Kamaal Williams, aka Henry Wu, is back, baby. After the abrupt rupture from his former duo Yussef Kamaal with drummer Yussef Dayes, the future of the South London keyboardist wasn’t clear. We all knew he was going to come back and do something great, but in what direction he would go, no one could know. Until tonight, snuggled in Leeds’ cosy Belgrave Music Hall, when he dons his signature sunglasses before sitting down at the keyboard, it’s clear that Kamaal Williams has arrived.
In an art form that has become erudite and reserved for the drawing rooms of the white upper-middle classes for a post-dinner chat, Kamaal Williams is a breath of fresh air for jazz. Whilst his sound is firmly rooted in the rhythms and motifs of South London life, his music takes a trip stateside, joining the ranks of excellent nu-jazz virtuosos such as Kamasi Washington and Thundercat. Not only are the musicians simply brilliant at their instruments (the drummer bends time at his will, and for the bassist, the term “slappa da bass” has never been more appropriate), but the most striking thing is just how genuinely excited and happy they all look on-stage. As an audience member, this was tangible. Watching the music evolve and take shape as it emerged from the musicians, morphing every night to be something new for a new audience in a new town, was genuinely exciting to watch. This is a genre that feels genuinely communal and egalitarian: everyone has their turn soloing and is happy to share the limelight. It’s a welcome contrast to the ego-fest that indie rock seems to have become.
The (heavily male) audience was with Williams every step of the way. Instead of a mosh pit at the front of the room, there was an intense nod-off. Who could show their appreciation for the musicians the hardest in the most introverted way possible? As a woman who enjoys and seeks out music in all its forms, I’ve never had any trouble in asserting my presence at rowdy rock gigs or at highbrow techno nights, but this felt like a different kind of affair. These were the guys featured on popular Instagram account @beam_me_up_softboi, the guys who would praise me for being a girl that likes jazz and then proceed to mansplain Miles Davis to me as some form of courtship. Never have I seen so many flat caps gathered in one room outside of a Devon country fair.
An evening of prodigal talent and feel-good keyboards, Kamaal Williams certainly isn’t one to be missed live. Get down if you can.