just one album, Dayes goes all over the map. That he pulls it off non-frantically is one of Black Classical Music’s many selling points. So call it jazz, call it classical, call it whatever you like, just don’t sleep on it.