I’d been toying with one since it was announced – the Champion’s League Final or an evening of cutting-edge jazz and electronica down at Rough Trade East. On a hot early summer’s evening, I plumped for the former and on balance, I defintely got it right.
Kamaal Williams is effectively Henry Wu, a South London keyboard player who has been releasing music under a number of aliases over the years. His latest album was released on Friday and has been picking up rave reviews. It follows “Black Focus”, his 2016 duet with Yussef Dayes. Dayes and Williams have gone their separate ways and for this gig, he was joined by drummer Dexter Hercules and bass player Pete Martin.
The music was perfect for a hot Saturday night. This wasn’t the chin-stroking ambient jazz for the mind (although it wasn’t lacking in intelligence for a second). This was propulsive and soulful, music for the feet and the heart. Williams was upbeat, chuffed at the initial success of the album (“we’re at number 9 in the charts, higher than the Star Wars soundtrack and Kylie“). It took a couple of numbers for the band and the crowd to find their feet. Inadvertently playing the first number in near darkness didn’t help, with Williams peering in the gloom at his array of vintage keyboards, struggling to see what he was playing. He was forced to take his shades off – desperate times etc.
But by the time they got to “Snitches Brew”, driven by Williams and Martin’s simultaneous keyboard and bass riff, the place was rocking. The musical chops of the band were clearly appreciated by the diverse crowd. This felt like a club gig but as someone now north of 50, I didn’t feel out of place or ill at ease. It was joyful, welcoming and optimistic. Williams was mastering his keyboards, whether it was the familiar electric piano or warped Moog.
Jazz is on the rise again at the moment, enjoying another renaissance. The American triumvirate of Kamasi Washington, Thundercat and Flying Lotus are leading a particular strand of mutually created electronic based music. Williams is an example of something slightly different but in particular, London based, sitting alongside Floating Points. He dedicates the album to the victims of Grenfell and is clearly of the city. The interview below gives you a good indication of where his head is at.
His music draws inevitably on the heritage of Herbie Hancock and Lonnie Liston Smith. It is informed though by more recent UK generated innovations such as Drum’n’Bass and James Lavelle’s Mo’Wax label, dubstep and grime. Much of the gig was new material that Williams is already working on, with the exception of the closing “High Roller”. He’s moving fast.
I’m glad I made the choice to go to the gig. Heading home as the sun set over a buzzing Brick Lane, I caught the end of the final in Kiev and wondered why, despite Jurgen Klopp’s obvious intelligence, he persists with two substandard goalkeepers. Williams has two skilled and charismatic compadres in Martin and Hercules and the Rough Trade gig was evidence of them cohering into an excellent musical unit for the head, heart and feet.
To get to the top you need to have all bases covered or you are left relying on luck. Kamaal Williams has done just that.