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Drummer Yussef Dayes has followed a distinctive path while becoming one of the UK’s most unique musicians, weaving his sound through underground jazz and left-field popular music. He gained recognition during the mid-2010s as a member of the socially conscious United Vibrations quartet—which included Steam Down founder Wayne Francis on saxophone. At about the same time, Dayes’ progressive duo Yussef Kamaal sculpted the milestone record Black Focus for Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood imprint in 2016, helping to define the sound of London’s contemporary jazz scene.
Now, Dayes is the latest UK jazz musician to issue music through a major label based outside of the country, following Shabaka Hutchings working with Impulse!, Ashley Henry signing to Sony Music and GoGo Penguin releasing music through Blue Note. Collaborating with guitarist/vocalist Tom Misch, the pair recently released What Kinda Music (Blue Note)—a fluid ride through jazz, electronica and hip-hop with a guest spot by rapper Freddie Gibbs.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, though: Dayes’ visa was revoked hours before he was due to travel to SXSW in 2017, when the drummer was set to debut both United Vibrations and Yussef Kamaal in the States. All involved suspected that being turned away was “discrimination based on religion and race,” according to a statement from Brownswood at the time. Weeks later, Yussef Kamaal announced its split.
Recently, the drummer spoke to DownBeat about reaching a larger audience, and how together with Misch, he’s exploring new territory.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
This is the first album you’re releasing under your own name, despite issuing music for a decent amount of time. What accounts for that?
We’ve [had the] Yussef Kamaal record before, but as Yussef Dayes, it’s the first LP under my name. I just see it as art; doing projects that I want to do. It’s a collaboration with Tom Misch and one of a few things that I’ve been up to.
What’s behind the title of What Kinda Music?
On the [title] track, “What Kinda Music,” I’m tuning the drums. Tom asks me, “What kind of music is this?” and I drop a beat—that was my reply. Genres and stuff ... I don’t really put things into boxes like that. For me, I’m inspired by black music; that’s where I come from. It’s about letting people decipher for themselves what they want it to be.
How did signing to Blue Note come about?
Tom was in L.A. a couple of years ago. He played [Blue Note representatives] a couple of tracks, and they were loving it. It felt like a no brainer: It’s a legendary label that’s put out a lot of amazing music from people like Herbie Hancock, John Coltrane and Art Blakey. It’s an honor to be associated with them—it’s the real deal.
What was the driving force behind your collaboration with Misch?
I’m good friends with Alfa Mist and Jordan Rakei, and they’ve been collaborating with Tom for a while. I felt as though we were in two different worlds, man. Sometimes, you try something different and actually see that it works. That’s been the purpose [of working with Tom], making good music since the start of 2018 with the first session we did, with [bassist] Tom Driessler. From then, we turned up a whole bank of tunes. I suppose that organically leads into a full LP.
Misch seems to come from a more structured discipline, while you’re more often in an improvised space. How does it work when you bring those dynamics together?
You’ve got to pick moments where you can direct it. There’s got to be times where I can paint the big piece that I want to paint, and there’s got to be times when he can play something that maybe I wouldn’t play. Once you’ve got that balance and understanding of the music, we meet in the middle. That’s why the record is what it is. It’s been a good synergy of that, not letting the egos and the ambition get in the way. I was interested in seeing if Tom had other flavors that he hadn’t really shown yet. I’m just trying to make something fresh, step into new territory and not be scared of that, because you can easily just stay in the lane. Some artists do that.
In your live performances, there’s almost a sense of competition, as if you’re saying, “Show me what you can do” to other players on the bandstand.
Live [performance] is deep; it’s a spiritual thing. If you’re in the zone—in that element—you’re not thinking about anything. You’re just traveling somewhere; it’s like a conversation. Even for me to be in that zone, I have to be playing with people who are really good, who get it and can come with me on that journey. Sometimes, you need to teach people, because they don’t understand it. As I’ve gotten older, I’m realizing that part of my duty is to help people to get to that place, where they’re truly the best version of themselves.
The live thing, it’s deeper than anything else. If you’re not working with people that are pushing you, then it’s missing something. ... With Tom, we may come from different disciplines, but he’s still pushing his thing—he’s gonna take me somewhere that I don’t know about and vice versa.
I’ve heard you’re working on another album. Can you tell us what shape it’s taking in comparison to What Kinda Music?
I’m gonna be dropping something in the summer with my trio—[bassist] Rocco Palladino and [keyboardist] Charlie Stacey. They’ll all inter-relate in some ways—but they’re all very different. This year’s about giving people things to listen to—records for their collection. It’s my time, now. DB
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